The Gallerist

Vanessa was about to sip her afternoon tea when she noticed the large wooden crate by the jewelry cases. She narrowed her almond eyes suspiciously. That wasn’t here this morning. She left her mug by the fax machine and went to investigate. Newt, a short-legged terrier with random tufts of lemon fur, jumped up to help.

“What’s this?” Vanessa asked, punctuated by a concerned ruff from Newt.

Matthew popped his snowy-white head from behind his monitor and adjusted his tortoiseshell glasses at the crate. “Guess we forgot to tell the intern not to accept unauthorized packages, huh?”

Vanessa groaned. Sometimes customers got buyer’s remorse and thought that “Caveat Emptor” and “All Sales Final” did not apply to them. Sometimes they tried to sneak their returns into the auction gallery, so they could reverse the charges on their credit card. People that held no regard for rules and policies drove her mad.

Newt scratched at the crate and then looked at them expectantly.

“I figured I’d wait to open it until you returned from your house call.” Matthew stood up and stretched. “Shall we?”

They found two crowbars and got to work. Nails screeched and wood groaned, until at last, they were through the transit sarcophagus and greeted by a white business envelope taped on a layer of bubble wrap. Matthew stepped aside while she ripped it off and spread the documents across the counter.


November 3, 2009

Pittsburgh Auction Galleries

289 N. Manchester Street

Pittsburgh, PA 15208

Dear Sirs,

I see your next auction is slated for January 14–16, 2010. My name is Richard Miller and I live in Detroit. I am in some housing bubble–related trouble and need to liquidate this painting from Moshe Howard, the late poetry editor of The New Yorker (1913–1984.) Mr. Howard sold it to my late father, Richard Miller, Sr. I inherited this painting upon my father’s death.

The painting is an untitled work by Joan Mitchell. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve consigned a work of this magnitude with Christie’s or Sotheby’s in New York, but they do not have any upcoming auctions in the painting’s genre. I need funds as soon as possible.

I am confident in your reputation and ability to de-accession my painting at your next auction. Please find included in this envelope, the signed consignment agreement, and the letter of provenance. Please call me when you receive the painting.

Yours Sincerely,

Richard Miller Jr.


Moshe Howard — 27 W. 20th Street — New York, N.Y. 10011

April 14, 1980

Sold To:

Dick Miller

339 West 12 Street

New York, N.Y. 10014


Joan Mitchell (1925)



Oil on linen

53 x 44 ¼ inches


Acquired from Joan Mitchell, 1976

Delivered to Dick Miller at 339 West 12, New York on April 10, 1980.

Thank you,

Moshe Howard


“What kind of idiot would send a real Joan Mitchell to us?” Matthew asked.

“Maybe it’s our lucky day?” Vanessa’s heart pattered with excitement. Maybe under my direction, we’re finally being taken seriously as an auction house?

They peeled off the bubble wrap and propped the large canvas against the wall. Newt nestled in the packaging and sniffed the air.

“Smells like linseed oil,” Matthew said.

“Like it might still be wet.”

They stood back and surveyed the painting. It was predominantly blue and rendered as thoughtfully as one might wipe excess paint off of a brush—long dabs of phthalo and cobalt blue were layered on top of a turbid squall of carmine and cadmium yellow. It looked like a last-minute Painting 101 assignment.

“This isn’t right.” Vanessa shook her head. “The strokes aren’t … lyrical … there’s no rhythm. There’s no passion, no soul.”

A determined look clouded Matthew’s face, and he hurried over to the gallery’s reference library.

“Her paintings were vibrant and intentional. Her colors were never muddy,” Vanessa continued. “But this thing … the colors came straight out of a paint tube and became … well, dog vomit on the canvas.”

Newt laid her chin on her fuzzy paws and let out a low groan.

“Sorry, Newt.” Vanessa stooped and scratched the little terrier’s rump until Matthew reappeared, paging through the color plates in Joan Mitchell Selected Paintings 1956-1992: The Presence of Absence. They glanced between the paintings in the book and the one before them.

“It’s a little like every painting Mitchell’s ever done, with no character of its own,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “But also completely wrong.”

Vanessa pulled the painting forward and looked at the edges of the canvas. There were a few beads of dried glue and a small wrinkle on the bottom left corner where new fabric had been adhered to an old linen canvas. “It’s relined. New on old.” There were no two ways about it: the Joan Mitchell was a fake.

“Then how on earth did he get that letter of provenance?”

Vanessa held Moshe Howard’s letter up to the overhead lights until the watermark was visible. The paper felt old and had worn edges, but the black typeface on it was crisp and black, as if someone had typed it mere days ago. Never mind the painting—the forged provenance letter was the true work of art. She shrugged. “Maybe he bought a typewriter and a ream of Moshe Howard’s personal stationery at an estate sale?”

“Goddam!” Matthew exclaimed as he snapped the book shut. “I knew it was too good to be true.”

Vanessa abandoned the hope that, under six months of her care, this small regional auction house had gone from a backwater to boutique reputation. But if anything, Pittsburgh Auction Galleries had remained exactly the same, perhaps even dragging her reputation down with it. “He probably thought we’d be so flattered; we wouldn’t ask questions.”

“So, what should we do?” Matthew asked.

