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Chapter 32, Part 2
Sophia wasn’t quite sure what to make of Sanders’s speech, and glancing around, she wasn’t sure that anyone else was, either. While he spoke, she’d noticed a number of people texting on their phones while others studied the catalog.
There was a short break then as the silver-haired gentleman conferred with Sanders before the auctioneer returned to the podium. Again he put on his reading glasses and cleared his throat.
“As most of you are aware, the auction has been scheduled in phases, the first of which will be happening today. At this point, we have not determined either the number or timing of the subsequent phases, as those will no doubt be affected by the progress today. And now, I know that many of you have been waiting for the parameters of the auction itself.”
Almost as one, the crowd began to lean forward in attention.
“The parameters, again, were set by the client. The auction agreement was quite specific in a number of… unusual details… including the order in which the pieces would be offered today. Per the instructions that all of you received in advance, we will now adjourn for thirty minutes to allow you to discuss the order with your clients. As a reminder, the list of paintings that are definitively being offered today can be found on pages thirty-four through ninety-six of the catalog. They are also represented in the photographs along the walls. In addition, the auction order will be listed on the screen.”
People rose from their seats, reaching for phones; others began to confer. Luke leaned over to whisper in Sophia’s ear.
“Do you mean that no one here knew the order of the works? What if the one they wanted didn’t come up for sale until the end? They could be here for hours.”
“For such an extraordinary opportunity, they’d probably wait until the end of time.”
He motioned toward the easels lining the wall. “So which one do you want? Because I have a few hundred dollars in my wallet and a numbered paddle beneath my seat here. The Picasso? The Jackson Pollock? One of the Warhols?”
“Do you think that the sale prices will approach the estimates?”
“I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure the auction house has a good handle on that. It’ll probably be close.”
“A few of those paintings are worth more than twenty of my ranches.”
“I know, right?”
“Maybe,” she admitted.
He swiveled his head, taking in the scene. “I wonder what Ira would think about all this.”
She recalled the old man she’d met in the hospital, and the letter, which never mentioned the art at all. “I wonder,” she said, “whether he would even care.”
When the break was over and everyone was back in their seats, the silver-haired gentleman stepped toward the podium. In that instant, two men gingerly carried a covered painting to the easel on the stage. While Sophia expected a palpable buzz of interest now that the auction was getting under way, she realized when surveying the room that only a few people seemed to care. Again, she saw them tapping away on their phones while the speaker prepared his introduction. She knew that the first major work, one of the de Koonings, was scheduled to go second and that the Jasper Johns was scheduled to go sixth. In between were artists Sophia had a harder time identifying, and this was no doubt one of them.
“First up is a painting that can be found on page thirty-four of the catalog. It is oil on canvas, twenty-four by thirty inches, that Levinson, not the artist, called Portrait of Ruth. Ruth, as most of you are aware, was Ira Levinson’s wife.”
Both Sophia and Luke snapped to attention, focusing on the easel as the painting was unveiled. Behind it, magnified, was the painting projected on-screen. Even with her untrained eye, Sophia could tell it had been painted by a child.
“It was composed by an American, Daniel McCallum, born 1953, died 1986. Exact date of the painting is unknown, though it is estimated to date anywhere from 1965 to 1967. According to Ira Levinson’s description of the item, Daniel was a former student of Ruth’s, and it had been gifted to Mr. Levinson by McCallum’s widow in 2002.”
As it was described, Sophia stood to get a better view. Even from a distance, she knew it was the work of an amateur, but after reading the letter, she’d found herself wondering what Ruth had looked like. Despite the crudeness of the rendering, Ruth still appeared to be beautiful, with a tenderness of expression that reminded her of Ira. The speaker went on.
“There is little else known about the artist, and he is not known to have created additional pieces. For those who did not make arrangements to view the piece yesterday, you are allowed at this time to approach the stage to study the painting. Bidding will commence in five minutes.”
No one moved, and Sophia knew that no one would. Instead, she could hear the rise of conversation, some people chatting while others quietly suppressed the nerves they were feeling at the next item up for bid. When the real auction would start.
The five minutes passed slowly. The man at the podium showed no surprise. Instead, he thumbed through the papers in front of him, seemingly no more interested than anyone else. Even Luke seemed disengaged, which surprised her, considering that he, too, had heard Ira’s letter.
When the time was up, the speaker called for silence. “Portrait of Ruth by Daniel McCallum. We will commence the bidding at one thousand dollars,” he said. “One thousand. Do I hear one thousand?”
No one in the audience moved. At the podium, the silverhaired man registered no reaction. “Do I hear nine hundred? Please note that this is a chance to own part of one of the greatest private collections ever assembled.”
“Do I hear eight hundred?”
