Mudbath (Part 2)
In January of sixty-nine Jennifer showed up in her Jaguar and asked Claude to do six oil paintings. She was very meticulous about getting them right.
“These photographs are taken by professionals to capture the right amount of light and natural colours on pre-set timing and developed carefully to obtain the true colours on these enlargements. Whole point is that you’ve got to get it right to produce exact replicas.”
“I’ve seen this somewhere,” uttered Claude.
“Well,” said Jennifer, “this one is titled View of the Sea at Scheveningen by Vincent van Gogh, a Dutch painter. He did this in 1882. And this too, Congregation leaving the Reformed church in Nuenen, he did for his bedridden mother. I brought aged canvas material. What do you know about van Gogh?”
“Maybe…very little,” acknowledged Claude.
“He did this view of the sea while living in The Hague. He did an excellent job capturing the dark sky and the breaking waves. He wrote to his brother, Theo, ‘The effect of furrows of ploughed land’ as to him.” She explained, “See, you’ve got to have an imagination to do this. Details not caught on the photographs are vital. He squeezed the paint directly out of the tube to create the crests of waves…his rhythmic brushstrokes are quite unique and easily recognisable. Grains of sand blew on this painting all over the canvas, these effects, you need to apply. Follow the instructions here and get it right to its finest details and specifications…”
“What’s the point of this?”
“Rolf Schneider is planning an exhibition in few months. Of course, he will sign them and display as his own work on van Gogh and other famous paintings. Use the right material. His experts will inspect them to every detail before we cut a cheque.”
“How much are you paying me?”
“Three thousand dollars for each and you got three months left.”
Three months later he received a cheque for twenty-five thousand dollars that included a bonus. His work was well received by this mysterious painter, Rolf Schneider of Sacramento. He never heard from Jennifer afterwards. Few times he tried to call the number on the address card and left some messages in the answering machine somewhere in Reno.
Pan Am Flight 103 landed at Frankfurt arriving from New York via London. Air Hostess Beth Johnson was relieved off duty for five days. She picked a cab and in few minutes reached the railways. She took a train to Dusseldorf. She checked in at a hotel under the name of Vivian McGowan with an Irish passport. She carried two suitcases and a black leather cylindrical case about 60 cm long and 12 cm in diameter.
After few telephone calls at the hotel she met Leon Wolff in a pub. Early next morning Beth checked out and in his BMW arrived at a sleeping town outside Nettetal – a kind of place where strange faces could be easily spotted. Here the setting was quiet and peaceful, narrow streets left empty and beautiful houses stood in rows. They sat for an early lunch.
Beth and Wolff left the town heading for the border and crossed to the Netherlands through Venlo. Three hours later they came to a halt somewhere close to the American Consulate in Museumplein – the heart of Modern Arts in Amsterdam.
At the Stedelijk a display of van Gogh paintings were exhibited. Initially collected on long-term loan and now acquired by the government on behalf of the Van Gogh Foundation established since 10th July 1960.
It was Friday, 16th May, and the duo waited for closing time. Forty minutes to ten, they climbed down the BMW and assembled a wheelchair out of its dickey. Then a grizzly-haired Wolff sat down and Beth rolled the chair to the museum at the crossroads. She picked the entrance on Paulus Potterstraat accessing the old Weissman building with an architecture that gave a look of a Neo-Renaissance style. She purchased two tickets at the counter and stepped out to help Leon Wolff in the wheelchair.
She rolled the chair up to the ramp under the east turret tower and slipped into the basement. They produced a bag and a tool kit hidden in the wheelchair and the cylindrical case. They stuffed their outfits into the bag and waited patiently in the dark.
The windows on this building were barred and fitted with lime-washed glass. The hobbit-hole under the arches could open. The glass-walled extension called the Sandberg Wing flanking the Van Baerlestraat was where the van Gogh collection lay. A staircase linked the two sections and the doors on white-washed interior walls remain unlocked. Security was maintained by watchmen and loyal guards. Loyal in the sense some of those old folks kept watch on the museum collection transferred for safekeeping to a bunker in the dunes near Santpoort during WWII. As a matter of fact no theft was reported to this day.
Three hours later they sneaked to the staircase and climbed the Sandberg Wing. They left gas canisters on the doorway and released to emit a sleeping gas that was so effective to drop a person in seconds who got exposed to it. And they wore gasmasks. The wheelchair was hidden inside a locker after folding it.
Efficiently, she unhooked the View of the Sea at Scheveningen from the wall and dismantled it on the floor separating the white frame stretcher. She picked the fake painting that Claude did from the cylindrical case and replaced the whole frame back on the wall neatly. She left the original painting of the Congregation leaving the Reformed church in Nuenen untouched.
They gathered the canisters and climbed to the rooftop. They found one of the guards fallen asleep on the doorway to the rear wing gallery. Wolff tied a red nylon cord and dropped an end to the ground on the rear side. He climbed down with the bag containing the tools and outfits. Beth followed with the leather case. For a moment he couldn’t see her in the dark.
Halfway down she dangled on the wall and cut the rope with a Swiss knife. Abruptly she made a splash in mud and not a bathtub. She dropped like a cat to hit the ground and land on four limbs.
Many trees covered this surround. Further up an area was cleared for redevelopment. A site allocated for a new van Gogh museum.
A three-minute walk and the duo reached their car parked outside the American Consulate. “Where are we going next?” asked Leon Wolff.
“Brussels. I have to catch a flight to Nice,” said Beth Johnson.
That fake painting remained on the wall. Only way to find its authenticity was to screen an X-ray test and if only a heist was discovered. In 1973 it was moved to the Van Gogh Museum and stayed there until it was stolen in 2002 along with the original painting of the Congregation leaving the Reformed church in Nuenen.
The rope swung lazily in the wind undetected for years almost absorbed in the red bricks of the wall.
A week later, on 22nd May 1969, Beth Johnson arrived in Monaco. She climbed a yacht and crossed the Mediterranean to a destination unknown.
A little incident that occurred in the first week of June after Claude Chase was accepted by a professor from the University of Miami who saw his talent to enter an art exhibition in New York. As Claude headed up the freeway he caught the cream-coloured Jaguar on Cactus Avenue. He turned a corner and followed the car behind half a kilometre. At times he lost her. Eventually he saw her just in time she turned into a storage facility.
It was sunset and the light was fading fast. He scrambled through the aisles between the rows of bins looking for the Jaguar. Suddenly he caught a light fallen on the ground from one of the bins and it was out quite quickly. He switched off his headlights and moved on at slow pace. Jennifer McConkey came out of a storage bin and rolled down the door. She climbed the convertible and drove off.
Claude followed and while passing the storage bin he noted the number, A51. He followed her to Hotel Morrison, a modest inn. After all she wasn’t staying at the Mirage.
Claude arrived home hoping to check on her at Morrison later. His father passed him a letter from the Department of the Army, War Office, with an Order to Report for Induction and he forgot about Jennifer. It asked Mr Claude F Chase to attend an assembly on the 9th of June with credentials of any previous involvement in military or federal service, proof of marriage and if bearing siblings, records of disabilities and inadequacies or if he wore glasses.
Claude attended the assembly at US Recruiting Office on Lake Mead Boulevard sharp at 7 AM. After the interviews he got enlisted with a Lt. Commander Edward Mulloy in a fresh white suit from the Navy. Claude had to report to duty on 9th September at Newport Training Base. That gave him exactly three months to prepare and relieved him to attend the exhibition taking place in New York in mid-August.