The Black Portrait, by Sarah Binney

 

Here’s the thing about black markets: they’re not black. In fact, they’re of no colour at all. They’re utterly invisible.

Let me explain. I say the words “criminal underworld” and you’re thinking darkened alleyways. You’re thinking unmarked doors to shady staircases leading to cellars brimming with cigar smoke, crowded with men in trenchcoats and masks, secret exits into the sewers in case of a raid. Why do you picture this? Because you have never seen a black market and your imagination is insufficiently rational to do anything but conjure the cliché from noir films and murder mystery penny dreadfuls. But the romance dissolves the moment you stop to consider such a thing. Illicit auctions of stolen opal necklaces conducted in the dead of night? Furtive glances exchanged over hands of hold ‘em or hearts, the dealer putting on a passable French accent as you pour yourself another Scotch? You know the image is two-dimensional; your depth perception renders them the fictions they truly are.

In truth, the underworld is not “under” in so vulgar a sense as geography. Certainly, there might be the odd deal done in a poorly-lit basement as the searchlights flash fruitlessly on the brickwork above. But in terms of the market fraction, the vast majority of underworld transactions happen right before your very eyes. The market is not hidden by some imagined screen; it’s hidden, through legerdemain, in plain daylight. Why hold one’s sales at the stroke of midnight? Office hours are ten til five, with a break for lunch. And often it is an office, too; no top-secret remote Alpine chalets equipped with shark tanks, just some rented space above a Topshop in the West End, with easy access to the Piccadilly Line and reliable internet. I worked for a time in an office so cramped I had to keep a Monet under my desk. True story. But this isn’t about me.

My point is, you yourself have in your lifetime probably come into contact with countless elements of illegal activity of a higher persuasion – by which I mean none of those ugly businesses concerning hallucinogens or narcotics or explosives, the chemical industries, the wet market; I mean the more elite trade that is infinitely more expensive, more elegant, more erudite – and despite coming within a whisker of such activity you probably never knew it was there.

This is to the benefit of all concerned, trust me. A speakeasy can be raided by riot police in black plastic armour; the bidders physically present at an auction can be rounded up like cattle and arrested. To hide in plain sight… well, such sleight of hand means no trail of breadcrumbs leading to the gingerbread house. No traceability. No trace, indeed, that the transaction occurred at all – or rather, that it was of a dishonest leaning. The very crème de la crème of black market operations occur such that they are totally indistinguishable from licit purchases of legal goods. Done best, the system will never even know you were there.

You still don’t seem to quite understand how the system works. Hm. Let me engage you in a little Gedankenexperiment. You have come into possession of an item so rare and valuable – so uniquely identifiable – that it will fetch quantities in excess of the GDP of several unimportant minor nations, if only you can find the right buyer. (And believe me, those buyers exist. You might not believe there exist people so rich but so utterly unscrupulous, selfish but subtle, that they would actually obtain the original Mona Lisa, not to display, merely to stash in a maximum security vault and never look at – simply to possess it. But you’ve never seen the third-eldest Saud prince’s Picasso collection.) Maybe you have a shortlist of buyers in a bulging address book with contacts around the world you’ve made over years of experience and discretion. But you don’t want to simply have them offer you a figure blind and pick the highest bidder. No, this piece is remarkable. It’s desirable. Whatever you’re offered in private, that figure will double in an open auction.

So what do you do? You put it on eBay.

Oh, obviously you don’t create an account under the name Peruggia_1911 and upload a listing of a lost sketch for The School of Athens, stolen 1942, thought destroyed in 1943. There are of course established conventions. You would create a listing for an antique lamp base (that means oil) dating back to 1843 (Raphael’s birth date with two digits swapped, as per the convention) from the talented ceramics artisans of Jackson, Mississippi (a signature of authenticity unique to my particular associates). You price it at $500, to begin with. Low enough to attract no attention from the site moderators, but high enough no idiot with a credit card will buy it on impulse. Especially given how the picture you use for the listing is of an amorphous ochre excrescence of pottery purchased at a car boot sale in Dalston that probably netted its creator at best a D in Art GCSE. Then you publicise the auction through all the usual channels, utilizing your swelling address book and your extensive awareness of who might be interested in such a thing. You hit Send. You sit back in your chair, you relax, maybe grab a camomile tea, let the online battle commence.

When the bidding is done, the relevant sum is charged to the buyer’s account. Let’s say it’s climbed to $1500, a nice proportional increase. In my field of work, though, $1500 is small change. You liaise with the buyer, arrange to deliver the item in person in whatever manner suits. Two cars meet in the short-stay car park of Heathrow Airport; four men in black suits exchange suitcases. You check everything is in order, and drive happily back down the M4 with $750,000 in crisp green notes; as agreed, the other half will be in your Cayman back account by 5pm.

