“It is very trite to say that I can see now in retrospect that the events would inevitably lead to the actions taken last year.” Peter Graves stood at the podium, his hands steepled on the lectern as he surveyed the audience, eyes upon his being as if he held the magical solution to the problems he was now outlining. “I would be remiss if I did not say that I was taken completely unawares. Many of us in the department thought it a small problem and easily dealt with. But that has proved not to be the case.” Anyone in the audience could feel the tension rising, the interest growing, the debate left no doubt as to the outcome and many were ready to bet their last quarter on that outcome. “But we persevered under severe conditions until at last we conquered that problem. I say we because I had an excellent team of professionals with which to work. I am very proud or our accomplishment.” The room started to fill with applause and a few individuals even stood up to clap. Peter was good at staging a press release.
Last year told a different story. One that almost ruined Representative Graves. I’m a political reporter for the Sun Times and I was on this story before Representative Graves even knew there was a story. A good newspaper man has to have a nose for news, perhaps a sixth sense for the story. He’s got to get behind it and research it. But more than that he has to make sure it’s a honest story. Too often those in politics are sadly lacking in a sensible set of ethics. A good newspaper man is one who has been around the block a dozen times and can spot a scam ten blocks away coming at him like a runaway train. And this train’s name was strangely enough, Venus. The old saying that anything that is too good to be true usually isn’t described Venus to a tee. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Representative Graves was an above average politician. He was intelligent, smart, had charm and good looks, in short he had all, or at least most of the qualifications for being a politico on the make. The book was six, two, and even he would become a senator and run for President one day. His one weakness was a thrust for power. Women and money come along on the ride but power provides the means for that trip. Peter was one of those very blessed individuals. His family had some money but unlike the Kennedy’s no more that a respectable four or five million. He had gone to Harvard and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in political science and public administration. After which he attended Harvard Law and graduated fifteenth in his class. An internship with senator Keaton for a year, staff jobs for the vice president, and finally lowly official appointment in the Treasury capped his entrance into the world of politics. When a vacancy came up in the house in his state he had already moved to established residency three years prior and establish his role as a doer in local affairs. Congressman Smothers retired and Peter won his seat in the fall. He was the golden boy of his generation.
I was covering one of his speeches in the city that day. “Friends of the Art Museum. I have some good news for you and the city. I have led the search of a rare sculpture and I am proud to announce that my team of scholars and researchers have found the original Venus De Milo executed by Donatello in 1658. The city Art Museum is set to acquire this fabulous work of art.” I had heard about the search for the supposed original several years ago. One of the art dealers I knew had said, and I quote, “There is a great interest in this particular work of art. But the problem is that too many of the supposed works of art are forgeries. Donatello is suppose to have done a “Venus De Milo” as a project or thesis during his journeyman ship. It’s common for the great Renaissance sculptors to copy a famous piece by another great artist. But there is no record that Donatello ever chose this piece.” As you might have guessed by now this is the great piece of “hindsight” alluded to by Graves.
All might have gone well since there were scientists to authenticate the marble, art historians to verify the alleged sources of the work, and even a committee made up of famous sculptors to determine if the chisel marks were genuine. Oh it was a grand show, Ringling Brothers would have been in awe. But the words of my art historian friend kept buzzing in my brain and I smelled a story. I had wrangled a plane ticket to Romania to inquire of the locals in Bucharest the origin of this particular piece of marble. I was met by the UPI bureau chief at the airport and we talked along the way to the hotel. Yes, the news was in the air about this so called national treasure and how many thought it should remain in the country. In my experience, popular will has a great deal of truth. In my experience when things don’t add up, it’s not the math that’s wrong but the person doing the math. Why was the government willing to ignore popular sentiment? So I chanced upon a few antiquities dealers and they confirmed my suspicions. What was being sold to an American city art museum was a fake. The Romanian government needed the money and the Americans were an easy mark. Of course being shadowed by their secret police sealed the deal. I made it clear to the authorities that I was seeking confirmation that their Donatello wasn’t a fake. I even expressed the idea that I thought is was real. The secret police were only too glad to provide “documentation” and expert opinions. I’m sure they believed they were pulling a fast one on an American reporter too stupid to dig up his own facts.
Back in America the beautiful and gullible. I found congressman Graves in full action raising the money needed for this precious fake. Of course my own story started to poke holes in the theories that this piece of sculptor was the real McCoy. I did a series of articles that chronicled my trip to Bucharest and the individuals who granted me interviews. Of course I had to omit their names lest their secret police visit them in the night. I am proud to say that I caused quite a stir. I had several visits from the staff of congressman Graves. All were worried that they were being taken for a ride and was what I said really true.
Well. when in doubt establish a new committee and join the fray. More experts were needed, more technical tests and reports were called for. Oh the employment value of art fakes is greatly increased by the mere mention of a fake to be acquired by a government entity. Which brings us back to the beginning of my story. Yes, a new panel of experts was convened and an opinion read. When id doubt, lie. The congressman invited the Ambassador of Romania to testify before his committee. He dragged at lease a hundred “experts before his committee and the verdict was read. The Donatello was real. Problem solved, end of story. And I was yesterday’s news. Well, I think not. I’ve a trick of to up my sleeve and I may yet set fire to the congressman’s tail. Be careful what you see in your rear view mirror.