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Authors: Lawrence Sanders

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BOOK: The Eighth Commandment
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He was a dark, saturnine fellow with a beaky nose: a perfect Iago with that kind of menacing handsomeness I suppose some women find attractive, but which makes me slightly queasy. Also, his cologne smelled like Juicy Fruit.

I followed him down a muffled corridor, noting a series of etchings on the walls. They all seemed to be of Liverpool at low tide. Not too exciting. But then Vanwinkle ushered me into a chamber that
was
startling: a den-library from another era. Slate-tiled floor almost hidden by a buttery Oriental rug. Walnut paneling. Heavy velvet drapes swagged back with cords as thick as hawsers with tassels. Oil paintings in gilt frames (including two original Hoppers). Crystal and silver on a marble-topped sideboard.

And on deep, built-in oak shelves, a number of glass-topped display cases. The Havistock coin collection.

The man behind the enormous partners’ desk rose to greet me with a wintry smile. A blocky figure draped in a gorgeous suit of dove-gray flannel with a hairline red stripe. White silk shirt with a bow tie: polka-dotted blue. His vest had white piping—the first time I had ever seen that. Hair silvered to a sheen, and eyes a cold, cold azure.

“Miss Bateson,” he said in diapason tones, holding out a manicured paw, “I am Archibald Havistock. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”

I had an instant reaction: I was meeting a personage. Later, I tried to analyze my awe, and decided it was due to his carriage, voice, grooming, and his
presence.
He just gave the impression of being a very important man. In control. Even in less admirable surroundings, I think he still would have conveyed the feeling of power and distinction. He was so
complete.

And—as if he needed it!—he was beautiful, in the way certain older men sometimes are. A heavy face with crinkly laugh lines. Full mouth. Solid jaw. And, of course, the silvered hair and ice-cube eyes. He could have posed for Chairman of the Board of the Universe. His cufflinks were little enamel reproductions of a Picasso. I’m sure he thought them an amusing whimsy.

We all got ourselves seated. I was across that double-width desk from Mr. Havistock. Orson Vanwinkle sat behind me on a straight-back chair near the door. Almost like a bodyguard or security agent.

I began to explain that before Grandby & Sons could make an estimate of what his collection might bring at auction, or was worth in an outright sale, I had to make a personal inspection and appraisal of the individual coins. He held up a pink palm and favored me with another cheerless smile. Something sad about that smile.

“I understand completely,” he said. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I have contacted a few other auction houses, and they all work the same way. Would you like to get started now?”

I had brought along what I called my “doctor’s bag”—for out-of-the-office appraisals. It was a little black valise packed with a small high-intensity lamp, loupe, huge magnifying glass, silk gloves, tongs, a few of the latest catalogues, and a kit of chemicals in vials, used to test metal content. I spread all this paraphernalia on my half of the desk facing Mr. Havistock. Orson Vanwinkle rose to his feet and brought the first display case, placing it gently in front of me.

Now I must describe in exact detail how the Havistock Collection was mounted since it led to such important and dramatic consequences.

There were 497 items in the collection, including the Demaretion. They were housed in display cases approximately 24 by 16 inches. Each case was divided into forty-two velvet-lined compartments, one coin to each. And every little topless box bore a small pasted number corresponding to the numbers on the insurance inventory.

If my arithmetic is correct, you will see that the 497 coins could be accommodated in twelve display cases, with seven empty compartments. Explanation of that in a moment…

The first display case Orson Vanwinkle placed on the desk before me was completely filled. I spent a moment examining the case, running my fingertips lightly over the oiled teak sides, the solid brass hardware: recessed hinges and lock.

“The case,” I said, looking up at Archibald Havistock. “It’s splendid!”

“Yes,” he said, and his smile had more warmth. “Custom-made for me by Nate Colescui in Greenwich Village. The best man for that kind of work in the city. Orson, will you unlock, please.”

Vanwinkle took a ring from his pocket, selected a small, intricately tooled brass key, and unlocked the case in front of me. He raised the glass lid (framed in teak) and made certain the lid support was holding. I went to work, the copy of the inventory at my elbow.