You see how simple the code, the convention, the con? No need to wade through bars where the air clogs with cigar smoke. The virtual auction house is home to connoisseurs the world over, accessing the market from their bedrooms. Truly do we live in modern times. And all, thanks to the vast volume of web traffic, virtually undetectable. To the relevant international law enforcement agencies, finding that one transaction is one needle in a very, very large haystack.

It’s secure, it’s quick, it’s worked a dozen times before, it’s totally foolproof.

Well, that’s until it isn’t. There’s always got to be a thirteenth time, and that was when everything – to use a somewhat uncouth turn of expression – goes horribly and irreversibly tits up.

*

“Looks like Lovecraft fanart.”

We were standing around in the office above the Topshop looking at the latest arrival. A friend in Liechtenstein had come into an “inheritance” of several pieces of varying quality, most of which we’d assessed, valued, and catalogued for sale. The friend had needed no help valuing the dozen or so bars of solid gold bullion, even if said ingots did need some metalworking to get rid of that unsightly four-armed crest. The various artworks, primarily watercolours along with a few oils, were of minority interest but of no small value nevertheless; their creator was highly sought after in certain obtuse channels.

This one, though, defied assessment. The artist was unknown – probably nobody special – and judging from the style it couldn’t have been much older than the mid-nineteenth century. It was in good nick, which wasn’t surprising if my friend was correct in asserting that it hadn’t been touched for the best part of the twentieth century; it had been in a vault for that duration, out of public sight, and showed no signs of wear or tear, save for an ugly gash through the centre, inflicted perhaps by a knife, which my Liechtensteiner friend had already repaired with such deft ability it was impossible to see. The technical skill of the painter was above standard, but not particularly groundbreaking. The subject, though, was so unusual it had the whole cohort trying to guess what it was.

“It’s a zombie.”

“A banshee.”

“Rupert Murdoch.”

“George Osbourne.”

“Nah, Osbourne’s slimier than that. It’s Iain Duncan Smith.”

“Idiots, it’s clearly your mum.”

“Well, she looked happier than that when I left her last night.”

(Who said rogues have no fun, etc.)

Jeffrey from Accounting wrinkled his aquiline nose at it. “It’s damned ugly, whatever it is. Wouldn’t want it on my wall.”

“Fortunately, Jif, you’re not exactly the target market, are you?” said Dave, bending over to peer at the paintwork. (Jif was what everybody but I called him, on account of the fact that he kept our records squeaky-clean.) Most of Dave’s job was menial odd jobs, driving and office supplies and making tea and the like, but that was just because his special talents weren’t often in need: forgery’s an exotic and dangerous art, after all. His fingers were stubby and to the untrained eye he looked to have the manual dexterity of a pencil sharpener. But he was a wizard with a pen or brush, and was responsible for any necessary modifications to sales pieces. Unrelatedly and fortuitously, he also spoke some four languages with pristine accentuation, though it seemed impolite to enquire as to where he’d learned his Russian curse words.

“I’d like to bloody know what the target market is, really.” Jeffrey looked pointedly at me. “No notable artist, no aesthetic merit. Who’d buy it?”

I shrugged. Being as I was the art historian, it was my job to catalogue pieces based on potential buyers and identify an estimated sales price. Our demon friend was, from my perspective, a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a medium-quality cedarwood gilt frame with plum-blossom ornamentation.

In other words, delicious.

“I highly doubt any of our usual buyers will be even slightly interested in the thing,” I said. “But I suppose we can always hang it in Jeffrey’s office. A memento mori to keep him company on those long nights filling out the tax returns.”

Jeffrey rolled his eyes, then, deciding that wasn’t obvious enough, swung his iPad in the direction of my head; I parried it carelessly.

“We need rid of it, that’s for sure.” Dave scratched his ear. “We could pass it off as genre art. Say it’s the cover of a rare fantasy novel from the thirties, or something. There must be collectors who’d take it. At least then it wouldn’t hang around here staring at us.”

“We should destroy it.”

Everyone turned to the bank of computers against the far wall from whence the small voice had emerged, like a rare lost bird. Within the silicon nest Anya, our techie, sat with her tiny hands clasped in her lap. She was staring at the painting through the gap between two monitors, with a look of morbid fascination that looked alien on her delicate Indian features. Seeing our confusion, she coughed nervously. “It’s unnatural. Look at it. It’s disgusting. We need rid of it, and nobody will buy it. We should burn the thing now, while we have the chance.”