Then, after a few beats: “Do I hear seven hundred?…
With every drop, Sophia felt something slowly begin to give way inside her. Somehow, it wasn’t right. She thought again of the letter Ira had written to Ruth, the letter that told her how much she’d meant to him.
“Do I hear five hundred dollars?…
And in that instant, from the corner of her eye, she saw Luke raise his paddle. “Four hundred dollars,” he called out, and the sound of his voice seemed to ricochet off the walls. Although a few people in the audience turned, they appeared only mildly curious.
“We have four hundred dollars. Four hundred. Do I hear four hundred and fifty?”
Again, the room remained silent. Sophia felt suddenly dizzy.
“Going once, going twice, and sold…”
Luke was approached by an attractive brunette holding a clipboard, who requested his information before explaining that it was also time to settle. She asked for his banking information or the form he had filled out earlier.
“I didn’t fill out any forms,” Luke demurred.
“How do you wish to settle?”
“Would you take cash?”
The woman smiled. “That will be fine, sir. Please follow me.”
Luke walked off with the woman and returned a few minutes later, holding his receipt. He took a seat beside Sophia, a sly grin on his face.
“Why?” she asked.
“I’d be willing to bet that this painting was the one that Ira liked best of all.” He shrugged. “It was the first one up for sale. And besides, he loved his wife and it was a portrait of her and it didn’t seem right that no one wanted it.”
She considered that. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were becoming a romantic.”
“I think,” he said slowly, “that Ira was the romantic. I’m just a washed-up bull rider.”
“You’re more than that,” she said, nudging him. “Where are you going to hang it?”
“I don’t know that it really matters, do you? Besides, I don’t even know where I’ll be living in a few months.”
Before she could respond, she heard a gavel come down before the speaker leaned in to the microphone again.
“Ladies and gentlemen—at this time and before we go on, per the parameters of the auction, I’d like to reintroduce Howie Sanders, who wishes to read a letter from Ira Levinson, in Ira’s own words, regarding the purchase of this item.”
Sanders emerged from behind the curtain, shuffling in his oversize suit, an envelope in his hand. The silver-haired gentleman stepped aside to make room at the microphone.
Sanders used a letter opener to slit open the top before pulling out the letter. He took a deep breath and then slowly unfolded it. He scanned the room and took a sip of water. He turned serious then, like an actor readying himself for a particularly dramatic scene, before finally beginning to read.
“My name is Ira Levinson, and today, you will hear my love story. It isn’t the kind you might imagine. It’s not a story with heroes and villains, it is not a story of handsome princes or princesses yet to be. Instead, it’s a story about a simple man named Ira who met an extraordinary woman named Ruth. We met when we were young and fell in love; in time we married and made a life together. A story like so many others, except Ruth happened to have an eye for art while I had eyes only for her, and somehow this was enough for us to create a collection that became priceless to both of us. For Ruth, the art was about beauty and talent; for me, the art was simply a reflection of Ruth, and in this fashion, we filled our house and lived a long and happy life with each other. And then, all too soon, it was over and I found myself alone in a world that no longer made any sense.”
Sanders stopped to wipe his tears, and to Sophia’s surprise, she heard his voice begin to crack. He cleared his throat and Sophia leaned forward, suddenly interested in what Sanders was saying.
“This wasn’t fair to me. Without Ruth, I had no reason to go on. And then, something miraculous happened. A portrait of my wife arrived, an unexpected gift, and when I hung it on my wall, I had the strange sense that Ruth was watching over me once more. Helping me. Guiding me. And little by little, the memories of my life with her were restored, memories that were tied to every piece in our collection. To me, these memories have always been more valuable than the art. It isn’t possible for me to give those away, and yet—if the art was hers and the memories were mine—what was I supposed to do with the collection? I understood this dilemma but the law did not, and for a long time, I didn’t know what to do. Without Ruth, after all, I was nothing. I loved her from the moment I met her, and even though I’m gone, you must know that I loved her with the final breath I took. More than anything, I want you to understand this simple truth: Though the art is beautiful and valuable almost beyond measure, I would have traded it all for just one more day with the wife I always adored.”
Sanders studied the crowd. In their seats, everyone had gone still.
Something was happening, something out of the ordinary. Sanders seemed to realize this as well, and perhaps in anticipation, he seemed to choke up. He brought a forefinger to his lips before going on.
“Just one more day,” Sanders said again, letting the words hang before going on. “But how can I make all of you believe that I would have done such a thing? How can I convince you that I cared nothing about the commercial value of the art? How can I prove to you how special Ruth really was to me? How will you never forget that my love for her was at the heart of every piece we ever purchased?”
Sanders glanced at the vaulted ceiling, before coming back to all of them.
“Will the individual who purchased Portrait of Ruth please stand?”
By then, Sophia could barely breathe. Her heart was pounding as Luke rose to his feet. She felt the attention of the entire audience on him.
