Appraisal

 LOT 56

PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED COLLECTOR

HEINRICH LEFTON (???? – 1538, fl. 1525-1538)

UNTITLED (ALTARPIECE)

Materials: Forged iron; hammered silver, hammered copper

Height: 7 ft 3 3/8 in

Width: 14 ft 7 in

Forged in Germany approximately 1527, this work is unique.

PROVENANCE

None given (private acquisitions)

Never before seen at auction

CATALOGUE NOTE

Heinrich Lefton (known sometimes as The Master of Halberstatd) was one of the most celebrated ironworkers of the Northern Renaissance. He apprenticed to a Saxon blacksmith known to history only as Rudelsheimer, but left before he could complete his journeyman’s training. He disappears from historical record during the Peasant’s War (1524-1526), after which he is next seen helping to repair the abbey of Ilsenburg. His work caught the eye of the Bishop of Halberstadt who became his lord and patron. His services were sold to the Elector Palatine (Ludwig V) in 1532 and then to Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Empire, in 1534. He died under unknown circumstances in 1538. His workshop was taken over by the journeyman Heinrich Rheinhessen, of whose work none survives.

This piece, to be named after the collection to which it shall next enter, has been dated to the period 1526-1528. It was presumably made for a cathedral in the Harz mountains. No record exists of its installation. It could be one of the Lefton works listed in the Halberstatd records (seven of nine listed are unaccounted for). It is of the finest craftsmanship and quality, requiring little to no restoration for auction. It is a superb example of the period and an important addition to the context, not only of the artist, but of the medium.

Comparable pieces include the Magdalenenkreuz Altarpiece of 1534 (Louvre, acq. 1824), the Einsedeln Altarpiece of 1530 (in situ), the two Pfalz Votives (collection of Freida Krupp), the Draconian Votive of Ernest der Eiserne (Higgins Armory, acq. 1946), and the celebrated Triptych Altar (Cloisters, acq. 2007).

AUTHENTICATION

Appraisal certified by John Clitheroe, appraiser of Blaine’s, with suggestion that it be included in the upcoming Lefton catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Waldtraut Institute.

ESTIMATE: 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 USD

*****  *****  *****

“Is this your appraisal?” I ask him.

Clitheroe looks up from his meticulously cluttered desk. “That? Yes. For the Lefton?”

“The Lefton, yes.”

He’s already defensive. I don’t know why. Nobody’s questioned an appraisal by John Clitheroe, Appraiser, in the better part of half a century. Maybe that’s because arguing with him was like tossing around a pigskin. Except they’d been out of pigs that day. And long on porcupines.

I nod towards the chair in front of his desk. If he notices the gesture, he ignores it.

I gave that to Reibeck on Sunday,” he says. “When final appraisals were due.”

“Of course,” I say. “I just wanted to ask a question. About the appraisal. If you have a minute.”

He stares at me.

“I was just wondering,” I said, “I know you’ve seen a lot more of these than I have-”

He nods.

“-but I’ve been doing some research, looking in the catalogues, and I noticed-”

He stares.

“-well,” I say, wishing I had a glass of water, “as you know, there have been some very good fakes of Leftons, you know, and-”

“Are you saying,” he asks slowly, “that it is a forgery?”

“No I’m not,” I say hastily, “but I was looking at it, and I saw-”

“Yes?”

I look around his office, three tall walls lined with books and catalogues. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Though an escape hatch would be nice.

“Just a few little things,” I say. “And they’ve been troubling me. I was wondering-”

“I made my appraisal,” he say with finality.

“Yes, but-”

“I’ve made, my appraisal,” he repeats.

“I know,” I say, trying not to get into a World Heavyweight Rude Championship. Mostly because I know he’d win. “But there are some things,” I try, “which I just don’t get. I was wondering if you can- if you could explain them to me, so that I-”

“Gavel’s in ten days,” he says, implying that he doesn’t have the time.

“I know,” I say. “But ironwork is kind of a passion of mine, and I really can’t figure out-”

He waves his hand irritably. It takes me a moment to realize he’s assenting.

