Germeny - Story
Germay - Sorry
Germany - Money
Don´t be Beenamitted
Read the fascinating trilogy about the life and work of Alfred Justitz, a famous Czech modernist painter. Embark on a journey of a lifetime and follow the researchers through space and time to uncover his extraordinary legacy from magical Prague.
"…kink'ily! Now we should only praise Havel and scold the Russians," the folk storyteller muttered over a half-empty beer mug in The Golden Lion. Probably a misfit, I thought to myself, although he spoke knowledgeably about some strange doctrine which had nestled around there. A bankrupt existence, or average, at most, I judged.
I sat a little way from him, also moving the painting I had just taken possession of, wrapped in newspaper. The former owner of this gem, now leaning against the leg of the pub table, had personally brought it to me. The previous day, I had bought it, having seen it advertised. He had insisted on online payment at the moment of transfer of the painting. WiFi was available in The Golden Lion. That is also why we agreed to meet in that particular pub in Perštýn Street. He also insisted on payment in bitcoins, he was acquainted with the virtual world. He managed everything remotely from my Czech crown account. I had opened the account expressly for this trade, depositing the exact amount in crowns which the advertiser had asked for the painting. The amount was not small. Upon his instructions, I converted 10 bitcoins for myself at home later, via the MTGox Internet exchange. He wrote the address of the Internet exchange – http://mtgox.com – on the corner of the newspaper in which the thus far uninspected masterpiece leaning against the table leg was wrapped.
Anyway, I wanted to see it once more to be convinced that this was really the painting of Jacob, Rachel, Leah and Zilpah with little Joseph – the mysterious painting by the artist Alfred J., about whom I had heard quite a few things. At this moment, the seller was converting my money in a double transaction into bitcoins. First 19 CZK per 1 USD and subsequently at the rate of 3.6842 USD/bitcoin. He obviously was not doing this for the first time, he knew where to click and his fingers just skimmed over the keyboard of the laptop which he was carrying. I had just paid one million Czech crowns for the painting which I had so desired. The electronic wallet, which the advertiser of the painting had previously prepared for this transaction, displayed the figures: 14,285 which was the number of bitcoins. They were already acknowledging him as 'master'. Out of the one million crowns, 52.85 CZK remained on my account.
"Keep the change!" he told me.
Virtual money was only counted in whole units at that time. He left. I think he actually paid for his beer in cash, while I would pay for mine myself. He returned once more from the door, passing by the nasty drunk again, and at the last minute handing me a messy pile of old papers, commenting that they belonged to the painting. I had previously wondered what else he had been carrying with him.
He whispered in my ear: "There was a shabby plastic sticker on the picture frame, with an inscription in felt-tip pen. At that time – I reckon the sixties – felt-tip pens had just entered the market and plastic was becoming fashionable."
The man was behaving especially arrogantly now that he had the money in that strange currency in his web-based wallet. Secret wardrobe, 155 Spálená Street – this was the inscription. I ripped off the cheesy plastic sticker so that it did not mar the painting. However, I inspected the apartment at the address mentioned once, when the owners weren't at home, just to make sure. I discovered the hiding place, ingenious, though needing repair. There was some rolled canvas, about a meter and a half wide, with some nonsense on it, so I threw it away on my way out. But I took these papers, so take them, as they definitely belong to the painting that is already yours.
"Don't run away yet, Sir. How did you acquire my, as you say, painting?" I called on him to wait a while.
"I bought it at the Dorotheum, in goods on consignment, it had reputedly failed to sell on auction and lay there unnoticed for a long time. One art historian told me it was a good price so I purchased it. Now I can tell you, it cost me half a million. You see, the historian was right. You paid a whole million for it!" A million, minus the 50 crowns left on my account, which was the price of the beer of this trickster!
However, I had longed very much to own this painting by A. Justitz. And the dubious former owner of the painting? The man enriched by 14,285 bitcoins in his Internet purse was just leaving The Golden Lion in Perštýn Street for an unknown destination. The drunkard at the table in the corner kept shouting some rubbish about our famous democracy, and I sat even further away from him, moving the painting wrapped in newsprint with me. I could not resist inspecting with some distrust the thick and unusually well-thumbed bundle of documents, which, as he had said, accompanied the painting.
Torn pages protruded from the bundle, as well as inserted papers, all kinds of documents that seemed to have piled up in the black folder for decades. Scraps with notes sticking out in no particular order, newspaper cuttings and all sorts of documents arranged chaotically. All these were held together by a perished rubber seal fastened three times, once used on a jam preserve jar. I assumed that nobody had peered into this folder for a century, not even the gentleman rogue, the trader in everything. The one who professed the Jewish motto: It does not matter what it is, as long as it is something to be sold. Even he had not bothered to look inside. The covers were all intact and most of the sheets were glued together. I was trying to peek in through a corner, when suddenly half of the perished rubber from the preserve jar remained in my hand while the other half flipped into my eye. I opened the folder at random to find handwritten notes in Kurrentschrift in a cutting from an old Czech newspaper: … about Egon Ervín K., how he tracked down agent Rýdl… General informed the Russians about tactics of the Imperial Army against the Serbs, 1913…
I left the cash for three Pilsen beers with a tip on the table and was out of the place. The drunk was not shouting loudly any more. He was sleeping on the table, his head on his crossed arms. The painting was heavy as I carried it under my right arm and kept checking it all the time. I could not stop looking in its direction. I just kept an eye on the passersby, and also looked out for a trash can to relieve some of the weight under my arm. I considered which tram would be most convenient to take me as close as possible to my home. Still carrying the document bundle under my other arm, at the instant when I was about to cross the street to the opposite traffic island, an old man bumped into me. I almost dropped the weight. However, I caught my balance, so the painting did not fall. Something fell out of the old man's pocket, a brochure. I could not bend down, so he reached for it himself and passed me the paper, saying I had dropped it. I claimed that it was not mine and that it must be his. "It is yours!" he insisted.
