A man is invited by a strange acquaintance to drink cognac and view a famous stolen painting. Their tense conversation revolves around what to do with it.
“I’ve got ‘The Heart of Europe’ on my wall.” An interesting way to begin a phone call.
“What’re you on about? It’s almost midnight, sod off and let me get some sleep.” I answered, quite reasonably I thought, given the fact that a man I only occasionally meet for a quick coffee was ringing me at quarter to midnight.
“I’d like you to come over and see it. I’ve got a bottle of Louis XII to share, what do you say, mate?” Whenever Marcus ends a sentence with mate, it hangs awkward and unfeeling in the void, eerie and forced. Like an automaton crawling out of uncanny valley, it doesn’t convince you it’s genuine and just like you, but spotlights an alignment just slightly out of sync.
I’m not one to turn down the chance to sip a bottle of £3,000 cognac, despite my unease at being invited to a place I’ve never been in the middle of the night. After pulling on some clothes and stumbling downstairs, I was in a black cab on my way to Marcus’s Knightsbridge flat for a still-murky and likely unsettling reason.
Speaking with Marcus is unsettling – conversations are dominated by half-truths, omissions, carefully crafted sentences with hidden meanings obscuring even deeper lies, with a full truth sometimes dropped in to make sure you’re paying attention.
And when he opened the door to his flat just prior to half twelve, he began his verbal dance with, “Aiden, you will probably get more out of this than I will, thank you for coming.” I still had no real idea why I was there. “Please, get your bearings and then we will go into the living room together, I cannot tell you how spectacular it is, mate.”
Once my coat was on the hook and my shoes placed neatly by the door, a tumbler of cognac suddenly appeared in my hand and Marcus was coaxing me further into his world. We rounded the corner and entered his living room – surprisingly sparsely decorated, the same Ikea sofa, Ikea bookshelf, Ikea vase filled with glass beads that you would find in a millennial’s flat in Croydon or Haringey.
Except for the painting.
The painting – the subject of millions of descriptions, analyses, controversies, and conspiracy theories over the years, it would be a disservice for me to try to describe it in detail. Almost five square meters of colour and majesty and history, right in front of me. And the awe, well there are simply no words to describe that.
“Marcus, you literally have ‘The Heart of Europe’ on your wall.” I managed to stammer out, after what was an uncomfortably long lapse of speaking.
“Certainly, mate. Did you think I was lying to you?” Of course I had thought he was lying, or playing a word game, or just being Marcus. It had not actually crossed my mind that perhaps the most famous stolen painting in the world was actually on his wall.
Jan Matejko’s majestic ‘The Heart of Europe’, depicting a triumphant Jan III Sobieski of Poland leading the cavalry charge against the Turks at Vienna, holds a special place in the hearts of Central Europeans. The victory of the Siege of Vienna was their greatest moment, and this painting is the way they remember it. A great warrior riding down his enemies, preserving the heart of Europe for its people. Poles, Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovakians, Germans, Lithuanians – it is their artistic, cultural, historical pride and joy.
And no one had seen it since 1977.
It disappeared from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna during routine preservation work, and the whos, hows, whys and whereabouts a constant matter of discussion inside, and outside, the art world.
And I was looking at it.
“What is it doing here, how did you get it?”
“I’m holding it for a friend, just for a night.” Marcus makes having a priceless painting in his living room sound like he’s cat-sitting. My gaze of utter disbelief finally prompted him to continue, “Someone I have had the opportunity to work with was concerned that, for what I assume are very good reasons, tonight it would not be safe in his possession. It’ll be gone in the morning, and that’s why it was so urgent that you come see it tonight.”
The thing is, Marcus isn’t a criminal, per se. Oh, he’s undoubtably committed dozens of crimes, but not real crimes. As a professional valuation surveyor, he runs a small (legal) business appraising commercial real estate. But that sort of profession doesn’t give you the means to buy a posh flat in one of the trendiest parts of London or casually buy a £3,000 bottle of cognac.
In the years since I met Marcus while working on the Docklands redevelopment, I’ve gleaned from bits of our carefully-curated conversations that his clientele is extremely diverse. After all, any enterprise, criminal or otherwise, needs its solicitors, valuation surveyors, drivers, plumbers – ISIS even had a social media manager and glossy magazine.