“Right,” I say, and almost get up the guts to sit down. “Mostly what I’m concerned with are the rivets. The rivets are-”

“The rivets are appropriate to the period and consistent with Lefton’s style,” he says.

“But the way they’re rounded,” I say. “Isn’t 16th century ecclesiastical-”

“Crimped,” he says.

“Yes.”

“Not Lefton’s.”

“But-”

“Lefton’s work was different. Years ahead of its time. Maybe that’s why it’s going into Major Works.” Which is Blaine’s yearly prestige auction, with seven-figure reserves across the board.

“What about the lines of the forge-welds?” I ask. “Aren’t they a little-”

“Perfect?”

“Well… yes.”

“Again,” he says, his eyes flashing like the glint off a swinging hammer, “this is a Lefton. Early period, when he was still a retainer of the Bishop of Halberstadt. This is before he began making parade regalia for Electors and treasure for Cardinals, before these very qualities of workmanship and design brought him to the court of the Emperor in Vienna. This is a piece that’s going to fetch three million at auction-”

“Your estimate was one point five to two,” I say, trying not to sound like I’m correcting him.

“Yes,” he says. “And it will fetch three.” I nod as if, of course, that should have been obvious to me.

“My point,” he concludes, “is that this is a Lefton. Of course it is perfect. Perfection is its most defining characteristic.”

I realize that nothing else is forthcoming. Nor is it likely to be.

“Thank you,” I say to him. “Thanks very much for taking the time-”

He grunts, and looks at some papers on his desk. I push in the chair that I wasn’t sitting in, and show myself out.

*****  *****  *****

I hadn’t been with Blaine’s very long. Nothing compared to the tenure of Miss Congeniality John Clitheroe. I made this point to my supervisors about six times. It didn’t matter; they still wanted my report.

I practically made Clitheroe’s case for him. His case was very convincing. And not just because he was John Clitheroe. Everything he said in his appraisal was true, and I made sure to say so. But…

But the piece just didn’t feel right. And I said so. And I tried my best to say why.

It’s my job. When something feels wrong, an appraiser has to say so. It’s what they pay us for. Or so I kept telling myself, and preparing to tell Clitheroe.

He doesn’t keep me waiting long. He opens my door and just comes into my office. He puts his hands down on my desk like he’s trying to corner me behind it. My office is so small he doesn’t really need to bother.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he says. Loudly.

My job, I very much do not say. “I thought it over,” I say, “and I had a few-”

“Did we or did we not go over this?” he asks. If acid had started to drip out of his mouth to bubble on my desk I wouldn’t have been a little bit surprised.

“We did-”

“We did,” he sneers, mocking me.

“We did,” I say, “but-”

“Gavel’s in eight days,” he shouts, “and on a whim – on a hunch – on a, on a feeling that that you have – you – you’re contesting the authenticity of a Major Work?”

Whether he’s referring to the altarpiece or his appraisal, I can’t begin to guess. “I am not contesting it,” I say. “I was asked to give a report, and I said-”

“You said that you had a feeling-

“I said – yes – I said I had a feeling that the piece in question was-”

“Was, contrary to all evidence, a-”

“I have doubts,” I say, trying to keep my temper, “about the authenticity of the piece. Based upon a close examination-”

“Boy,” he says, “I have made my appraisal. I gave it to Reibeck. It’s done. That is my name, and my reputation, right there on the paper. If you’re going to attempt to challenge that, you better have an actual challenge. Not a feeling.

I count backwards from five. “Mr. Clitheroe,” I say, “John-”

“Three million,” he says. “Three million without question. Four million, more like. That is what a museum – the Met, the Alte Pinakothek – is going to pay for the earliest great Lefton ever recorded. As well they should.”

“I’m sure they will,” I say, “but-”

“’But’ nothing!” he shouts. “The catalogue’s printed, and…”

He can’t seem to think of anywhere to go from there. He closes his eyes. It almost looks like he’s trying to calm himself down so that we can continue as rational adults, as colleagues. Instead he coughs in my face, turns, and leaves my office.

I sit there, behind my desk, until I feel I can get up and close the door without slamming it into splinters.

