There must have been something in the air because trouble kept coming. First London, then Tokyo.
"Rang 'round and roused an amateur," Graham Whittinghill, the British dealer, said when we reconnected. "Afraid we had a bit of a barney."
My hand gripped the headset tighter. This was not the kind of news I wanted to hear. Graham meant that he and a competing dealer, an amateur in the field of Japanese art, had exchanged some territorial hostilities. At times you need to reach beyond your personal network. Sometimes people you hope you can trust seek to insert themselves into a deal by trying to grab the work first and forcing you to feed one more middleman.
"Happens," I said.
"Deepest apologies. The bugger's turned dodgy. Fed me a load of codswallop."
"Codswallop being crap?"
"Of the grandest order," my British friend said. "I'll give it a sort-out tonight."
We'd met four years ago through a mutual acquaintance and hit it off immediately. Graham was tall and lanky, with dirty-blond hair and a gleam in his eye. My expertise lay with Japanese art, his with Chinese. I needed a trustworthy source because the Chinese art market was a nightmarish maze of top-end counterfeits that could dupe ninety-five percent of the people. Fortunately, the painfully shy Graham was among the remaining five.
I said, "Refresh my memory. Do you know your way around Japanese ink painting at all?"
No one could call Sengai a brilliant brush-meister, but the Zen monk excelled in taking the Japanese love of simplicity to a very human place. His pieces were humorous, playful, and, at their peak, profound. Sengai laughed at life. He commiserated with those of his flock trapped in the workaday grind, but reveled in the bigger picture—that existence is impermanent. Enlightenment had brought him freedom and joy, and his brush danced with the knowledge.
"No, purely Chinese for me, with the singular exception of Chinese themes in Japanese works, which by happy coincidence happens to include depictions of Chinese Buddhist monks in Sengai's oeuvre."
"A dollop of juicy gossip from the far side of the moon. It will hold until you next drop around for a pint. We have a more pressing issue at hand."
"Fair enough. Then let's wrap it up before our rogue dealer sinks the whole venture. Get a peek at any documents, then lock down the owner for a videoconference so I can do an on-screen evaluation."
"Certainly. As I've tainted the undertaking, perhaps we should knock down my commission to half the usual?"
"Wouldn't think of it," I said.
"You are a gentleman, sir, but I'll leave the offer on the table." "Won't change my mind."
In the extended silence, Graham's appreciation was palpable.
"By the bye," he said a moment later, "since it's come up, should you ever happen across one of Sengai's renderings of a Chinese monk, ring me straight away, any time of the day or night."
"And you mention this because?"
"'You never see one carrot-fly but you see three.' Farmer's wisdom courtesy of my Cornish grandfather."
And that's where we left it—with vermin buzzing and trouble brewing.
The next blow came in low and mean and caught me looking.
© Barry Lancet
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