It’s misplaced triumph over sale of painting

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I’m furious with my husband, Steve. He thought he was being so very clever but no, he’s only succeeded in making me angry.

You may wonder what on earth he has done. In fact, it is the most stupid thing imaginable to me. He has - and I pause to take a deep breath - sold an oil painting of a horse to an unknown woman who called at the door. He had the nerve to laugh as he told me, boasting it was so shrewd to get fifty pounds for it.

“It was two ponies for a horse,” he grinned. Giggling, like a schoolboy, he continued: “I found it, covered in dust, in the garage. I noticed it again the other day when I was putting the patio pots away. The paper around it was a bit torn, with the frame showing through. I couldn’t think what painting it was at first, but then I remembered we’ve got some of Papa’s things stored here. I did explain to the woman that it was Papa’s student copy but she said that didn’t matter. A stroke of luck really, that she should be interested in taking the old painting off our hands.”

I want to scream at this disaster. The true value of the painting reverberates inside my head. One hundred thousand pounds!

My father is Pierre Moureau. Now 90 years old, he retired some 30 years ago from his long career as an art historian. Sadly he is in nursing care, with some physical disabilities and mild dementia.

Despite his medical problems, he continues to lead a contented life. We visit him every other day and bring him home from time to time. It was Papa who painted a copy of the horse painting and that copy is, to this day, in The Burrell Art Collection in Glasgow.

The original, an oil sketch entitled Prancing Grey Horse was painted by Theodore Gericault and has led a less auspicious life, being wrapped in brown paper and hidden from view at the back of various family garages for over 60 years.

Papa, as a young art student, worked for Sir William Burrell. With all the daring of an impetuous young man, having toiled for many days to imitate every fine detail of the grey horse, carefully capturing its prancing stance, he swapped his painting for the original.

When the ruse went undiscovered he was elated, seeing this as proof of his artistic talent. Unfortunately, he was not to know that enhanced security measures were being introduced to protect Sir William’s art treasures. Horrified, Papa realised some sort of early-day alarm system had been installed and it was too late to swap the paintings back without detection.

The only solution he could see was to tell no one, fearing there was a risk of imprisonment if he confessed. In those days, he doubted anyone in authority would see the deception as the childish prank it was. Unhappily, Papa’s heavy conscience destroyed his artistic talent and he despondently abandoned his work. Later, wishing to remain a part of the world he loved, he pursued art history studies instead and progressed to become a noted expert. Ironically, he was often called upon for his opinion on the authenticity of contested works of art.

I suspect all this would have remained secret had I not chosen to follow a similar career. The sight of me examining Prancing Grey Horse with a magnifying glass was too much for Papa. It unnerved him greatly and he felt compelled to tell me the story. I was in deep shock as he described how wretched he had felt carrying the burden of this secret for so many years. I, without hesitation, promised to tell no one either. Steve continues to think the long forgotten painting he pulled out of the garage is Papa’s copy.

I screw up my face and hiss meanly: “The painting wasn’t yours to sell.”

Steve continues, unperturbed by my unexplained hostility. “Come on, you know Papa doesn’t want it in the nursing home. He’s never asked for it. The old devil would rather send out his carers to spend his pocket money on Calvados. Everyone knows his excuse is he needs it to recall his childhood in Normandy, as he craftily makes out it is the same as non-alcoholic apple juice.”

Tears sting my eyes. Steve’s jokiness does little to hide his deep concern for Papa. Thoughts bombard me. To destroy the painting would be sacrilege but selling it as junk means it won’t be traced back to us. I wonder, fleetingly, if Steve’s action could have been a clever move.

A further question strikes me.

“Did the woman buy anything else?” I snap.

“No. She wasn’t interested in any of the other rubbish we have lurking in the garage. She said she doesn’t go on e-bay or anything and only buys and sells art. She told me it’s her hobby.”

I quiz him further. “Did you know her?”

“Funny you should say that. It’s a bit unusual for a woman to call on the off chance of buying second-hand stuff. I thought her face looked familiar but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember where I’d seen her before. Then, after she’d gone I suddenly remembered where I’d seen her before. I know now where she works.”

“You do?” I squeaked. “Where?”

I dreaded the reply. My hands started to shake and anxiety grasped my stomach.

Steve beamed triumphantly: “At Papa’s nursing home.”