*****  *****  *****

The catalogue might have already been printed but that doesn’t stop Clitheroe from submitting a correction of his own. I go to where an intern is putting an errata sticker into each of ten thousand brochures. It’s a whole paragraph that declares, with all the subtlety of a blacksmith’s hammer, that the authenticity of the piece in beyond question. Certified by John Clitheroe, backed by Blaine’s, therefore to be believed by museum buyers and billionaires across the auctionhouse world.

They say that the best defence is a good offence. I should have counted on Clitheroe to be as offensive as possible.

The viewing costs Blaine’s about ten thousand in Champagne and thirty thousand in security. Gavel-day costs John Clitheroe twenty dollars in dry-cleaning fees. All the primary appraisers are there, standing along the back wall like terra cotta warriors in last year’s suits. As a secondary appraiser I watch the simulcast from the next room. As the guy who tangled with Clitheroe I stand at the back and try to drink as much leftover Champagne as I can. If you’re going to get fired, you might as well be hung over too.

Lot 1: A Gilbert Stuart of George Washington. One of 130 known copies. Four hundred thousand to the library of a recent president. Within estimates.

Lot 13: An Attic red-figure kylix. Big enough to hold a beer-keg. One hundred forty thousand to the museum of a small college with a big endowment. Below estimates.

Lot 27: A Picasso sketch. It must have taken him all of five minutes. Two million six hundred fifty thousand to the thirty-year-old who owns a software company. Above estimates.

Lot 41: A bronze sculpture of a fertility goddess. Older than the pyramids, smaller than a Pez dispenser. Eight hundred sixty thousand to the guy who started his own religion. Within estimates.

Lot 55: A Hammershøi from a private collection. Unfinished, unsigned, unseen by the public. One point three million to the Guggenheim Bilbao. Within estimates.

Lot 56: A Lefton altarpiece from an anonymous collection. Authentic. Six million four hundred thousand to the British Museum. Above estimates.

*****  *****  *****

I didn’t get fired for what I’d written or what I’d done. I didn’t even get fired for how much Champagne I drank. Reibeck patted my shoulder paternally and said it had taken real courage to stand up to Clitheroe, especially on an unfounded hunch. “We need that kind of courage here,” he said. “Clitheroe won’t live forever, you know.”

I wasn’t quite so sure about that. I thanked him, straightened my tie, and went home.

Six point four million for a Lefton. The British Museum was happy. Blaine’s drew seventeen percent of that. They were happy. Clitheroe kept his reputation. Also the right to glare at me for years to come. He was happy. I could look forward to at least one more paycheck. I’d have to be happy with that.

Seventeen percent of six point four million. Just over a million dollars in commission. Not a bad business to be in. Too bad the appraisers didn’t get a cut.

That left eightythree for the seller of the piece. Five million, three hundred twelve thousand US. Less ten percent to the impoverished Baron who was selling it. Less five percent to the unsavoury Mafiosi who had transported it. Less ten percent to the unsavoury lawyers who were handling the money. Less twentyfive percent to the person who had made it.

Finding the Baron wasn’t hard. For five hundred thousand dollars he would have sold his own daughter into marriage, if he hadn’t already sold her for less. Finding the Mafiosi hadn’t been hard. The Baron had introduced us. He owed them money. Finding the lawyers hadn’t been difficult. The Mafiosi owed them money. Finding the artist – well, that’s what I had started with.

It had taken her the better part of a year. Research. Planning. Execution. It allowed for as much creativity as any artist could hope for in a commission. She already had some ideas for the next Lefton she wanted to make.

One point five to two million. That wouldn’t have been bad at all. As Clitheroe said, it probably would have fetched three. But with a special errata guaranteeing its authenticity it had to do better. And it did.

I’d been honest. I told them it didn’t look right to me. It didn’t matter. They were happy. Everyone was happy.

Two point six million. I guess I could be happy with that.

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~ by davekov on 19 April 2011.

One Response to “Appraisal”

  1. The majority of this story was written at a highway rest-stop in Vermont. Rest-stops in Vermont have free wireless, free Green Mountain coffee, and free views of the Green Mountains themselves. Not a bad place to make some prose. I’ll have to do it again sometime.

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