Picked up some jewelry in a smash-and-grab? You need to know how much you can sell it for. You get an offer to trade five kilos of cocaine for a Maserati? You need to know if it’s a good deal. Want to use a famous painting as collateral for an arms deal? Better make sure that painting is worth it. And Marcus has the skills, and the moral ambiguity, to be able to answer those questions. For a modest renumeration, of course.
“So few people have had the chance to view this masterpiece over the past forty years, and those that have usually didn’t appreciate what they were looking it. Tonight, we have a unique opportunity to enjoy it. With your love of art and history, you were the one person I know that I could trust to share it with.” Despite his association with the darker elements of society, Marcus was gentle, not someone built for harm. But he certainly knew people who were more than happy to harm, and I was not ignorant of his subtle threat.
Marcus gestured to the sofa, and for some time we sat side-by-side, sipping cognac and taking in the momentous artwork. The sinewy veins on the neck of Sobieski’s horse, the subtle hues of the background indicating which men still stood and which had taken their final breath, the pure grandeur of seeing thousands of men putting their lives on the line for the Heart of Europe.
And it wasn’t right for just the two of us to enjoy it. In a few hours, the painting would return to the underworld, used again as bargaining chip or collateral. It will spend time in the backs of unmarked vans, languish in moist warehouses, get rolled up in the garage of a villa in Biarritz. No one else would have this experience again.
“You should call someone, get this painting returned to its rightful place. We shouldn’t be enjoying this alone.”
Marcus chuckled – chuckle is one way to describe this odd, mechanical sound. It was more a cross between a maniacal supervillain laugh and a coughing fit. “Aiden, you know that’s not possible, mate.” He said softly.
“I have my livelihood to protect, and the police tend to ask questions if you walk into Scotland Yard to innocently return valuable, famous, stolen artwork. Moreover, while my friend does not see the cultural and artistic value of this painting the way you or I do, it may still be useful to him in the future. He might lose his trust in me were he not to see it returned.”
He was right, of course. Simply to return it would put him in an extremely uncomfortably at best, and extremely dangerous position, at worst. But Marcus also shouldn’t have the right to decide that.
“I get it Marcus, I do. But maybe we can leave it in the park and call in an anonymous tip or something. Or pretend someone broke in and stole it from you. There has to be a way.” Bargaining is a sign of giving up, but I had to try.
“No mate, it’s not going anywhere.”
“But think of the millions that will enjoy it again, versus a few geezers who keep it covered up and only unearth it use it as a bargaining chip. What’s the discomfort of one person for the benefit of millions?”
“Look around you, mate. Being selfish is what we do. People are happy to say they want to fix climate change, but suddenly don’t want to do anything about it when it means they have to ride the bus to work and give up their aircon in the summer. People want to help immigrants, as long as they don’t come to our country, of course. Helping the poor sounds great, but there would be riots if taxes were raised so that we actually could help the poor.”
Despite that being the most I’ve ever heard Marcus say in one go, he continued, “Look at this masterpiece on the wall. What does it show? It shows people protecting what they already have and keeping others out. Whatever you might want to believe, ‘The Heart of Europe’ is looking out for yourself. And that’s what I’m doing, mate.” Never has Marcus’s robotic ‘mate’ been so out-of-place, so forceful, so menacing.
“So, Aiden, you must understand that this stays here. I’m more than happy to enjoy a bit more cognac and spend some time with this masterpiece, and I’m so glad I can trust you in this manner, mate” I took the threat seriously this time.
And so we sat in the dim light of an Ikea table lamp and swallowed our cognac and did out best to remember every single detail of a painting that neither of us will ever have the chance to see again, and which no one of you will ever have the chance to see. And as the cognac warmed me and Matejko’s subtle brushwork intoxicated me, I realized that I was experiencing something special, and it was just for me. And my heart too, is selfish.
At quarter past two I stood to leave, and without really thinking through what I was saying, told Marcus, “Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
“You’re welcome, and thank you for sharing this with me, mate.”
Years later, I understand from the moment I laid eyes on the painting that it would never be returned. Those moments with Marcus, Louis XII cognac, and Jan III Sobieski charging across the field of battle are something never possible in the halls of the Louvre, Rijksmuseum, or National Gallery. And I would not have traded that for the joy of millions.
‘The Heart of Europe’ remains unaccounted for, and for me, it’s better that way.