Chapter 2 The Problem

Ren Cane was sitting in his office in his building at Longfellow College. A thick dark, drizzly fog covered the campus and Ren was trying to shake off his usual morning grogginess. He had been drinking cup after cup of coffee and reading research articles all morning. It was an important part of his job to keep up with discoveries in his field. At that moment Ren looked out the window. His office was large as far as offices go. His window extended across one entire side. Sometimes it gave him the feeling that he was looking at a cinema screen. Having a large office, and this view to the outside world, did not influence his decision to come to New Jersey, but they did not hamper it either. Just outside his office window was a small wooded area with a half acre-sized pond. There were about twelve ducks that made the pond their home. They were swimming and did not seem to mind the rain at all. He often wondered how it felt to have nowhere to go when the weather turned bad. Just then there was a knock on Ren’s partially opened door. He turned around quickly to see Ali Kendalf peering in at him.

He jumped up several inches and said, “What the hell! Come on in! I haven’t seen you in years! At least not in person. It’s good to see you!”

Ali said, “Hi Ren Cane. I was in the area and I thought I’d look you up and stop in.”

Ren thought, “Fat chance of that.” Ali had been born in the US to immigrant Lebanese parents. He had grown up on a small farm in Massachusetts and Ren and Ali had attended college together in upstate New York. Ali was not a scientist, rather he was a well-known New York lawyer. He only fought the biggest cases, and when he won, which was almost always, he took home millions in fees. He was short and thin with copious dark black hair. He moved fast and talked faster. Although Ren and Ali had gone to college together, they had only seen each other a handful of times in the past twenty years. However, Ren occasionally saw Ali’s picture in one of those collage party photographs when he was checking out a magazine while waiting in the supermarket check out line. Also, Ali had steered Ren through his divorce from Joyce. He had worked hard on the case and had not charged Ren a dime. Ren still felt he owed Ali big time. He knew one thing for sure, Ali was too busy to be driving around central New Jersey on a rainy, foggy morning.

“I’m shocked to see you!” Ren said. He gave Ali a big man hug. Ali did not fully engage. After that they exchanged pleasantries. Ali worked very hard. You would think that having all the money in the world would allow him time to relax. But Ali was intense and worked hard because he probably had to. He couldn’t slow down. Ren motioned for Ali to sit down on the couch. Ren brought his chair around the desk to sit across from Ali.

“OK,” Ren said. “I know you must be here because of something important. Let me have it.”

Ali replied, “You’re right. I have a big problem and I think you are the perfect person to help me out.”

“Ali, you have helped me over the years. I’m happy to finally get the chance to help you in return.”

“I have a story to tell you. Several years ago I bought a painting by Van Gogh. It is called Garden and Terrace. It cost a fortune. Don’t ask how much. But I had to have it. And it’s a great painting.”

“A Van Gogh? You’re joking? I did not know you were into art. So what’s the problem?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but now I think it may be a forgery. A fake!”

“That’s awful. How can I help?”

“I was hoping you could analyze a small sample of the paint and tell me for sure whether it is a fake or not. Whoever painted it, if it is a forgery, did an amazing job. I just need to know for sure before I do anything about it.”

“Ali, I am a biologist. I know nothing about art. I analyze plants and oils, not paint! We make plant extracts and try to identify beneficial drugs in them. I have never investigated art.”

Ali answered, “Ren, what do you mean? You are famous. The FBI has recruited you to help with some of their biggest cases. You should be able to help me.”

Ren broke in, “Ali, no way am I famous. Not like you. You are instantly recognized on the streets of New York and in most cities in Europe and the Middle East.”

“Ren, this should not be hard for you. Could you at least try?”

“Well, as I already said, I’m not an expert on art. Let me think a few minutes.” Ren stood up and looked out the window at the pond. The ducks were gone; finally they had taken cover from the rain. Ren went over what he needed to do in the next few months. He finally thought, “Oh no, here comes another new project that will slow us up.” He wished he could flat out say no to Ali, but he just couldn’t.

He turned towards Ali. “OK, it should be easy enough to get a chemical profile on the paint and maybe the canvas. I guess I can try. I will need a small sample, probably from a small spot in a corner or from an unexposed region. I might be able to tell you whether it contains original pigments or whether there is something more modern in the paint. But Ali, if it is a forgery, how could this happen? You’re much too sharp to make such a terrible mistake.”