With that outburst – comparatively dramatic for the employee whose average spoken words per day rarely reached double figures – she swung her chair back towards the wall and went back to typing.

*

Anya was certainly the dark horse of our operation. To begin with it had been just me and Jeffrey. Friends from college, the art historian and the economist, just starting out on our journeys of intellectual, material, and sexual discovery. We’d shared a set in college, giving both of us ample time to assess the other’s temperament, and many a happy evening had been spent over a bottle of Scotch and Mendelssohn. Then the cruel hand of Time ripped me from my happy bubble; graduation cast me from my Edenic youth into the dark world of gainful employment. At first it seemed that I, navy gown a-rippling in the breeze, had the cosmos at my fingertips; that the corridors of power were spread open before me! Alas, a cruel and oppressive world was determined to quash my dreams. Parliament proved impregnable to someone of my pedigree; the intrinsic liberal bias of the system, promoting women and blacks above their station simply by virtue of their birth and leaving no space for such refined minds as my own, left me contemplating such drastic action as applying for a PhD or even going into teaching.

It was only through a chance meeting for Jeffrey – who by this point was miserably settled into an accounting job with a major insurance agency, who made him work sixty hours a week for a supervisor who wore only yellow paisley ties and smelled always of mackerel – that we two found ourselves in our current line of work. A casual acquaintance of his needed a piece valued and Jeffrey put us in touch, my passion for and expertise in fine art at last proving profitable!

In retrospect, certainly, the acquaintance was unforgivably foolhardy to involve me, but the situation resolved itself admirably. I quickly and correctly identified the painting in question as dating back to the late eighteenth century, commanding a cash value in excess of Jeffrey’s salary for the next decade, and missing from a private collection following a notable burglary just a few weeks before.

After a long late-night heart to heart with Jeffrey involving a large bottle of Laphroaig and rather a lot of cheese we confronted the man and made a deal: we would not only value the piece but arrange to find a buyer, in exchange for a measly thirty percent cut each. (To this day an excess of cheese will drive me to extreme measures. These days I take my brie in moderation only.) Our new friend hummed and hawed a time but eventually acquiesced. Thus did Jeffrey end up leaving his job in a theatrical incident involving several canisters of silly string that I sincerely hope lives on in the hearts of the remaining suffering employees of said insurance agency, and thus did I begin my little address book that over the years has grown to a not inconsiderable network of indispensable contacts.

Where was I? Anya.

The two of us set up shop in a flat in Guildford owned by my second cousin and managed to make a name for ourselves within the trade, building a reputation for knowledgeability and discretion. However, a near-brush with the authorities around three months into the project brought a shocking reality only too clearly into focus: we needed computers. Specifically, we needed someone who could cover our digital tracks as efficiently as Jeffrey did financially.

We advertised, or rather let loose the word on the grapevine that we were looking for a man of a technical leaning to whom computers did not pose the enigma they did to me. A couple of prospective employees were interviewed and found wanting in the mental acuity required for the job; the inability of one of them to identify Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time may have in a minor capacity influenced my decision. We were on the verge of despair when through our door came a tiny Indian girl dressed entirely in black who looked barely seventeen. She enquired about the job and we were astonished to learn that she was in fact a twenty-six-year-old alumna of Imperial College, who had worked for a major software firm for three years after finishing a PhD in cryptography. Both Jeffrey and I were sceptical to begin with, but Anya soon proved her worth by passing our scrupulous tests and fixing my printer within fifteen minutes of passing through the door. We hired her on the spot.

When Jeffrey, who has always possessed a greater empathy as to the subtleties of the fairer sex than I, enquired Anya’s opinion concerning any potentially morally ambiguous or legally grey areas regarding the work, she simply shrugged and muttered that she would rather work against the corporate titans than for them. My memory swears blind she then mentioned the phrase “just want to watch the bastards burn” but in retrospect this seems out of character so I assume I simply imagined it.

We moved into our present premises in the West End soon thereafter, and some time later Dave joined to complete the team as it currently stands. The rest, as they say, is history.

*

We put the painting on sale on Tuesday morning at nine in the morning, GMT. Well, nine-oh-three. This isn’t Switzerland.

I decided after some deep reflection upon the genre to pass the painting as a Frazetta, after the illustrator of pulp fiction and comic books. The style didn’t quite match, but we weren’t selling it to the sort of people who would notice or care.