She sighed. As much as she’d like to get the commission on a six-figure painting, Pittsburgh Auction Galleries could not sell this. Not only for ethical reasons, but also because nobody with any taste or decency would touch this painting with a ten-foot pole.

Keys sounded at the front door and Newt scurried to her safety spot under the gothic display cabinets.

“Oh hi, Vanessa. Hi, Matthew.” Donald Balmont, the owner, plowed into the gallery with several enormous shopping bags scraping the sides of the doorway. A long chunk of his chestnut hair broke free of his low ponytail and fell over his tan face. “Just dropping some stuff off for the next auction, then I’m off again.”

Again, Vanessa sighed. Another guy that didn’t have any regard for rules. Last auction, she’d printed out the absentee bids list for him, and later found out he’d used it to bid people up over the internet. She popped her knuckles in quick succession, but the tight, stiff feeling in them remained.

“What do we have here?” Matthew politely inquired. He took a few shopping bags off Donald’s hands while she cleared the papers from the counter.

“Tammy’s on a redecorating bender for her new empath business. These are just some fancy pillows that didn’t work out. The interior decorator doesn’t accept returns on special orders, or some horseshit like that,” Donald said. And then the giant blue canvas caught his eye. He dumped the remaining bags on the floor and brushed his hands on the front of his coat. “What’s this?”

“A fake Joan Mitchell,” Matthew said.

Despite Donald having good enough sense to hire Vanessa fresh out of the Sotheby’s Institute, where ethics precedes profit, she could already see unmistakable dollar signs dancing in his eyes.

Donald put his glasses on and walked over for a closer look. “Are you sure it’s a fake? It looks real to me.”

“Hundred percent fake.” Vanessa crossed her arms. “We just weren’t sure if we should send it back to the consigner, or call the FB—”

“Nonsense!” Donald exclaimed. A turquoise vein flared up in the middle of his forehead. “Do you have any idea how much a Mitchell is worth?”

“I do …” Vanessa said, and then she paused, trying to read the room. Half a million, a million—for a real painting.

“Do not send this back.”

Vanessa blinked in confusion. “So … then you think I should call the FBI?”

“No no no,” Donald said, shaking his head. “Put it in the auction!”

“But it’s so clearly a new painting glued onto an old canvas,” she said. “Even the provenance was forged.”

“Let me see,” Donald said, snapping his fingers impatiently. She handed it over, and he took a pen out of his coat, squiggled his signature on the contract, and shoved the documents back at Matthew. “Make sure it gets into the auction.”

Vanessa’s post-college dream job had just turned into a nightmare. She stamped her foot. Matthew’s blue eyes pleaded with her, let it go—it’s not worth it.

“We can’t sell a known forgery—it’s illegal!” she bellowed at Donald’s retreating back. “And so is shill bidding, for that matter! You think I don’t know?”

“If you want to keep your job, that painting better have a lot number on it when I’m back in the office next week.” The door slammed behind him, followed by a few beats of agonizing silence.

“Oh, so I’d be fired for having professional integrity?” Vanessa kicked one of Donald’s shopping bags. Satin and velvet boudoir pillows bounced onto the gallery floor. He was just a stupid rich guy, making a personal playground of her livelihood. “Well, you can’t fire me if I quit!”

“Don’t quit.” Matthew knit his white eyebrows together. “Do you know how hard it is, finding a decent-paying job in the arts?”

Yes, of course she knew. After all, she’d taken this job without benefits of any kind. “How can you sleep at night knowing you work for such a crook?” Vanessa kicked another bag of pillows. “How can you stand it?”

Newt suddenly appeared, furiously Dig-Dugging on her pant leg until it felt like it might burst into flames. Vanessa paused her kicking tirade so Newt could leap into her arms.

“That’s how,” Matthew said, smiling at the dog like a proud papa.

The little ball of coarse fur and muscle whined and covered her face with apologetic licks. Vanessa’s heart warmed at Newt’s concern, but her stomach sank at the thought of losing her most favorite colleague.

“I’m sorry, baby girl,” Vanessa said, as Newt’s tongue darted up her nose. “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at Donald, the myopic prig.”

“Anyone interested in this painting will call. We can quietly let them know our reservations. There are ways around him,” Matthew rationalized. “I’ve done it before. I will do it again. All while still paying my bills and seeing beautiful things every day. That’s what our kind needs to do.”

Our kind. Vanessa looked away. I haven’t sold out like you. Still, the options sucked. Put a lot number on the forged painting and comply and keep your job! Or? Do the right thing and get fired, and magically pay your rent and student loans with the knowledge of your own moral superiority.

She stood in front of the fake, caressing the quivering dog in her arms while the artless brush strokes grew more pronounced in their desire to deceive. Matthew called the consigner with good news, then tied a lot ticket on the painting’s picture wire. The further she got from university, the more the world became like this painting—where the clarity of contrast and values gets swallowed up in a muddy, tonal pandering of wrongs that were right enough for now. She shook her head. How did that Robert Frost quote go?—two paths on a slope diverged and I took the one less slippery? A tight-lipped smile settled on her face. It was a pity she wouldn’t be there when Donald Balmont changed his tune in front of the insurance adjustor.

She gave Newt one last hug and put her boot through the canvas in a horrible, crunching rip.


Meryl A.H. Franzos was an antiques appraiser in a former life. Now she writes. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with her husband, and Jack Russell Terrier, Meatball. This is a debut.