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Authors: Lawrence Sanders

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The Eighth Commandment (2 page)

BOOK: The Eighth Commandment
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What he did for me was beyond expectations, even my most fantastical hopes. Three months’ salary as severance pay; a gift of his cherished library, including rare and gorgeously illustrated volumes on Greek coinage; all his catalogues of coin auctions of the past several years.

Best of all, he made several impassioned phone calls to old friends, and by the time I put him on the train to Arizona (he refused to fly), he had obtained a promise of a job for me with Grandby & Sons, the old, respected auction house on Madison Avenue. I was to work in the estate and appraisal department as resident numismatist.

And that was where my Great Adventure began.

2

“M
Y NAME IS FELICIA
Dodat,” she said, looking up at me in amazement. “It is spelled D-o-d-a-t, but pronounced Do-day. Please remember that. I will supervise your work at Grandby and Sons.”

I nodded brightly. I loathed her on sight. She was everything I could never be: petite, shapely, and dressed with a careless elegance that drove me right up the wall. She was dark, with a bonnet of black hair as soft as feathers, olive skin, brilliant makeup. I could understand why men might drool over her, but I dubbed her a bitch from the start.

“You will be responsible for all coin appraisals,” she said sharply, tapping blood-red talons on her glass-topped desk. “Occasionally it may be necessary for you to go out of town to appraise an estate. You understand?”

Again I nodded, beginning to feel like one of those crazy Chinese dolls with a bobbing head.

“Unfortunately, our space is limited, and I cannot assign you your own office. You will have to share with Hobart Juliana, who handles stamps, autographs, and historical documents. I should tell you at once that he is gay. Does that offend you?”

“Not at all.”

“Good. Then let’s get you settled in so you can go to work at once.”

Sweet lady. I tramped after her down a long decorated corridor furnished with raddled settees, end tables with cracked marble tops, and oil paintings of dead fish. She stopped before a solid oak door equipped with a small judas window.

“This will be your office,” Felicia Dodat said severely. “Since you and Hobart will be examining valuable consignments at your desks, this door is
always
kept locked. Is that clear?”

My nodding was giving me vertigo.

She rapped briskly. In a moment the judas was opened, an eye peered out at us. The door was unlocked, swung open.

“Hobart,” my boss said, smiling winsomely, “this is your new roommate, Miss Mary Lou Bateson. I’m sure the two of you will get on just marvelously. Show her the ropes, will you, dear?”

Then she was gone, I was inside, the door locked again. He turned to me and said, “My name is Felicia Dodat. It is spelled D-o-d-a-t, but pronounced Do-day. Please remember that.”

It was such a perfect impersonation in tone and manner that I cracked up. He smiled and held out his hand.

“Hobie,” he said.

“Dunk,” I said.

“Dunk? As in doughnut in coffee or basketball in hoop?”

“Basketball,” I said.

“Ah. Well…welcome to the zoo.”

He had a little coffee-maker next to his desk, and we each had a cup. Mine paper and his a porcelain mug with
DOWN WITH UP
printed on the side.

“You better bring in your own mug,” he advised. “About the boss, she’s a pain in the ass—as you’ve probably noticed—but she can be dangerous, too, so do try to get along. She handles estates and appraisals, so she’s a power to be reckoned with. Got a lot of clout with god.”

“God?”

“Stanton Grandby. Who owns the whole caboodle. He and his multitudinous family. He’s the great-grandson of Isaac Grandby, who founded the house way back in eighteen hundred and something. You’ll meet him eventually, but Felicia Dodat is the one you’ve got to please. The office gossip is that dear Felicia has something going with Stanton Grandby. We all keep asking, ‘Does Felicia do dat?’ ”

He gestured about our office, which seemed enormous to me after three years in Enoch Wottle’s cubby. Hobie pointed out that we’d each have a window, overlooking a splendid airshaft. Each a massive desk, pine worktable, wooden file cabinets, glassed-in bookshelves. All a wee bit decrepit, but serviceable nonetheless.

“What happened to my predecessor?” I asked.

“Fired,” Hobie said. He looked at me. “I don’t mean to put you down, Dunk, but I fear she was just a bit too attractive. God was showing interest, and Madam Dodat took offense.”

