Artistic License

This is a no-bullets art heist story. There are three parties, all trying to dupe each other over an expensive painting. Who will come out at the top? A highly entertaining and intelligent short story.

Victor Fleetwood knew enough about art to be a successful dealer and enough about human nature to make an occasional killing. Business had been quiet all week at his Chelsea gallery. Plenty of people had stopped to stare at the pictures on display in the window and a few had ventured into the shop to browse, but there was only one sale to record. It was depressing. When the old lady appeared, however, he sensed that his luck was about to change. A disappointing week might yet be redeemed.

“Good afternoon,” he said with a polite smile.

“Oh, good afternoon,” she replied nervously. “Mr. Fleetwood?”


“We spoke on the telephone.”

“Ah, then you must be Miss Plympton.”

“That’s right. Geraldine Plympton.”

“How do you do?” He offered his hand but she merely brushed his palm with her gloved fingers. “You found me, then?”

“Eventually, Mr. Fleetwood. Such a long walk from the tube.”

“I assumed that you’d come by taxi.”

“Taxis are far too expensive.”

genteel poverty

The remark confirmed his first impression of her as a woman of rather modest means. Geraldine Plympton was smartly dressed but her clothes had the faded look of garments worn far too often over far too long a period. Her grey hair was cut short and imprisoned beneath a hat out of which the remains of an ostrich feather sprouted. Her voice suggested breeding and she bore herself well. Underneath the scent of lavender, Victor Fleetwood detected the scent of genteel poverty.

“You’ve brought the painting, I see,” he observed.

“Yes,” she said with a wan smile. “Do you mind if I sit down for a moment? Carrying this has rather tired me out.”

“Of course, dear lady.” He held the back of the chair as she gratefully lowered herself down. “Take your time.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait till you get your breath back.”

“I hadn’t realised that it was so heavy.”

“Art has its own tonnage.” He gave a brittle laugh. Fleetwood was a tall, sleek man in his sixties, well groomed and impeccably dressed. As he subjected his visitor to a more searching gaze, he stroked his beard. Geraldine Plympton was clearly not accustomed to art galleries. She was looking around with the wide-eyed curiosity of a child on her first trip to the zoo.

“What a lot of paintings you have!” she said.

“I like to keep a large stock.”

“Most of them seem to be landscapes.”

“My specialty.”

“Why are there are no prices on them?”

price tags are rather tacky

“Price tags are rather tacky, I always think,” he said airily. “This is a temple of art, not a supermarket. I sell quality, Miss Plympton, and it is not always easy to set a price on that. Everything you see here has only an approximate value. This allows for negotiation or, to use another word, haggling. The true price of a painting is the amount someone is prepared to pay for it. That’s what makes the world of art so fascinating.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, Miss Plympton. That, and the fact that you never know who’s going to walk through the door next. When you least expect it, a missing Old Master might turn up out of the blue.” He glanced meaningfully at the painting that she held across her lap. Wrapped in brown paper, it was secured with pink string tied in an elaborate bow. She ran a proprietary hand around the edge of the frame as if reluctant to part with the object. Fleetwood prompted, “Over the telephone, you mentioned Wragby.”

“That’s right, Mr. Fleetwood. Matthew Wragby. He was quite famous in his day, I’m told. They called him the Edwardian Constable.”

“An unfair description, I always feel. There are similarities between the two, I grant you, but Wragby was no mere imitation of John Constable. He had a style and flair all his own. He was a genius.”

“Edgar always said that.”


“My brother,” she explained. “The painting used to belong to him.”

“Used to?” he probed.

She nodded sadly. “Edgar died last year. He left everything to Lucinda and I. Lucinda is my younger sister. We live together.” She heaved a sigh. “Not that there was much to leave, I fear. Edgar was not a wealthy man. But he did know what he liked when it came to art. He bought the Wragby at an auction almost forty years ago and refused to part with it, even when times were hard. According to Edgar, its value has probably gone up tenfold by now.”

“At least, Miss Plympton. If it’s genuine.”

“No question of that. I have Edgar’s word.”

“Was he an art expert?”

“No, Mr. Fleetwood. He was a tax inspector.”

“The painting was bought at auction, you say?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, resting it against the chair so that she could rummage in her purse. “I even have the receipt somewhere. Edgar never threw anything away. Tax inspectors know the importance of receipts.”

“Quite so.”

“I’m sure it’s here somewhere.”

“While you’re searching for it, do you think I might take a look at the painting itself? I’m something of an authority on Matthew Wragby. It won’t take me long to authenticate it.”

“I found it,” she said, producing a scrap of paper and handing it over. “Crompton’s of the Strand. They went out of business years ago but they were very reputable in their day.”

