23. Unknown Provenance

IN PARIS IN THOSE days, we would walk the streets interminably, Vladimir and I, with no particular destination in mind. We walked along the Canal St Martin and in the neighbouring streets of Belleville, or else we would wander down the Boulevard Ménilmontant to Père Lachaise and pay our respects to the 147 martyrs.

We took our walks two or three times a week: whenever I needed a break from writing, I would go down to Le Sainte Marthe where I would almost invariably find Vladimir smoking his truly awful Fatima cigarettes, a Turkish brand, and drinking his preferred drink, a terrible sweet concoction called a tango that only the French could think of - a mixture of beer and grenadine syrup. He was an ex-merchant seaman, born in Odessa and now living in what I took to be less than modest circumstances beyond the périphérique on a disability pension. What exactly his disability was I never discovered.

I would order coffee, which I would drink in one hit, and then I would propose a walk, which Vladimir invariably accepted, even if it were raining, in which case he would don his oil skin jacket and the kind of black leather cap that is only ever worn by old men and we would head out.

Our conversations - although the word is an exaggeration, for in truth they were disquisitions, with Vladimir soliloquizing and I listening avidly, and only occasionally guiding the turn of ideas - would turn on one of a handful of themes, the usual preoccupations of old men: the wonders of music, the glories of football, the mysteries of women, the absurdities of war, the decline of this once-great city, the decay of civilisation, and so on – in short, we never lacked for a conversation topic. Of course there were certain themes in particular of which Vladimir was unusually expert - the cities of the Mediterranean, all of which Vladimir had visited in his career as a merchant seaman, and - even more frequently, almost obsessively, even - the one theme above all to which our conversation would return unceasingly, the history of art forgeries.

Vladimir was in fact a kind of living, breathing encyclopedia on the topic of art and especially art forgeries. As we walked the streets of Paris, Vladimir would point out the houses where a work of art - what is vulgarly referred to as a masterpiece - was made, or sold, or kept. But he could just as easily point to a house where a master forger had plied his trade, or where a collector had hung on his wall a work that had cost some small or great fortune and which, in actual fact, had nothing more than curiosity value. If we were in some part of town with no such point of interest, Vladimir would launch into the life story of some of art's great forgers, like the Dutchman Han van Meegeren, who forged two Vermeers and sold them to the Nazis, and who after the war defended himself against charges of collaboration by painting, there and then in the courtroom, another fake Vermeer.

On our very last walk, Vladimir took me to his apartment in an insalubrious neighbourhood on the other side of the périph and I saw that in truth all this time his living circumstances had been even more insalubrious than even I had imagined. In fact, he had been eking out an existence of dire poverty on his disability pension, although he had never spared himself the indulgence of the cigarettes and those undrinkable tangos.

On this last occasion, which at the time I could not know would be the last, he gave me a small black sculpture I instantly recognised to be in the style of Henry Moore. Vladimir insisted that in fact it was an original Henry Moore, that he had bought it from Henry Moore himself, but that the papers had been lost in the Ukraine somehow long ago. Since its provenance was uncertain, the sculpture was thus more or less worthless, despite Vladimir's tireless efforts to authenticate the piece, dating back several years. Vladimir told me that he had grown weary of trying to prove the artwork's authenticity, that it had become an obsession that he now wanted to rid himself of, and that he wanted me to have the artwork in remembrance of our many walks, each one of which he had enjoyed.

The next time I went to Le Saint Marthe for a walk, Vladimir wasn't there, nor the next time, or the time after that. When I tried to retrace our steps to his apartment beyond the périphérique, I became hopelessly lost and was almost mugged - I had to take a taxi home. I never saw Vladimir again, although the sculpture sits on a mantelpiece above my desk, its provenance as uncertain as my own.