“The terms of my will—and the auction—are simple: I have decided that whoever bought the Portrait of Ruth would receive the art collection in its entirety, effective immediately. And because it is no longer mine to offer, the rest of the auction is hereby canceled.”
Chapter 33, Part 1
Luke couldn’t move. As he stood in the back row, he sensed a stunned silence in the room. It took several seconds for Ira’s words to register, not only for Luke, but for everyone present.
Sanders couldn’t have been serious. Or if he had been serious, then Luke had misunderstood him. Because what it sounded like to Luke was that he’d just acquired the entire collection. But that wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible. Could it?
His thoughts seemed mirrored by the audience itself. He saw baffled expressions and frowns of incomprehension, people throwing up their hands, faces showing shock and confusion, maybe even betrayal.
And then, after that: pandemonium. It wasn’t the chair-throwing variety of riot witnessed so often at sporting events, but the controlled rage of the entitled and self-important. A man in the third row in the center section stood and threatened to call his attorney; another cried that he’d been brought here under false pretenses and would be calling his attorney as well. Still another insisted that fraud had been committed.
The outrage and anger in the room began to rise, first slowly and then explosively. More people rose to their feet and began shouting at Sanders; another group focused their attention on the silver-haired gentleman. On the far side of the room, one of the easels crashed to the ground, the result of someone storming from the room.
And then, all at once, faces began to turn to Luke. He felt the mob’s anger and disappointment and betrayal. But he also sensed in some of them a pointed suspicion. In still others, there glinted the light of opportunity. An attractive blonde in a form-fitting business suit edged closer, and then all at once, seats were pushed aside as throngs of people began to rush toward Luke, everyone calling out at once.
“Can we talk?”
“I’d like to schedule a meeting with you…”
“What are you going to do with the Warhol?”
“My client is particularly interested in one of the Rauschenbergs…”
Instinctively, Luke grabbed Sophia’s hand and pushed back his chair, making room for their escape. An instant later, they were dashing toward the door, the audience in pursuit.
He pushed open the doors, only to find six security guards standing behind two women and a man wearing badges of the sponsoring auction house. One of them was the same attractive woman who had taken his information and almost all the cash he’d had in his wallet.
“Mr. Collins?” she asked. “My name is Gabrielle and I work for the auction house. We have a private room for you upstairs. We anticipated that it might get a little hectic, so we made special arrangements for your comfort and security. Would you please follow me?”
“I was thinking of just heading to my truck…”
“There’s some additional paperwork, as you can probably imagine. Please. If you wouldn’t mind?” She gestured toward the hallway.
Luke looked back at the approaching crowd. “Let’s go,” he decided.
Still clutching Sophia’s hand, he turned and followed Gabrielle, flanked by three of the guards. Luke realized that the others had remained behind to keep the audience from following them. He could vaguely hear them shouting at him, bombarding him with questions.
He had the surreal impression that someone was playing a practical joke on him, though to what end, he had no idea. It was crazy. All of this was crazy…
Their group turned the corner and headed through a door leading to the staircase. When Luke turned to peek over his shoulder, he realized that only two of the guards remained with them; the other stayed behind to guard the door.
On the second floor, he and Sophia were led to a set of wood-paneled doors, which Gabrielle opened for them.
“Please,” she said, ushering them into a spacious suite of rooms, “make yourselves comfortable. We have refreshments and food inside, along with the catalog. I’m sure you have a thousand questions and I can assure you that they will all be answered.”
“What’s going on?” Luke asked.
She raised an eyebrow. “I think you already know,” she said, without directly answering the question. She turned toward Sophia and offered her hand. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name.”
“Sophia,” she said. “Sophia Danko.”
Gabrielle tilted her head. “Slovakian, yes? A beautiful country. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Then, turning to Luke again: “The guards will be posted outside the room, so you don’t have to worry about anyone disturbing you. For now, I’m sure you have a lot to think about and discuss. We’ll leave you alone for a few minutes to review your collection. Would that be all right?”
“I guess,” Luke said, his mind still spinning. “But—”
“Mr. Lehman and Mr. Sanders will be in shortly.”
Luke lifted an eyebrow at Sophia before surveying the well-appointed room. Couches and chairs surrounded a low, round table. On the table stood an assortment of drinks, including a bucket of champagne on ice, a platter of sandwiches, and a sliced fruit and cheese selection on a crystal dish.
Next to the table lay the catalog, opened to a particular page.
Behind them, the door closed and Luke found himself alone with Sophia. She glanced at him, then cautiously approached the table and studied the open catalog page.
“It’s Ruth,” she said, touching the page. He watched as she ran her finger lightly over the photograph.
“This can’t really be happening, can it?”
She continued to stare at the photograph before turning toward him with a dazed and beatific smile. “Yes,” she said, “I think it’s really happening.”