“I remember Crompton’s very well,” he said, looking at the receipt before returning it to her. In my early days, I bought a painting or two from them myself. Well, Miss Plympton. If your brother only paid a hundred and fifty pounds back in 1961, then he got himself a bargain.”

“Edgar bought it on impulse.”

“May I see if that impulse was justified?”

Geraldine Plympton hesitated. Needing to sell the painting, she was somehow loathe to part with it. Fleetwood tried to contain his impatience, deciding that she must have a sentimental attachment to the heirloom-which would make it more difficult for him to prise it away from her. Finally, taking a deep breath, she picked up the painting and handed it over, wincing slightly as she did so. Fleetwood lay it on the table and undid the string. He removed the brown paper with great care, then gazed down with admiration at a stunning landscape.

“It’s Leeds Castle,” said his visitor.

“I know that, Miss Plympton.”

“We went there as children on a charabanc outing Edgar always remembered that trip. I think that’s what made him buy the painting. It brought back so many fond memories.”

painting was genuine

The painting was genuine. Victor Fleetwood needed little time to establish that. Wragby’s use of light and shadow was unmistakable. His creation of atmosphere set him apart from lesser landscape artists. The dealer feasted his eyes for several minutes. Then he became aware that Miss Plympton was standing at his shoulder.

“Well?” she said, hopefully.

He shook his head. “It’s a clever fake,” he announced.

“It can’t be!”

“It is, Miss Plympton.”

“But Edgar bought it in good faith. You saw the receipt.”

“I’ve no doubt that Crompton’s sold it in good faith,” he said, turning to see her stricken face. “This painting would fool most people. There are one or two tiny clues that prove it is not an authentic Matthew Wragby, but I won’t bore you with the details, Miss Plympton. Thank you so much for showing it to me,” he said as he started to wrap it up again, “however, I’m afraid that I can’t make an offer for it.”

“Oh dear!”

“Great pity. I had high hopes.”

“Edgar swore that it was genuine.”

“It’s an ingenious copy, Miss Plympton. Nothing more.”

She was appalled. “Does that mean it’s worthless?”

“Not necessarily,” he said, tying the string once more. “There are some dealers who might be interested. I can recommend one, if you like. He’d only be able to give you a fraction of what a real Matthew Wragby would fetch, but it would be something.”

Geraldine Plympton was crestfallen. She went back to the chair and sank down into it with a glazed expression on her face. She looked hurt and betrayed. Victor Fleetwood manufactured a sympathetic smile. He took a card from his waistcoat pocket and offered it to her.

“Try this chap,” he suggested. “You might have more luck.”

Tom Holley described himself as an antique dealer, but his collection consisted mainly of reproduction furniture, half-hidden beneath an amiable clutter of warming pans, pewter mugs, chinaware, wind-up gramophones, stuffed animals, old postcards, assorted paintings, and general bric-a-brac. When the telephone rang, he had to move a pile of dusty books in order to get at the instrument.

“Holley Antiques,” he said, removing the cigarette from his mouth. “Can I help you?”

“Tom? It’s Victor. Is this a good moment?”

“There’s nobody here, if that’s what you mean.”

“Good,” said Fleetwood on the other end of the line. “I want to send some business your way.”

“Sounds promising.”

“It’s more than that, my friend.”

Holley replaced the cigarette and listened intently. Victor Fleetwood operated much further up the social scale than he did, but they had been partners in more than one lucrative deal. Holley was a small, fat, rather grubby man in a crumpled suit with an artificial carnation in its lapel. His eyes sparkled with interest as he listened. He was soon sniggering.

“Are you sure it’s a genuine what’s-his-name?”

“Wragby,” said the voice. “Matthew Wragby. No doubt about it.”

“How much should I offer the old bag?”

“Try her with two fifty but be prepared to go up to four hundred.”

“Four hundred quid!” exclaimed Holley.

It’s worth over ten times that, Tom, believe me. Bring this one off and you’ll not only get your own money back but with your usual percentage of the sale price you can expect a hefty sum. We’ve hit the jackpot this time.”

“Wheel her in!”

“Miss Plympton will be there any minute. I took pity on her and gave her the money for a taxi.”

“Victor Fleetwood taking pity on someone?” said Holley with a harsh laugh. “That’ll be the day. You’d fleece your own grandmother.”

“I can do without the sarcastic comments,” chided Fleetwood. “I’ve just cut you in on a juicy deal. A little gratitude would not be amiss.”

“I know. Thanks.”

“We’re in this together, remember. All three of us.”

“Three of us?”

