Professor Lorenzo Fortuna had been amused by the request, but not surprised. He was, after all, the most prominent scholar at the seminar. He knew the period better than all of the so-called experts who had sat at the speakers’ table with him, people whose puffery and inflated rhetoric exposed rather than hid their appalling lack of scholarship. Why had he even come? Certainly not to mix with those buffoons. No, it was for the young people who formed the majority of the audience, that next generation of art historians who were attracted to him like prospective apprentices to an old master. He smiled as he thought of them. They had hung on his every word, as his students did in his own classes, enjoying when he pointed out some absurdity uttered by the other panelists.
But there were other aspects of the previous few days that had made it worthwhile. He had been put up in a comfortable hotel, the meals had been good, and the wine excellent. As was the cognac which sloshed in the bowl of his snifter now as he walked. He may have had a bit too much to drink, but it was the last night, after all, and the fellow had insisted. One should not be ungrateful for such generosity, even if it was his due. He slowed his unsteady steps in order to take another sip of the amber liquid. It burned as it went down, in a smoother and more pleasing burn than the famous local grappa that had capped every meal during the seminar.
“Here we are,” said the man Fortuna was following. Unlocking the door, he reached in to switch on a large overhead fixture. Light bounced off the objects in the room. Fortuna closed his eyes tightly and then opened them wide to focus on two paintings that leaned against the wall on the top shelf of a low bookcase. There might have been other works of art in the room, but he knew immediately that these were the two he was meant to see. He frowned. It was not the frown of disgusted annoyance, like those aimed at his fellow scholars during the seminar, but instead an indication of serious concentration. The learned Professor Fortuna getting down to business. He brushed past the other man, reluctantly put his drink on the shelf, and leaned toward the first of the two works. “Beautiful, is it not?”
Fortuna did not reply for several minutes. “The subject…it would be his early period.” He reached forward, took the painting by its frame, and adjusted the angle to take better advantage of the light.
“I can get a lamp.”
“No need, I can see it well enough.” He looked for a few moments longer before moving his attention to the second work. After some minutes he remembered his drink, took a taste before again setting it down, and stepped back to observe the two from a distance of about five feet. He slowly shook his head and smiled while the second man—who could hardly contain his pleasure—watched him. Fontana then pulled out a thimble-sized instrument from the vest pocket of his three-piece tailored suit. He held it to one eye and moved it around the second painting, not more than two inches from the crusted brush marks. He did the same with the first work before slipping the magnifier back into his pocket and stepping back.
“Magnificent, are they not?” Pride showed in the host’s face and voice.
Fortuna took his eyes from the paintings, retrieved his snifter, and turned to the other man. “They are fakes. Well done, perhaps the best I’ve seen, but fakes nonetheless.”
“That’s impossible.” The man choked on his words. “You must be joking.”
Fortuna grunted. “I would never joke about such things.” He tilted his head as he surveyed the two compositions. “The treatment of the faces is good, but not close to the level of other works by the artist. I might say the supposed artist. You see the arrangement of the figures? Very much out of character. He would never seat the Madonna in that position. The signature is close but not close enough. The final indication is in the brushstrokes. He never used that heavy impasto. Never.” He took another sip and smirked. “Extremely well done. The painter had—or should I say has?—real skill. It certainly would fool most of the participants in the seminar, but I have a better trained eye than any one of them. I must say, these two works could not have been more fake if they had been painted on black velvet.” He chuckled at his own humor.
The other man stared at the two paintings, his breaths coming rapidly. “But…you can’t just…there must be some mistake.”
“No mistake, my dear man. But on the plus side, I now have another anecdote to add to my lectures, so my students will be grateful to you. As I am grateful for this excellent cognac.” He held the snifter up to the light and watched the contents create a shimmering, nut brown prism.
Some time later, in silence, the host inspected his two precious works, running twitching fingers over the paint and gazing so intently he nearly lost his balance. How could that arrogant bastard be right? He exhaled a long, shuddering breath and shifted his eyes from the paintings to the floor beside him. Cognac was spreading over the tiles and through the pieces of broken crystal, to mix with the darker liquid that had gushed from Fortuna’s chest.