“Well, you would think so Ren. But that’s what happens when you’re too busy and you don’t do your homework. Also, it can happen if you trust the wrong people, and that’s what I did.”

“Tell me more”, Ren said, sitting on the edge of his seat, not believing what he was hearing.

“Five years ago I heard that “Garden and Terrace” was up for sale by Dimitri Sarkov, CEO of Global Oil Transport and now head of some new Biotech company. It was well known in the art world that the painting had been in his family since the early 1900s. His grandfather had smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. Several times in the last 50 years, during the time the painting was in his family, the painting had been verified as authentic. He gave me copies of the documents. I thought there was no way that someone of his reputation and background would rip me off.”

“So what happened?”

“I’m not sure. I bought it, unfortunately, in a hush, hush way. For five years it hung in the living room of my apartment on Fifth Avenue. It is absolutely a wonderful painting. I have always loved Van Gogh and I have enjoyed having it my apartment. Hundreds of people have seen it. There was no indication that anything was wrong. But a few weeks ago, I received a tip that the painting might be a forgery and that I should get it checked out. I was absolutely shocked. I have been sick with worry and haven’t had a good night’s sleep since. And you know, being in my line of work, I don’t get swayed by many things.”

“So why don’t you go to an art expert and have it examined?”

“Oh no, I can’t do that!! If it turned out to be a fake, the news would spread like wild fire throughout the art community. It would be on the front cover of the New York Daily News. And then the news would spread all over the world. Everyone would know I own a fake Van Gogh. The painting wouldn’t be worth a thing! But more importantly, I have my reputation to protect. I am known as a savvy lawyer who knows all the tricks in the book and who is as tough as nails. How would it sound if Ali Kendalf was snowed over by some forgers? I can’t let that get out. I’d be compromised. It would hurt my reputation.”

“You got a point. It wouldn’t be good for your reputation”.

“Also, if the news got out, it would tip Sarkov off. He must have the original, or knows where it is. There is no doubt that this painting has been in his family since the early 1900s. If my painting is a fake, Sarkov must have deliberately sold me a forged version. Maybe he has done this to others.”

They sat there in silence for a few minutes. Ren was more than surprised concerning the mess Ali was in. He knew it would be way off the normal track for his lab to analyze Ali’s painting. And this would add another project to the all too many he was already involved in. Ren was losing his focus concerning his own research. But on the other hand, it would be interesting to cross over from hardcore biology to the world of art.

Finally, Ren said, “Sure Ali, I can try it. I should be able to give you some kind of chemical profile of the paint. I can’t guarantee that I will be able to tell you definitively whether it is a forgery. But I have a question for you. Why do you want to know? The painting must have looked great or else you wouldn’t have bought it. It has hung in your living room all this time and you have enjoyed it. Can’t you just forget about this rumor?”

At this, Ali, who is emotional in the first place, jumped off the couch and raised his arms in the air. “What are you crazy? I can’t look at it wondering whether it might be a forgery. It makes all the difference in the world. Van Gogh painted the real painting. He touched it. He wrote about it. When you are near it you feel like you are close to him. It is really a powerful painting. It doesn’t seem possible that such a sensitive soul could paint with such strength and genius. I couldn’t live with the painting knowing it wasn’t real. I would rather pour lighting fluid on it and burn it than have a forgery hanging in my home. Also, I can’t let some corporate scum rip me off for millions. If I knew for sure it was a forgery, I could do something about it. And it might not be pretty.”

Ren was a little worried by Ali’s outburst and tried to calm him down. “Hold on. Hold on. Ok, I see your point. I’ll work on it right away after you bring it in. I’ll only need it for a few hours to sample it, then you can take it right back with you. I do not want to keep it in the lab for the obvious reasons. Security is lax here. The building is open all day. Students come in and out of here all the time. I wouldn’t want it stolen. It will take a day or two to have an answer for you, I think.”

Ali replied, “That’s great, Ren. I’m sure you can do it. It will mean a great deal to me.” After a few minutes of additional small talk about life in general, Ali left. He would bring the painting in. Helping Ali was going to be another incredible time sink. Ren already had too many damn projects going on. Hopefully, it was going to be interesting. And certainly it would be different.

Ren looked at the clock. It was 12 noon. He was feeling a little dizzy. He grabbed an umbrella and went out to walk in the rain; he needed the exercise.