“Oh-ho,” I said. “Like that, was it?”

“Just like that.”

“Well, Felicia has nothing to fear from me.”

“She would,” he said, “if god had any sense.”

“That’s the nicest compliment I’ve had in years,” I told him, and we smiled at each other, knowing we’d be friends.

Grandby & Sons dated from 1883—and so did most of the furnishings. We may have been installed in an elegant townhouse on Madison Avenue, just south of 82nd Street, but the place looked like a recently opened time capsule: velvet drapes, Tiffany lamps, Victorian love seats covered with moiré, and ornate clocks, chinoiserie, and mind-boggling objets d’art that had been purchased outright as part of estates and had never been sold.

Another office joke was that everything in Grandby’s was for sale except the loo. Not true, of course. But I admit the surroundings were somewhat discombobulating. All that old stuff. It was like working in a very small Antwerp museum.

But I loved Grandby & Sons, and my career went swimmingly. I learned a lot about my new profession, didn’t make any horrible mistakes, and was able to contribute my share to the bottom line by bringing to auction a number of coin collections from old customers of Enoch Wottle.

Although nowhere near as large and splendid as Sotheby’s or Christie’s, Grandby’s really was a pleasant place to labor, especially for Hobart Juliana and me in our locked office. We were very
small
specialists, since most of Grandby’s sales were paintings, sculpture, drawings, silver, prints, jewelry, antique weapons and armor—things of that sort. Coins and stamps came pretty far down on the list; there was no great pressure on us to show big profits.

So we were pretty much left with our tongs, loupes, magnifying glasses, and high-intensity lamps. A casual observer, admitted to our sanctum, would have thought us a couple of loonies: Hobie studying a scrap of gummed paper, and me examining a tiny chunk of bruised metal. Both of us exchanging muttered comments:

“Look at that watermark!”

“It’s been clipped; what a shame.”

“Unperforated; that’s a blessing.”

“Roman copy.”

“They
will
use hinges.”

“Silver hemidrachm of the Achaean League. Very nice.”

Occasionally we would get so excited with a “find” that Hobie would summon me over to his worktable to take a look at an expertly forged signature of Herman Melville, or I’d call him to my side to admire the exquisite minting of a tetradrachm that dated from 420 B.C. and showed an eagle with wings spread, and a crab on the reverse.

I suppose we were a pair of very young antiquarians. All I know is that we shared an enthusiasm for the past, and liked each other. That helped to make our work pleasurable. Sometimes we went out to dinner together—but not often. Hobie’s live-in lover was insanely jealous and suspected him of harboring heterosexual tendencies. He didn’t.

Hobie was a slight, fair-haired lad with a wispy manner and a droll sense of humor. He dressed beautifully, and gave me some very good advice on clothes I might wear to minimize my beanstalkiness. I reckoned he and I got along so well together because the world considered us both bizarre creatures. For different reasons, of course. We had a kinship of discrimination—but our friendship was real.

I had been at Grandby & Sons for a little more than two years when one morning—late April, rainy and gusty: a portent!—I was summoned by Felicia Dodat. She was wearing a particularly oppressive perfume, flowery and sweet, and her office smelled like a greenhouse.

Following Hobie’s advice, I had kept my relationship with dear Felicia on a cool, professional basis. We were warily cordial with each other, and if she was occasionally snappish, I laid that to the pressures of her job. She never joked about my formidable height, but she had a way of looking at me—her eyes starting at my feet, then slowly rising as if she was examining Mt. Everest—that I resented.

“Do you know a man named Archibald Havistock?” she demanded.

“Havistock? No, I’m not familiar with the name.”

She gave me one of her dagger glances. “He owns what seems to be a very large, valuable collection of antique coins. Almost five hundred items with an insured value of two million. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of him.”

“Miss Dodat,” I said, as patiently as I could, “
no
one knows the names of the world’s biggest coin collectors. For security reasons they buy and sell only through agents, attorneys, or professional coin dealers. You never see their names mentioned at auction or anywhere else. Sometimes they’re known in the trade by nicknames. ‘Midas,’ for instance, is a Saudi Arabian sheikh. Nobody knows who he is. A woman called ‘The Boston Lady’ is reputed to own one of the finest collections of antique Greek coins in the country. ‘The Man from Dallas’ is another. These people work very hard to keep their names secret. When you possess that much wealth in portable property—a two-million-dollar collection of antique coins could be carried off in a small, brown paper bag—you don’t wish to have your name and address publicized.”