“You, me, and Matthew Wragby.”
The line went dead and Holley replaced the receiver. Crossing to a large gilt-framed mirror on the wall, he smartened himself, then took out a comb to slick his hair into a semblance of order. He did not have long to wait. A few minutes later he saw the taxi pull up outside. Dropping his cigarette to the floor, he ground it out with his heel, then pretended to examine a mezzotint engraving. A bell rang as the door opened. Tom Holley looked up and saw the diminutive figure of Geraldine Plympton coming towards him. He gave her an oily smile of welcome.

“Can I help you, madam?” he cooed.

“I hope so. Mr. Holley, is it?”

“That’s right. Thomas Holley, Esquire, at your service.”

“Mr. Fleetwood sent me here.”

“Victor Fleetwood?”

“Yes. Such a considerate man.”

“And one of the finest art dealers in London. Victor really knows his stuff. He’s a true specialist. Whereas, I,” he confessed with a glance around the room, “have more general interests.” He put the mezzotint aside. “Do you have something to sell? Is that why Victor sent you?”

“It’s rather a long story,” she sighed.

“Then at least be comfortable while you tell it.”

Holley moved a feather boa from a bentwood chair. Miss Plympton sat down and launched into her tale of woe. Although he had already been given a shortened version of it, Holley listened carefully and nodded encouragingly. He exuded sympathy throughout.

“What a letdown!” he concluded. “You think you have something of real value and it turns out to be a fake. Great shame! But it’s an all too familiar story, I can tell you. There are lots of unscrupulous dealers around unloading bogus paintings and antiques.”

“But my brother bought the painting at auction.”

“So you said. Crompton’s of the Strand.”

“I have the receipt.”

“That won’t be needed.”

“I’ve even brought a copy of the will, Mr. Holley.”


“Edgar’s. Just to prove that the painting is legally mine. Well, the joint property of my sister, Lucinda, and I, to be more exact. I don’t expect you to take me on trust. I want everything to be open and aboveboard.”

“If it were a genuine Matthew Wragby, I’d need to see your documents in order to establish provenance. That’s the origin of the painting. How it came to be in your possession. In this case, since it’s not the real thing, we can forget about the niceties. All I need is a sighting of it.”

pig in a poke

“Of course.”

“I never buy a pig in a poke.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do.”

Miss Plympton handed over the painting with a mixture of sadness and apprehension, sorry to part with it, yet fearing it would be rejected. She was patently shaken by her setback in Chelsea. When she gazed around her, she was not reassured by what she could see. The place was a mess. A distant smell of mildew troubled her. Holley Antiques had none of the class evinced by the Fleetwood Gallery. Clearly, she had come several steps down the food chain.

Holley unwrapped the painting and propped it on a sideboard so that he could scrutinise it. He mumbled quietly to himself.

“Leeds Castle,” she said, proudly.

“That’s down in Kent somewhere, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Did I tell you about the charabanc outing?”

“In detail.” He stood back and pondered. “It’s good,” he said at length. “I have to admit that. It’s very good. First-rate, in fact. It may not be an authentic Wragby, but it’s the next best thing. Only an expert like Victor would know the difference.”

“Does that mean you’ll buy it?”

“Possibly. That depends on the price.” He turned to face her and tried to sound casual. “What sort of figure did you have in mind?”

“I don’t really know.”

“You must have some idea.”

“Edgar always said the value would run into four figures, if not five. But now . . .” She gave a hopeless shrug. “I haven’t a clue.”

“Would two hundred and fifty pounds tempt you?”

Miss Plympton recoiled. “Is that all?”

“Let’s make it three hundred, shall we?”

“I was expecting a lot more than that, Mr. Holley,” she said, getting to her feet. “Lucinda and I manage on our pensions and the little we’ve put aside. We have no other source of income. To be honest, that’s the only reason we’re willing to sell the painting. We need the money. It’s as simple as that.”

“Three fifty,” he offered.

“Lucinda will be horrified. Edgar would turn in his grave.”

“So would Matthew Wragby,” he argued, “if he knew that someone was turning out fake copies of his work. Artists have their integrity.” He took out his wallet. “Four hundred. Not a penny more.”

“Then we’re wasting each other’s time,” she said with sudden determination, crossing to wrap up the painting again. “I’m sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Holley. But I think I’ll try elsewhere.”

“You won’t get a better deal. I promise you.”

“We’ll see.”

“Most dealers wouldn’t touch a fake like that.”

“Stop calling it a fake,” she protested. “It’s embarrassing.”

“Four fifty.”

“Can’t you go any higher than that?”

“I’m already into philanthropy! Four fifty or nothing.”

She paused. “Is that really all it’s worth?” she murmured.

The antique dealer was in a real quandary.

