It Can Be Rough Out There by Harry Downey

Friday, December 26, 2014
An art dealer, formerly a struggling shopkeeper, visits an old friend's antiques store to give him some advice; by Harry Downey.

There wasn't much left he believed in these days, but Adrian Dunnett raised his eyes and thanked his guardian angel − whoever or whatever he was - every time he went through the door of 'Ben's Den.' He recalled the moves, the stages that had taken him in just a few years from a grotty junk shop in a back-street in Salisbury, very like this dump, to his gallery in West London. The memories flooded back. Still, no need to be snooty about it, from different rungs of the ladder, both he and Ben were trying to do the same thing − sell stuff to the Great British Public and make a decent living out of it. And come to that, so was that Arab bloke from Harrods who just happened to have a bigger and posher shop than they had.

Once he'd had to do all of this to earn a crust: clocking up the miles in his old Volvo, praying he wouldn't be stopped and his tyres and brakes checked, scrabbling around looking for gear with a bit of profit left in it in all the antique shops, markets, fairs and sale rooms he could find, doing the knocking on doors bit, and then hoping he could find a customer in Joe Public, or even sometimes in desperation sell it on in the trade for more or less what he paid for it and glad to get rid.

As it came back to him, all he had to do was remind himself that he wasn't really working today; he was just out on the road on a semi-social basis. More or less a few days off. Well, sort of. Nowadays he had a handful of runners out doing all the leg work for him and working the long hours he used to do. So now: just switch off for a short break, let the posh bird he'd hired try to charm the punters − after all that's why he'd taken on Jocelyn, legs up to her armpits and Rodean voice − and as he'd told her, 'I'm only a phone call away. But don't ring me unless it looks important.' Two or three days away from the shop, see a few people, look up a handful of old friends, then back to Kensington refreshed. That was the theory of it. And he might even pick up a bargain to pay his exes. Not that that was likely. Certainly not here amongst all this tat.

'Hi Ben. How tricks?'

'Oh, hello Ade. Long time no see. Not good. Trade's like the dodo actually.'

'Family OK?'

'Maggie's expecting again.'

'You should be locked up. Five kids and another coming. As I've said before - have the snip.' The two talked for a while, then Adrian walked into the small storeroom at the rear. Ben followed him. 'What d'ye reckon to this then? Nice isn't it?'

He passed Adrian a small, framed oil painting. It showed a two-masted sailing ship battling against a severe storm. He walked over to the window, struggling to find better light though the unwashed glass and grubby curtain.

'It's still wet where you've signed it, Ben, and you're a bigger fool than I thought you were. It's a pretty little picture − or it was. What did you give for it - a fiver?' Ben looked sheepish. 'Fifteen quid, actually. Some old girl from Poole wandered in with a few bits in a Tesco bag. I bought some jewellery from her as well. Nothing special, but there's got to be something left in it for me.'

'And you felt sorry for her. My God. Somebody saw you coming alright. At five I'd have given you a profit on it, but now you've killed it stone dead. And the name you signed it with − George R. Midleton? At least you've managed to spell it right with just one d. Do you know just how stupid you really are? What do you know about the artist's name you picked? Tell me, honestly, what do you know about him?'

Ben went to his desk. On top was an opened hard-backed book with illustrations − some in black and white, some in colour. 'There' he said triumphantly. 'All his info − a bio, dates, where he exhibited, which galleries he'd been shown in, everything. That's in Pullen. You can't argue with that. Standard reference work and all that. There you are: George R. Midleton. Marine Artist. 1820 to 1882. Right there in front of you, Ade - in black and white. You can't argue with that, now, can you?'

An unchastened Adrian responded. 'What are you now, Ben? Twenty-four, twenty-five? Over the years you haven't got any brighter, have you? Yes, you're right, of course. Pullen's 'Listing of British Maritime Artists' is the Bible in its field. No argument. A fine work. Everybody refers to it.' He picked up Ben's copy and looked at the cover.

'In all your little library over there do you have a later copy? They do Year Book updates, you know. Annually.' He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice. The older man walked over to Ben's collection of reference books, a collection similar to that he could find in hundreds of premises like this all over the country. There they were - the inevitable Millers Guide and Lyles, old copies of the Antiques Trade Gazette in untidy piles, price guides, auction house catalogues. 'Nothing newer than 5 years old here, old boy. Your copy of Pullen is 7 years out of date. No good at all unless it's current.'

'But the basic info. That doesn't change does it? What's your point, then?'