I conduct the auction as Karajan would the Berlin Philharmonic: with elegant precision and masterful flair. The initial bidding was set to £1, proposing us a minimum return of £700 – taking into account the commission owed my “friend” in Liechtenstein. All complete, as an encore, I cast around for bidders.

The first phone calls were bland. A couple of small-time collectors. They told me politely but firmly they weren’t in the market just now for more pieces, what with the lingering effects of the recession. Yes, yes, the last sales had been totally to their satisfaction, but right at this moment they were in no position to buy again. Perhaps next year; perhaps when I had something more substantial than such an… idiosyncratic piece. Perhaps the year after that.

I tried a contact who I knew to be particularly impulsive with unique or eccentric pieces. But he proved equally fruitless. “Olly, dear boy, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.” Besides, it was unwise to invest just at the moment when one’s personal finances were about to come under greatest scrutiny, as a consequence of certain recent taxing investigations into the taxation affairs of his peers. Before I could really roll out the charm he announced he had to leave and rather abruptly, to my chagrin, hung up.

I was running out of ideas. I was almost about to call a secretary of a buyer to whom I had sold a number of really exceptional pieces in the past, but caught myself at the last second; better not to bother her, in case I tried her patience and compromised future business opportunities. Who was I fooling? She wasn’t going to be interested.

Jeffrey found me burying my head in my computer keyboard at ten-thirty-eight AM, having found zero interest in taking the piece off our hands. It was the opposite of what I had hoped: it wasn’t that the painting was dangerously desirable, it was that nobody wanted it at all. I bemoaned our situation to Jeffrey, at length, who stood over my desk awkwardly with a mug of coffee in one hand and eventually interjected –

“Oliver, didn’t you look? We have a bidder already.”

O miracle of miracles! I checked the auction page. He was correct; someone had bid £2 on the item. £2! A doubling of the asking price! Normally such a price jump would be preceded by fierce competition from other interested parties, but as I probed further I realised this was different: instead of multiple buyers furiously outdoing each other, there was one lone bid and that was it.

Beggars, choosers, I supposed. “Jeffrey, you are my guardian angel. And this fellow is the answer to my prayers.” I peered at the screen. “King Nazgul. Funny name. Not a regular. But I’m sure I can figure out who it is given time.”

Jeffrey seemed pleased. “Two thousand will do us very nicely. I was worrying we would have to put the price down.”

“Jeffrey, would you question my ability to tempt buyers with my unparalleled panache?”

“Well, no.”

“I wouldn’t comment on your financial wizardry, would I? I wouldn’t intrude on your management of our money affairs?”

“No, no…”

“Well, we have a buyer, and all is settled!” I swung my legs over my desk and, satisfied, went to make myself a chamomile tea.

I had thought perhaps we would have a better uptake once one buyer expressed interest, but in the next twenty-four hours during which the auction was open not one further bid was placed. But, frankly, by this point not one person in the office cared. We would be rid of it, and that would be that. So it came to pass that I found myself in the little Renault driving along the Hammersmith Road into Ealing, whistling happily to myself along to Classic FM, with the painting strapped into the passenger seat with a black cloth covering it like a shroud.

I’d been unable to identify the bidder, but I assumed it was a friend of a friend for whom this was his first time on the market. That would explain his willingness to buy a relatively cheap item which nobody else was interested in. The delivery was unconventional, too. Most customers didn’t want us knowing their home addresses, so we arranged handover in public places or via PO boxes, station lockers, that sort of thing. But this fellow was perfectly happy for me to drive to his house in West London and handed me his address right away. The customer is always right, I suppose.

My phone rang just as I pulled into a residents-only parking bay outside the house; it was Jeffrey, so I ignored it. The address I’d been given was a perfectly average terraced London town house. Not the sort of residence our clients tended to frequent. Probably a front, then; a second property, rented out, used as a pickup address, I guessed. That made more sense. With the painting under one arm, I rang the doorbell.

My phone rang again. Jeffrey. I hung up. It could wait. The door knocker was shaped like a skull. It grinned maniacally at pedestrians. I mentally shuddered. Nothing but monsters and ghouls today for me, it seemed.

After a while the skull swung away to reveal a middle-aged man in a red tee-shirt that was too small for him, embossed with an arrowhead insignia, with will-o-the-wisp hair that wafted around his head like a bemused cloud. I launched into my spiel before he had time to start. “I have a delivery for this address?” I held the painting aloft, still clothed in black fabric. “I’m from eBay.”

A beatific smile spread across his face. “How excellent! How punctual! Excellent value! I have the money right here.” He bustled away into the depths of the house, while my pocket started buzzing again. Two more minutes, Jeffrey, if you’d be so kind. “I have biscuits, if you’d like a biscuit?” His accent was some sort of Estuary English with a twinge of the North in it. Assimilated Tyke, I diagnosed.