I saw the inscription on the colorful cover: Dorotheum Auction, Autumn 2008. He insisted, I let him be. The frail old man dressed in a gray 1965 model balloon windbreaker was lost in the crowd and I, weighed down by all that, started for home. I was burdened by the collected papers, it was rush hour, muggy weather, the tram was overcrowded. I protected the painting in my right hand to prevent somebody kicking it. It looked valueless in the newspaper beside the papers under my other arm. I thought that the newspaper wrapping was a good thing as, in that way, the painting did not attract any attention, but also people did not know how fragile the item was. I had to be cautious. The painting was delicate and people could be thoughtless.
Inside the front door of my Smíchov house, the object felt as light as a feather. I leaned my new treasure against the soft coats in the corridor and dropped the bundle of documents from a height on to the hard tiles. The dust rose and tickled my nose. The catching inscription: Dorotheum Auction Autumn 2008 attracted my attention. I lifted the catalogue which the old man in the worn windbreaker had foisted on me. I did not even have to leaf through the brochure. I opened it on the folded page and – saw the painting now resting on the shoe rack and as yet unwrapped from the newspaper. Estimated price: 650 000 crowns was stated on the page. I knew that it had passed through the auction unnoticed, and had then lain for a long time in their depository, as goods on consignment. The advertiser had informed me this in The Golden Lion, when I had paid him a whole million crowns for it. However, I had wanted this painting from the first moment I had seen it in the advertisement. I knew a lot about the painter and the period, I'd have paid him even more. But what had the old man in the shabby windbreaker been trying to say by his deed? Was he ridiculing me by saying that I'd made a bad deal? No, he could not have known or guessed anything. Or was there more behind this? All this I asked myself when looking at the shoe rack on the right. I was blown away when, holding the painting firmly, to avoid its slipping out of my hands, I could view it from all sides. I turned it and observed every detail so as not to miss a thing. I was in a state of anticipation and excitement. This aroused emotion in me, not the monetary value of it. The masterpiece with a biblical theme had a far greater value. And speaking to myself, I acknowledged: "You know almost nothing about this painting."
I could not wait for the following moments. Already dressed in comfortable house clothes, I sought the best place to hang my newfound treasure. I hung it over the desk, so that it was in sight all the time, the sun did not reach there all year round at any time of day, so it was the best spot. No, I had not forgotten the pile of old papers on the floor. On the contrary, curiosity motivated me to look at them. I had partially got rid of the centuries old dust when I had thrown them on to the floor on arrival at the front door, and now got rid of the rest of the dust in the communal corridor. Hopefully the landlady would forgive me.
It was after midnight, I still could not resist rummaging through them all, sorting and handpicking, briefly scanning page by page. I was confused. I found no logic. It did not seem to me that the folder was connected with the painting. The agency's auction catalogue was obviously related, but I did not come across any connection in the documents, except for little things. There was a lot about the painter of the work. I had just flipped through the documents, it would require a lot of work, a lot of interesting work, and already now I was aware of how time-consuming it would be. It was a good thing I had not found a trash can along the way. Perhaps his whole life was described here, together with other information. Mutual discussions were recorded with care and newspaper clippings glued on to cardboard with commentaries and notes hand-written in Kurrentschrift. The Master had probably enjoyed reading newspapers – there were so many clippings. In addition, there were documents relating to apartment equipment and even electricity bills for 155 Spálená Street. Some historical shreds of paper –Commendatorium on the Day of Assumption in 1183 – was the Czech inscription in pencil on top of a page. What did that mean? Had the advertiser perhaps broken into the Klementinum and not the apartment in 155 Spálená Street?
I glanced through the doors at the clock to convince myself that it had struck four in the morning. I could not take my eyes off the materials, I was unable to reach the end. There was always another and yet another fact of interest to halt me. I delved deeper and deeper into the information that I regarded as interesting. At that moment, I was reading an obituary of the painter's wife, her unfortunate departure from the earthly world and the slander of gossips, perhaps waiting for a piece of the Strang after a hanged man, reputedly for good luck. This was written in a different hand. About half of the stack was written in a youthful handwriting, by a lad, a student of German studies who was renting the apartment in Spálená Street after the war. It was nearly dawn, so I would put it aside for a while. There was much to do in the few months that lay ahead. Daylight was creeping in. I lay down at least until cockcrow. I could expect the alarm to ring at any moment. I could not sleep anyway, with the events of the past day and night spinning through my mind. Reading about a condemned man's noose would certainly prevent me from falling asleep.
I gradually became absolutely addicted to examining the old fascicles. I changed my habitual activities. I barely spoke a word to those closest to me, so captivated was I by those old times. I hurried back from my obligations, forgot about meals and only sat at my desk. From the door already I made sure that the painting was still hanging on the wall. I took a week's vacation. I neglected my girlfriend, did not answer my daughter's calls. I often went unshaven.