A true artist didn’t need any stolen art.
March 21, 2014
A VG Serial: Borrowed to the Bone
Ben Tom stared at the five thousand in crisp hundreds in his palm. “What’s this for?”
“Remember that piece you forgot when you moved out of my old shop? The one made out of pewter with brass into the flux around each piece? Made it look like gold. Has a bucolic farm scene, farmer and his wife, a few farm animals?”
Ben Tom held up a palm to stop him. “Sure I remember it. Never forget something I made. I didn’t forget it when I left, either. I left it behind for you as my way of saying thanks for all you did for me.”
“You never said so. Always considered it yours. Either way, this art dealer paid me that five grand for it. You want to get the piece back?”
Ben Tom studied the bills in his hand. It was badly needed. He needed it; Penny needed it. There were bills to pay, notes coming due within a few days. He shoved it back toward Deacon. “Can’t take this. I gave that piece to you. The money’s rightfully yours.”
Deacon stood and put a fist down hard on the metal table. “Look here, boy. That money is yours. Don’t be a damn fool. You created the piece and you deserve to get paid for it. Don’t even think of sending the money back with me. Ain’t gonna happen.”
He had never seen Deacon so upset. Ben Tom smiled. “Well, I guess I can’t turn it down if you put it that way. I’ll make you another one.” He chuckled. “You know, there was less than fifty bucks worth of materials in that piece. I felt sorta bad leaving it as my only way of repaying you.”
“The fella who gave me that money has a pretty good network of buyers and he’s the one interested in the Jap art. He’s in a bed-and-breakfast in Riverby now. Can I bring him out here?”
“Does he fence stolen goods or something like that?”
“Not a fence. He’s legit. He knows a lot about stolen art and I suspect he may have fenced a few years back. I can’t be sure, but there may have been a little jail time in his past. But he’s a good Christian man today.”
The art dealer didn’t look like Ben Tom had expected. No shiny suit, no sunglasses, no Gucci shoes. Paunchy, middle-aged and shy, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and looked more like a bartender who spent too much time indoors than an art dealer.
The dealer’s eyes bulged and he wheezed as he handled the thin scrolls that looked like ancient parchment, the crisp paper cards that felt more like ultra-thin wood, and the one folding book. A painting of people in various poses dressed in Japanese fashions graced each page. Some were erotica, almost caricatures of ancient people.
He sucked in his breath and mumbled more to himself than Ben Tom as he caressed the pieces. Ben Tom tried to make out the self-talk and heard words like shunga, shin hanga, woodblock and Frank Lloyd Wright. Finally, he looked up at Ben Tom. “Do you have any idea what you have here? There’s at least a quarter million dollars worth of art here. An incredible find.”
Ben Tom looked at Deacon, who wore a knowing smile. “Did Deacon tell you how I came by this stuff?”
“I have a good idea. I knew Clark Mallory, or at least I knew of him. I can assure you that the Japanese government or the museum or the individual that lost this will pay a huge reward for the return of this art, no questions asked. If we can’t locate the owner, I can sell it outright.”
Ben Tom shook his head. “Can’t take money for something my uncle stole. Wouldn’t be right.”
“Is it right for you to keep it from the people who rightfully own it? Or from an admiring public who simply want to view this lost art form?”
“I don’t aim to keep it. Never meant to keep it. I just need a way to get it back to the rightful owners without going to jail for stealing it.”
“Would you trust me to see that it gets back to the rightful owners?”
“If Deacon says you’re all right, then you’re all right with me. To tell the truth, it’s been wearing on me for a lot of years. I’ll be glad to be rid of it.”
Deacon pointed several fingers at the art. “How much reward do you think?”
“Ten to twenty percent of the value. Twenty-five thousand, maybe as much as fifty.”
Deacon touched Ben Tom’s arm. “Couldn’t your hospice ladies put that to good use? Don’t you have a favorite charity or cause in Riverby?”
They struck a deal then. The art dealer would collect the reward and have checks made out to the Mesa Hospice, the Riverby Library, and Josiah Welch’s Rivers Crossing Church.
But the art dealer had also noticed Peter Umlauf’s name stenciled in black paint on four crates inside the vault. “Peter Umlauf is a well-know sculptor from South Africa. Is this more of your uncle’s stolen goods?”
Ben Tom told him the story about the Dallas World Trade Center on nine-eleven.
The art dealer could barely contain his enthusiasm. “You know what’s in the crates? He hasn’t asked you to return them in all these years?”
“Nope. I figured he might have died. Can you get them back to his family?”
“I expect there’s nothing really valuable inside or he would have sent for them at once. He was almost killed a few years ago in a light plane crash, but long after nine-eleven. Let’s open the crates and see.”
Ben Tom put a hand on the crates. “Promised him I would look after them until he calls for them. No disrespect, but I don’t want anybody opening them but him.”
The art dealer laughed and turned to Deacon. “You said he was unusual and you were right.” He turned back to Ben Tom. “Would you like for me to return them to him unopened? I feel sure I can contact him by e-mail.”
Ben Tom did not use a computer, had not thought of e-mail. He looked at Deacon and then at the dealer. He felt a weight being lifted off his shoulders. “Let’s put them in your van. Let me know what Mr. Umlauf says, will you?”
When he closed the door to his van, the art dealer turned to Ben Tom. “Suppose Deacon told you I bought that piece you did when you were a kid. I sent pictures of it to a few folks I know and found a buyer within a week. The sale is temporary, of course, until the buyer can closely examine it and have it appraised and checked for authenticity, but I know the sale will be finalized. Deacon said you would have to approve, too.”
“Just to be sure it’s not a knockoff of work some famous artist did.”
“Surprised that anybody would be willing to pay for anything I made.”
“The people who saw the piece say it shows rustic, original brilliance.”
The description warmed Ben Tom’s heart. “What does that mean?”
“It means, primarily, that it is a rare find. Of course, some of it is perception. Unknown artist, a piece created four decades earlier when the artist was a boy, undiscovered until recently, that sort of thing. I have to admit that I’ll make a handsome profit when it’s finally sold.”
Ben Tom nodded. “Well, at least they like it.”
“I particularly liked the way you used brass in your flux to make the piece look tinged in gold.” The dealer drew in a deep breath as if he were afraid to ask the question he had wanted to ask since arriving in Mesa.
“I don’t suppose you have any similar pieces around anywhere?”
Ben Tom seemed lost in thought for a few seconds. “Not right now. Why?”
“Because there is a very real chance I could sell as many pieces as you can make. Providing, of course, they are all of a similar quality and unique design.”
Ben Tom seemed to drift away.
“Is there any chance you can recreate something you did forty years ago?”
“I never make the same thing twice. My mind won’t work that way.”
“I didn’t mean the same, just with the same rustic brilliance. You have real talent, Mr. Lawless.” He smiled for the first time. “And, I might add, a wonderful name for an artist. Lawless. Outlaw. Out of bounds. Not tied to tradition. Sounds great in an art show.”
Ben Tom stared at the money in his palm when Deacon and the art dealer left. Inside the blacksmith shop, he dropped to his knees and sent up a prayer, thanking God for one more deliverance and asking why He always waited until the last minute to rescue him.
Chapters of the serial are published on Friday.
You can learn more about Borrowed to the Bone and other titles by Jim H. Ainsworth on his Amazon Author Page.