'My point, Ben, is this. You know how prolific Peter Pullen is with his writing. You've seen how many books he's written, and how highly regarded he is by anyone who knows anything about art. But have you met Peter Pullen? Well, I have and I know Peter very well. He's a lovely guy with a savage sense of humour. Well, for years now in the trade we've known that his listings are heaven-sent for cowboys − and we both know how many there are of those about − don't we, Ben? These characters just find a painting, let's say for instance, a sailing ship at sea in a storm − I'm just picking a thought at random you understand, of course − then they look at the list of names of marine artists who might have painted a picture like it, then slap on the name. They don't try to copy a signature − just the name is enough for them. The Auctioneer's work-experience trainee or tea-boy, or somebody on minimum wage, checks in the reference book, sees the name and it goes up for sale. Then some innocent member of Joe Public buys it on the strength of a sale-house catalogue. Sounds familiar, does it, old boy?

'Peter wasn't happy about this − you can't blame him, can you? − so he decided to get his own back. He didn't overdo it, but in several of his listings he inserted a name - an artist who never was. With year-books you can do that easily and regularly. Peter didn't tell a soul, not even his editor. He just went ahead and did it, and the Year Books as they came out started to include these invented names and bios. Then one day he was visiting his folks in the Cotswolds and popped into the local sale-room. And you can guess what he found. That's right; a painting with the signature of an artist who had never existed − just one of Peter's 'Dream Team' as he'd started to call them. Of course as soon as he'd seen what had happened he withdrew the name from the following year's new updated edition.

'Nice little story, eh Ben? I hope it makes you think before you get out your paint-set another time.'

Ben by now was looking extremely solemn. He could see the fifteen pounds he'd spent going down the drain. Trade was ropey and the six-monthly shop rent bill was due next week. Maggie was edgy enough already about the baby so he was in for a rough time at home.

'You might well look concerned, young Benjamin. There's more to come. Some people claim not to believe in coincidence, but me, personally, I do. And so should you. The forged name that Peter Pullen happened to see that day in Broadway was − you've got it − George R. Midleton, the very name you've picked. The police were called in and they're still looking for the con-man. And if they find this little effort of yours they're going to believe the earlier one was yours too − and who could blame them?

'So dear boy, as well as telling you to keep your head down let me give you some advice. One, there are lots and lots of very nice, very honest people in this business − but there are some out and out rogues. Be careful what you do and who you do business with in future.

'Two. If you're using reference books, make sure you use a current edition. I know they're not cheap but it isn't something to skimp on, even when times are hard.

'So, thanks for the coffee and I'll see you around. Try not to get too low, there's always a silver lining. Love to Maggie and the kids.' He turned to go. Ben put his hand up to delay him.

'Ade. I'm bothered about that picture. I know you know about these things. Far more than I do. Would it be any use to you? You could have it for what I paid for it.'

'Sorry Ben, but there's no way I could go to fifteen for it. I'd like to help − but...'

'Can't you get the signature off again? It's a nice little painting otherwise.'

'Yes, I can see that but removing what you've added − it's not something I can do. Sorry... But I'll tell you what. Let me have it for five and I'll take a chance. At least that way it would never be linked with you if the police got involved.'

Two days later Adrian was back in his flat after his couple of days on the road. He looked again at the little seascape and saw the cryptic swirl in the bluey-green of the heaving waters. Yes, there it was just as he'd recognised in the little shop - the disguised monogram JRE, which an experienced eye could see and which the current edition of Pullen confirmed as the mark of John Russell Edwards, one of the Britain's greatest maritime painters.

He smiled as he remembered telling Ben that removing the forged signature was something he couldn't do. That was true enough − but he knew a man who could.

No: he hadn't lied. He thought back to the time in the Boscombe shop. What he'd done in essence was give a young dealer some help and advice in his chosen line of work. Tuition, coaching, consultancy, whatever you called it, a fee was not unreasonable to expect for a service like that, was it? As for the profit he'd make on the little oil − it would be massive but he wouldn't be greedy. Ben did have money problems so he'd send off a cheque for maybe a hundred or two. Send it to Maggie personally; she'd always had more sense than her husband would ever have. After all, everyone expects a bloke to look after his kid brother, don't they? Being family and all that.


  1. clever story with a nice twist. Variation on no honour among thieves, even in the same family?

    well done

    Michael Mccarthy

  2. A neat and acid tale cleverly told; human nature not at its absolute worst, but showing its pervasive and mundane ability to exploit others, a quality that is all too often evident.
    Thank you,

  3. Hi Harry, a tale that confirms my view of the antiques traders, its a hard life making the daily sell. Then along comes a treasure and Adrian's skill of deception comes to the fore and we learn a lot more about our character and a great deal more about the background to his world. This is the type of story that can be repeated over and over with a different situation, almost like the TV program 'Lovejoy'. A gentle and easy read. James McEwan

  4. A satisfyingly neat little story, high on special interest, and I like the way it's almost entirely dialogue between the two brothers.

  5. Enjoyed your dialogue between the two men. Reminded me of Steptoe & Son.

  6. Thanks everyone. Appreciate your comments.Retired now but I was in the business for many years and there are certainly some characters out there. Most of them I found to be honest enough. Rogues don't last long once they're known. The grapevine sees to that. Happy New Year to you all.