He came back a moment later with an envelope and a saucer of soggy Rich Teas. I declined as politely as I could whilst struggling to hoist the painting into the hallway. “Oh, just leave it down there, I’ll get it up on the wall in no time,” said my host, tucking into a biscuit himself.

I carefully laid it against the wall and took the envelope from him. My phone was really incessantly buzzing now, urging me to leave. The envelope was remarkably light, but I reasoned he probably had a cheque in there, along with what felt like a £2 coin, to cinch the deal. I shook hands. “Nice doing business with you, sir. I hope you’ll consider my organisation if you’re ever looking to buy again.”

“Oh, love to! Couldn’t believe you were getting rid of such a fine work. Well, I’ll keep an eye out if you ever get more of the like.” I should bloody well hope not. “I’m Chris, anyway. And you are….?”

“Delighted. I’m Oliver.” Kneejerk reaction, which I instantly regretted. I never did names. Except for more trusted clients. “I should really be off. My phone calls. Back to work.”

“Of course, of course. Thanks so much for such a quick delivery. Ta-ta.” The door shut in my face. And with that he was gone, and so was the damnable painting.

I went back to the Renault and sat in the driver’s seat. Opening the envelope, as expected, a grubby £2 coin fell out. Along with… nothing.

Wait…

It clicked. I could hardly stop myself from laughing. How utterly foolish! The unthinkable had occurred. What Jeffrey had time after time warned me might happen, had indeed come to pass. We had sold a piece for such a low price that it had been bought by someone outside of the industry. In short, my gentleman friend Chris there was a total stranger. A Fred Bloggs. A nobody.

He had no idea what he had just bought. Well, what I’d as good as given to him for free.

But, I considered as I pulled out into the road, neither did I. We’d had no interest in the piece from anybody else. I’d been unable to date the bloody thing, or attach any meaningful value to it at all.

You know what? Chris could keep the darned thing.

I put my buzzing phone out of its misery. Setting off back towards the office, I wedged it under my chin. “Jeffrey, sorry, I was with a client, what is it?”

“Good evening, is that Mr St John?”

The voice was black velvet and caviar and did not belong to Jeffrey. “Hello, who is this?”

“Mr St John, we have not met before. My name is Mr White. Mr St John, I am very much interested in a piece you have been offering for sale recently, which I am looking to buy for a very generous fee.”

I swerved to avoid a cyclist, almost invisible in a black jacket. “Ah – well, of course, I would be delighted to set up a deal… I’m in the car at the moment, perhaps I could call you back…”

“Mr St John. Oliver. Can I call you by your first name? Oliver, I want to make clear the urgency of my request. The piece is most unique and I simply must acquire it. If you have already made a deal with someone else, I would be willing to double their price. The picture is of a man, a portrait, with a most singular features. Something like a ghoul or a banshee. I believe you must remember it.”

Behind me a Land Rover blared its horn at my erratic driving. My mouth was dry. “Sir, I’m afraid that piece is no longer in our custody. As you know, a buyer was already found for it and I confess I already delivered it to that buyer not a few moments ago…”

Silence on the other end of the line. I came to a red traffic light and was able to turn my full attention to the voice at the other end, who was breathing heavily into the mouthpiece. “Mr White?”

“Oliver, I had so hoped you would be able to assist me in this endeavour, but I fear you have not grasped my resolve in this matter. I will have the painting. Please know I make a useful friend, Mr St John, but also that I make a terrible enemy.”

And then he hung up.

How completely peculiar. I confess I have always been one for melodrama, but this was utterly beyond me. Neither the voice nor the name meant anything to me, and I had spent several years carving out a niche in the market; I knew that I knew anybody who was anybody. If there was someone who could casually make statements like “I’ll double what he’s paying you”, they were already in my address book. So who was this fellow?

My phone rang again: Dave.

“Dave? A very peculiar thing just happened to me.”

“OLIVER! Oliver, where the bloody hell have you been. Answer your telephone, man.”

“I was with a client, Oliver. I’m nearly back at the office.”

“It’s Jif, Oliver.”

“Jeffrey? What about him?”

“Oliver, dammit. Oliver, Jif is dead.”


 

Sarah Binney decided one day in a fit of pique she’d had enough of reading other people’s stories and wanted to write some of her own. While she’s delaying studying for a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science at Clare College, Cambridge, she likes drinking liquorice tea and watching quiz shows.
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