About the Disposal of Works

Kirk had been the kind of graduate student Ariel Jaeger-Hohm dreamed of having, with one important exception. His morality was fully developed by the time he got to her and she could never budge him an inch. Not in the classroom, not in the bedroom. The bedroom had been an accident that blossomed into a year of the best sex and worst arguments she’d ever had. Since he was first in her Mannerism class at Yale her conscience didn’t trouble her about the situation, as long as it lasted.

The silverpoint was an attempt at revenge for her own refusal to budge about any of it.

She didn’t believe it, but she knew what it was before it was a quarter out of the Fed-Ex envelope. Her mouth was hanging open. It was wrapped carefully in acid-free plastic and there were two thin pieces of chipboard sandwiching it to keep it from getting bent.

It was a five hundred year old silverpoint cartoon for the painting called The Madonna of the Rocks; the most important pictorial work of the High Renaissance; the starting gun of those three unique decades. This preliminary sketch was identical, with special academic differences which helped her make her career what it was. There at the bottom were brown Latin words in the pen of Leonardo da Vinci. She knew them without reading them; the names of the foliage and the colors for the clothes. This sketch was the subject of her PhD thesis. She knew every speck of it; she had studied it and little else for two years. It had taken her six months and a thousand dollars worth of letters, telegrams, and phone calls to get permission to look at it for two hours in the basement of the Louvre while a man with a machine gun stood at the door behind her. The drawing was as close to priceless as a cartoon could be. It wouldn’t fetch the tens of millions that the Impressionists were bringing by way of Sotheby’s but she knew there was a Japanese collector or two who would certainly kick down with a cool million for it, if not five.

Ariel was shaking. She put the drawing down carefully and snatched the envelope. It was addressed in European pen, it was not Kirk’s writing.

“You must be joking,” she said to her empty office. She looked at the silverpoint carefully; up and down for minutes. She was convinced. She leaned back in her chair not scared. It was a fake. That was all there was to it. It was a superlative fake but that’s all it was. It served her right. She was always talking about it in her Leonardo lectures, in which she knew she sometimes got highhanded. One of the gifted studio kids had accepted her challenge and played a joke; prepared to humiliate her if she fell for it.

She laughed at herself for getting so scared and so hot at the same time. The thought of possessing this piece made her aroused in very nearly a sexual fashion. This would make a great lecture story and remind the kids why they needed to take her seriously. She knew a fraud when she saw it. She’d present it to them first and see what they made of it. She’d even get it matted and framed.

Even as a fake it was valuable. It was practically flawless. She detected minor problems with it though; slight variations in the cross-hatches that were wrong. And the surface was too modern; artificially worn. She marveled at it. She’d always had a deviant desire to write a paper on art forgeries, this practical joke gave her just the fuel to write a doozy. She was smiling wide as she went to put some coffee on and make a phone call.

Teddy was more like her than Kirk had been and that was why they finally married. Ariel knew it would last. Teddy was an art historian too but they never argued. Partially this was because Teddy specialized in Egypt and Mesopotamia but still their opinions about the disposal of works were right in line. Teddy had no problem with the Royal British Museum collecting the spoils of the Pharaohs. That sort of thing had driven Kirk mad. He would accelerate an argument right to a shouting match if anyone tried to say the behavior was anything but brutal, naked theft. As an Art History PhD candidate Kirk hated museums more than seemed possible. Eventually he did drop out and then disappeared all together. Ariel never understood. She only tried to change him. They had fought almost every day. Teddy and she never fought once about art in five years.

She dialed home and he answered. She said, “You’ll never believe what I got in the mail.”

“Try me,” said Teddy.

“No. I want to save it as a surprise.” She knew he wouldn’t be excited about it anyway so she’d put that disappointment off. “I’m at my campus office and I’m going to be here for awhile. I went shopping and there’s plenty of microwave stuff in the pantry, okay? Don’t wait for me. Just call if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

“Great, bye.”

“Bye.”

Kirk had tried to get back together with her right after she got the Department Chair and right before she married Teddy. He had found her coming out of a lecture and made a strange, impassioned plea for love. They’d been apart for a year and Ariel couldn’t understand why they had ever been together anymore. Kirk was a kid. He was twenty-four for godsakes, she was just shy of forty. Which is more or less what she told him. Is that what you really think? he asked. She continued on this line of argument; the same one that had helped her convince herself to marry Teddy. Kirk looked at her like she was insane; pain spreading across his face. He didn’t cry but the look in his eyes was worse than if he had. Ariel knew that if he said anything at that point he was going to yell. He didn’t say anything, he just left. She was thankful at that moment. It came back to her halfway through her wedding reception, and all she wanted was to go back to that day and tell him she had loved him but it was done.

Nostalgia flooded her gut. She hurried back to her desk. It had been more years than she cared to consider since she’d had any work to get excited about. She switched her computer and scanner on. She’d have her paper posted, complete with the digital image, on the school’s net node by midterms. She could share it out over the WWW with her assorted colleagues throughout Europe.

While waiting for the system to boot she looked inside the envelope for clues, eyeing the silverpoint from a distance. A note card fell out. The note was typed. It was his style, she heard him in her head plainly saying it: “No one knows where it is. Now you’ll finally understand.”

So it was Kirk. She had nearly forgot that it was his outstanding sketches and ink washes that had got her naked the first time.

She was pissed off: Bastard! What am I supposed to finally understand now? Your prank already failed. I’m not stupid, or did you forget? I’m the one they come to to verify these things. I thought you at least respected me. You know as well as anyone that I’ve held the real sketch before.

Ariel slapped the note card down on the desk like a mosquito. Then she picked it up and crumpled it in her fist, threw it in the trash bucket. Then she pulled out other trash to bury it under.

She set the silverpoint on the scanner, closed the cover, and got a decent pass of it on the first try. She started typing notes about it and the nature of art fraud in art history.

She was angry because she knew exactly what he was trying to do. He wanted to win the big argument; which would also tie up all the unfinished smaller ones. He wanted to trick her into panicking and making the choice he said she would: keep it. Or at least hurt her if she made the choice she said she would: return it. Either way, he would win. He would be right, or he would hurt her if she had been right.

The sketch was her one true desire in life. She had never wanted to own anything except art, and not much art at that. Kirk knew this. But she had always argued that conscience demanded that true art be made available to everyone. She argued against private ownership. She championed methods to this end that Kirk called questionable when he was being polite.

In this malevolent prank she would have the choice of giving up the only thing she ever wanted to own in life or keeping it. She’d give it up if she really meant what she’d argued and he was wrong. It would kill her to do it, hurt her more than anything else could, but she’d do it. She would keep it if he was right. It would cause her some professional guilt, and be a tremendously difficult admission that this manchild knew more about life than she did, but it would give her a great deal of pleasure for as long as she lived.

She opened the cover of the scanner. She remembered something interesting then. As a young PhD candidate she had been more like Kirk; willful and a little arrogant. She had done something dangerous in the basement of the Louvre fifteen years ago. In her certainty that she would be an important historian she penciled her sigil on the back of the silverpoint; like the greats used to. She never told anyone. It would have got her banned from at least a few museums. On the back of the sketch in front of her, face down on the scanner’s glass, was the graphite sigil she’d put there.

It was real. Her first thought was only, I want a divorce. Whatever she did now, Kirk had won.


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