It became quickly apparent that whoever had done the insurance appraisal knew the business: the condition ratings were, in my opinion, almost completely accurate. I disagreed on only 17 of the 497 items, and in 12 of them, the coin deserved a higher rating, and only 5, in my judgment, should have had a lower: from Very Fine to Fine, or from Fine to Fair. But at current values of antique coins, the whole collection was woefully underinsured.

I was there almost three hours, and it was a perfect delight. Only another numismatist could understand how I felt. The beauty of those coins! Miniature sculptures. Profiles of gods and goddesses. Horses and chariots. Birds and fish. Beasts and gargoyles. And so many nameless young men with faces of such joyous hope that I almost wept from the sight of them. All gone.

During those three hours, Havistock or Vanwinkle occasionally left the room. But never both at the same time; one of them was always present during my appraisal. I didn’t blame them a bit. With those display cases of treasures unlocked, I preferred to have a witness present to testify that I had not suddenly swallowed an exquisite silver obol.

And finally, the thirteenth case…

It was laid before me by Orson Vanwinkle as if it was the pièce de résistance of a cordon bleu chef. If he had popped off a domed cover and shouted, “Voila!,” I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.

There it was, all by its lonesome, the Demaretion centered in its own case.

No mistaking it: a chunky silver dekadrachm, about the size of an American half-dollar. On the obverse, a trotting quadriga with a standing charioteer. Nike flies above, crowning the horses. Below, a lion springs. On the reverse, four dolphins swim about the profile of Artemis, who wears an olive wreath.

I am not going to tell you this is the most beautiful of all ancient Greek coins—in my opinion, it is not—but it is lovely enough, with crisp minting (the horses’ legs are especially well done), and, of course, its rarity adds to its allure. That, and the romantic story of how the Demaretion came to exist. But I’ll tell you about that later.

I looked up from my examination to find Archibald Havistock examining
me.
Again, that distant smile…

“Do you like it?” he asked in his deep rumble.

“It’s splendid!” I burst out. “Up to now I’ve only seen it in photos—but they don’t do it justice.”

He nodded. “It’s perfection. I bought it thirty years ago, paying more than I could afford at the time. But I had to have it.”

Thus speaketh the true collector. They’ll sell their mothers to possess something you or I might think a bauble or an incomprehensible daub of paint on canvas. But in this case I agreed with the owner; the Demaretion was a treasure.

I left shortly after, promising Mr. Havistock he would have an appraisal from Grandby & Sons within a week, including recommended reserve values. (When the final bid is lower than these floor prices, the items are removed from auction.)

I was conducted down that gloomy corridor to the front door by Orson Vanwinkle, who insisted on shaking my hand in parting, holding it just a wee bit too long in his clammy grasp. I will not say the man was slimy, but I believe he might have laughed at a homeless dog in the rain.

I went back to my office and set to work. I saw at once that attempting to auction 497 individual coins would be too time-consuming—and counterproductive. A better method would be to divide the coins into lots by period: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic, and by country of origin: Gaul, Spain, Sicily, Britain, etc. (Those ancient Greeks got around!)

After dividing the bulk of the coins into lots which I thought might attract specialized collectors, I withheld fourteen items to be sold individually. Including the Demaretion, of course. I then started estimating reserve and top values of each lot and the fourteen individual coins. It took me four days.

While I was laboring, Hobart Juliana returned to our lair from Virginia with fascinating tales of life amongst the gentry. We went out to lunch together, and I told him about the Havistock Collection, the biggest appraisal I had ever handled. Hobie was even more excited than I.

“Dunk, that’s marvelous!” he enthused. “If you can bring it off, it’ll mean mucho dinero for the house and probably a raise for you.”

“Not a chance,” I said gloomily. “If I can win it, Madam Dodat will take all the credit.”

“No way!” he said determinedly, shaking his head. “You happen to be sharing an office with the best little rumormonger at Grandby and Sons. You bring in the Havistock Collection, and I’ll make sure everyone in the place, including god, knows that it was due to your talent, intelligence, perseverance, and keen, analytical judgment.”

I laughed and gripped his hand. It was good to have someone on my side, rooting for me. In other circumstances we might have…Oh, well, why talk about it.