There was such a look of despair in her eyes that Holley softened. He also remembered Victor Fleetwood’s estimate of the true value of the painting. If he allowed it to slip through his hands, he would get no more lucrative commissions from Fleetwood. Besides, if his visitor took the painting to an honest dealer, it might be recognised for what it was and then she would suspect collusion between Holley and Fleetwood. There could be awkward repercussions. The antique dealer was in a real quandary. Miss Plympton was starting to re-tie the string when his hand stopped hers. “Five hundred pounds,” he blurted out. “Take it or leave it.”

Victor Fleetwood was delighted by the turn of events. As he locked up his gallery for the day, he congratulated himself on his stage management. Thanks to his guile, he had acquired a painting for less than a tenth of its real value. Even allowing for Tom Holly’s percentage, he would make a sizeable profit. Not that he would rush to part with Matthew Wragby’s painting of Leeds Castle. It would join his own treasured collection at home for a while so that he could savour ownership.

The rush hour delayed his taxi, but he eventually drew up outside Holly’s Antiques. After paying his fare, he peered in through the window and saw his friend pulling on a reflective cigarette as he appraised his latest purchase. Fleetwood let himself into the shop.

“You got it, then?” he said with a complacent smile.

“Eventually,” replied Holley.

“What do you mean?”

The old duck wouldn’t let it go for less than five hundred.”

“Five hundred? I told you to stick to four.”

“You wanted the thing, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but at a maximum profit.”

“What’s another hundred quid to you, Victor? She needs the money. You don’t. Poor thing had her heart set on getting a lot more. A nest egg for her and her sister. She had to cut her losses.”

“I suppose so,” said Fleetwood irritably. “And we do have it. Leeds Castle by Matthew Wragby. The Edwardian Constable.”

“Why? Was he a policeman?”

“No, you idiot! He is often compared to John Constable. How on earth do you make a living at this game when you know so little about art?”

“I know more than the mugs who come in here.”

Fleetwood grinned. “Like little Miss Plympton.”

“A lamb to the slaughter.”

“Rather a sweet old lamb, I think, but there’s no room for sentiment in this business. Now then, give it here,” he said, lifting the painting up. “Let me gloat.”

Victor Fleetwood chuckled quietly as he studied the landscape. It had all of Matthew Wragby’s distinctive hallmarks. Holley looked over his shoulder, beaming vacuously. The mood of contentment soon passed. Fleetwood tensed, twitched violently, then spluttered with rage.

“You paid five hundred quid for this!” he yelled.

“Yes, Victor.”

“You fool! You maniac!”

“What are you on about?”

“This painting. It’s a fake.”

“But you told me that it was genuine.”

“It was when I examined it at my gallery. I was absolutely certain.”

“Then you must have made a mistake.”

“I never make mistakes.”

“Then how come this is a dud?”

Victor Fleetwood needed only a few seconds to work it out. “We’ve been duped, Tom,” he growled. “She beat us at our own game. She must have switched the paintings on her way here. The cunning little devil! Miss Geraldine Plympton was no lamb to the slaughter. She pulled the wool over our eyes good and proper.”

Edgar was still at his easel when she got back. He heard Geraldine singing happily to herself as she let herself in. It was a good omen. He reached for a cloth to wipe the end of his brush. She swept in with a painting under her arm-wrapped in brown paper and tied with pink string. There was a real spring in her step. Edgar went over to give her a kiss.

“How much did you get this time?” he asked.

“Five hundred quid.”

“Not bad for an afternoon’s work.”

“It took you longer than an afternoon to paint the fake,” she reminded him. “You’re the real hero, Edgar.”

“What was I today?”

“My dead brother.”

“That makes a change. Last time I was your dying father.”

“You’re neither brother nor father,” she said fondly. “You’re my Edwardian Constable. My partner in every sense.”

Geraldine Plympton put down the painting, took off her coat and hat, and shook out her hair. In that one gesture, she lost over ten years. Edgar, a big, shambling bear of a man in his fifties with silver hair and beard, gave her a broad grin.

“You should have been an actor, my love,” he said.

“I am. Where’s the champagne?”

“On ice.”

“How long will you be?”

“I’ve just finished,” he said, pointing to the easel. “It’s a view of Leeds Castle by an artist called Matthew Wragby. My tenth version. By now, I can practically turn them out with my eyes closed. They get better each time.”

“So do I,” she boasted with a laugh. “Fetch the bottle.”

“Where are we going to celebrate?”

“Where else?” She kissed him on the lips.

Edgar backed away and pretended to be shocked. “You’d kiss your own brother like that?” he asked.

“My dead brother,” she corrected, “which is probably even worse. But the person I really want to share this triumph with is Matthew Wragby.”

She kissed him again. “How can I manage that?”

“Artistic license.”


Edward Marston

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