“Why don’t they put their coins in a bank vault?”

I looked at her in astonishment. “Because they want to look at them, touch them, dream over them. Most of these people don’t invest in antique coins for profit. They’re hooked on the beauty, history, and romance of the mintage.”

She made a gesture, waving away everything I had said as of no importance. “Archibald Havistock,” she repeated. “He wishes to put his entire coin collection on the block or sell outright. I’m sure he has contacted Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and probably other houses as well. I have here a copy of his insurance inventory. I want you to go over it very, very carefully and give me an accurate estimate of what you feel Grandby’s might earn if the collection was consigned to auction or whether we’d be better off buying outright.”

“Miss Dodat, I can’t do that without making a physical examination of the coins. Even an insurance inventory can be inaccurate. Values in the coin market change rapidly.”

“Then make arrangements to see them,” she said crossly. “He lives in Manhattan, so it shouldn’t be difficult. Here—it’s all yours. I’ll expect your report within a week.”

She held a folder of documents out to me. I took it and tried to smile, wondering if I should curtsy. I started out.

“By next Friday!” she cried after me.

Hobie was down in Virginia, appraising the value of a stamp collection left to his heirs by a recently deceased nonagenarian. Grandby’s provided this service to executors for a fee even though we might not be selected to offer the property at auction or be given the opportunity to buy outright.

So I had the office to myself that morning. I poured a mug of black coffee—my mug had
I TAKE CANDY FROM STRANGERS
printed on the side—and started going over the inventory of Archibald Havistock’s coin collection.

In my business, there are collectors and there are accumulators. The former are people of taste and discernment, who have an educated knowledge of the history, provenance, and intrinsic value of what they acquire. Most of all, they buy through love. Accumulators are greedy addicts who buy everything, without regard to rarity and condition, and are only concerned with the bottom line (catalogue value) of their collections. Which often turns out to be woefully inflated when they try to sell.

It was immediately obvious to me, studying the inventory, that Archibald Havistock was a very discriminating collector indeed. His list included some real beauties, but the insurance estimates were dated four years previously and did not allow for inflation or the recent runup in antique coin values.

The gem of the collection, a real museum piece, was a silver dekadrachm dating from about 470 B.C. It was a famous coin, one of great classics of Greek mintage. It was called the “Demaretion” and judged as being in Extremely Fine condition. I consulted my catalogues and discovered the most recent Demaretion in similar condition to come on the market had sold for almost a quarter of a million dollars. The value in the insurance inventory was given as only $150,000. I felt Grandby’s could auction this coin for a possible $350,000.

I read the covering letter addressed to Grandby & Sons, picked up the phone, and called Mr. Archibald Havistock.

3

I
N MY EAGER WANDERINGS
about Manhattan I had discovered it to be a borough of neighborhoods, the most disparate side by side: poor and wealthy, ugly and lovely, raucous and sedate. And within those districts, even a single block could have a distinctive character that set it off from its neighbors, a weed in a nosegay of posies or a rose in a clump of nettles.

Archibald Havistock lived in a unique East 79th Street block that had not yet been given a transplant of glass and steel high-rises. The elephantine brick and stone apartment houses, all looking like armories, seemed to have settled into the earth since they were built fifty years ago. They gave the appearance of solid, dull permanence, and one supposed the occupants of those seven-, nine-, and eleven-room suites had taken on the character of their surroundings.

The lobby, paneled in varicose-veined marble, was a small Grand Central Station, with a codger behind the desk as patterned as the marble. I announced my name, he picked up a house phone and announced my arrival to Mr. Havistock, then announced the apartment number to me. It was all as formal as a court investiture.

The man who opened the apartment door didn’t look like an Archibald to me; he looked more like a Tony or a Mike. Actually, he turned out to be an Orson. So much for my perspicacity. He introduced himself as Orson Vanwinkle, Mr. Havistock’s nephew and secretary. We shook hands. A damp experience.

BOOK: The Eighth Commandment
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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