I went in early and stayed late every night. Then went home, thawed and ate a “gourmet” dinner, and went to bed. I wrestled with the sheets, my brain churning, and finally fell asleep dreaming of drachms and trihemiobols, and a standing charioteer leaning forward to goad four elegant horses. What kind of dreams were those for a normal, healthy American female? Feh!

I met my self-imposed deadline, and delivered to Felicia Dodat a handsomely typed appraisal that included estimated reserve and top values on twenty-two lots and fourteen individual coins ($350,000 for the Demaretion). I left it up to Dodat, god, and the accountants to figure out an offer to make to Archibald Havistock if he wanted to sell his collection outright.

“Thanks,” Felicia said briefly, tossing my manuscript aside.

“When do you think we might have an answer?” I ventured.

“When we get it,” she said shortly, and I had a brief, violent desire to wire-brush her seamed pantyhose. That woman brought out the worst in me.

Nothing happened for almost two weeks. I gloomed around the office, hardly able to answer my correspondence or do appraisals on the little bits and pieces of large estates that came across my desk. Hobie counseled patience, patience, and more patience.

“The one thing you don’t want to do,” he told me, “is to bug Madam Dodat. Treat it casually. Make her think that appraising a two-million-dollar collection is just routine, and you couldn’t care less if Grandby’s gets it or not. Play it cool, Dunk.”

But I couldn’t play it cool; the Havistock coins meant too much to me. Especially that gorgeous Demaretion. I found myself gallivanting madly all over town for distraction, to movies, art galleries, new restaurants. Then coming home to sip a big shot of raspberry-flavored brandy so I could sleep at night.

Finally, into the third week, on a bright, sunshiny May afternoon, crisp and clear, I took Hobie’s and my coffee mugs into the ladies’ room, hoping to scour them clean of their accumulated crud.

Felicia Dodat was standing before one of the mirrors, preening, touching her raven hair, stroking her eyebrows with a fingertip.

I put the two coffee mugs into a sink and ran hot water into them. Soaked a paper towel and started to scrub them out.

“I understand they call you ‘Dunk,’ ” Felicia said, still staring at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that.

“That’s right.”

“Dunk,” she repeated. “What an odd name.”

I didn’t say anything.

She raised her skirt to tug up her pantyhose. I would never do that in front of anyone, woman or man. Then she smoothed down her skirt and inspected herself again. I swear she nodded with approval.

“Dunk,” she said again, and laughed.

She started out, then paused at the door.

“Oh, by the way…” she said, as if she had suddenly recalled a detail of no importance. “Did I tell you we got the Havistock Collection?”

4

N
EW PROBLEMS NEVER ENCOUNTERED
before: the logistics of moving the Havistock Collection from the owner’s apartment on East 79th Street to the basement vault of Grandby & Sons on Madison Avenue. Stanton Grandby had signed the auction contract, but I got the donkeywork.

I met four times with Mr. Havistock, Mr. Vanwinkle, a representative of the insurance company carrying a policy on the collection, and a burly gentleman from the armored truck service that was to make the actual transfer. We finally agreed on a plan and assignment of responsibilities that seemed to please everyone.

The move would be effected in this manner:

Archibald Havistock would seal the thirteen display cases holding his collection with strips of masking tape on all four sides, plus a blob of sealing wax near the lock which he would imprint with a heavy silver signet ring he sometimes wore.

I made a mild objection to this form of sealing, fearing it would mar the surface of those lovely teakwood cases. But Mr. Havistock stated he would have no need for the cases after his collection was sold, and in any event they could easily be refinished.

I would stand by, a witness to the sealing process to insure that each case contained the requisite number of coins. After sealing, each case would be slid into a protective Styrofoam outer container in which, I was told, Nate Colescui, the casemaker, had delivered his handicraft. Each container would be plainly marked with large pasted labels: Mr. Havistock’s name and address, ditto for Grandby & Sons, and heavy numerals, 1 to 13.

After I had witnessed the loading of the Styrofoam containers and
their
sealing with masking tape, the men from the armored van service would take over. With armed guards in attendance, they would take the thirteen containers down to ground level via the freight elevator. Once they were loaded into the truck, the driver would sign a receipt. A copy to Mr. Havistock, a copy to the insurance company, a copy to Grandby & Sons.

BOOK: The Eighth Commandment
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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