Field of Gold by Sheila Sharpe

A forty-year-old widow seeks to get a potentially valuable old painting restored, but is more interested in the conservator's process than the outcome, and all is not as it seems; by Sheila Sharpe.

The first occupant I saw in Julia's conservation studio was a nine-foot-tall Madonna. She was a fright - her face flaking, her oversized halo full of cracks, her dull white gown ripped and stained. Cardboard covered the bottom half of the painting. What was behind it? I curbed my impulse to look. Being nosey was expected of those in my trade, but not of a client coming for an ordinary painting consultation. Flutters in my stomach, a crick in my neck, there would be nothing ordinary about this meeting for me.

Wearing a high-necked white blouse, her hair in a bun, Julia conveyed the air of a prim Victorian lady. I admired her confident posture and the way she glided in her floaty skirt as she led me into another room. Marching behind her, I felt like a graceless foil, lean and stiff in faded jeans and old boots, the heels clacking on the hardwood floor.

As I unwrapped my painting, my dead husband's voice came to life in my mind - Sondra, listen to me for once. Don't go down this slippery slope, it's too damn risky.

My own voice loud in my head - How dare you preach safety to me, considering how you did yourself in.

Battles with David in my mind kept me from drowning in grief and gave me the starch to act functional and talk to people. Knees wobbling, I said to Julia, "I found this painting in my grandparents' treasure chest. I like the picture and it seemed a good idea to get it evaluated and cleaned."

We looked down at the small, eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch painting of a Southern California landscape: eucalyptus trees bordering a sunlit field of yellow flowers under a blue sky.

"Delightful," Julia said with a posh British accent. "Do you know who painted this?"

"No, but I'd guess Monet was an influence."

"Indeed," she said. "The subject and style remind me of Maurice Braun."

My mouth went dry. "A... what did you say? Braun?"

"Yes, he's one of the best of the California Plein-Air Impressionists. He lived in San Diego and painted around here in the early 1900s. His landscapes are infused with sunlight like your painting is, though the surface grime has dimmed the glow in this work."

"If this Braun guy painted it, would it be valuable?"

"Probably, but you'd need an expert on the California Impressionists to authenticate it."

I thought of Bryce, the natty, middle-aged art collector, I'd met this morning while waiting outside the locked door of the frame shop - the entry to Julia's second story studio. He'd described her "marvelous" restoration of twenty paintings from his collection. He was an expert on the California Impressionists and might still be looking at frames with Julia's husband, who ran the frame shop. Bryce could authenticate my painting, but I'd planned to get a conservator's evaluation before bringing in a heavy-weight. Besides, he was so over-the-top - flashing his mega-white teeth and gold Rolex, crowing about his "unbeatable" Plein-Air collection. He'd quizzed me about the wrapped picture under my arm, a hungry gleam in his eye. That gleam was not for hollow-eyed, forty-year-old me. He wanted to gobble up my painting then spit it out if the picture failed to transport him.

"Do you have any papers that tell where and when your grandparents got the picture?" I said no, and with my permission Julia removed the hardware, lifted the picture out of the frame, and studied the back. "The canvas has turned brown, meaning it's quite old, but I see no clues as to who painted it."

We returned to the front room and Julia propped the picture on the easel next to the window. I glanced at the items on her tidy supplies cart - a glass palette, jars of solvents and fine brushes, a small paint-box that looked like an ice-cube tray filled with jewel-toned colors. There was no odor of turpentine or oil paint, only a faint chemical and old building smell.

Julia put on a pair of magnifying goggles, leaned in close, and scrutinized the surface. She'd been trained to see the slightest anomaly. What would she find? I waited, watching, my feet swelling in my hot leather boots. Muffled street noise came through the closed window, and I could hear my ragged heartbeat.

"Wonderful impasto in this, very like Braun." She dabbed a clear solvent on the edge with a tiny brush, then rubbed the spot with a Q-Tip. "The brownish gunk is coming off. Do you see the golden glow shining through?"

"Yes." Like a glimmer of hope, I thought.

"Decades of nicotine have stained these poor clouds. This will take quite a while to clean." She crossed the room to a small desk and picked up a notebook and pen. "For the record, what would you like to name it?"

I pictured the golden glow of the sunlit flowers after their bath. "Field of Gold."

"Perfect." Julia estimated the work would take five hours and cost me five hundred dollars.

I winced at the price and glanced at the huge picture of the beaten-up Madonna. How long would it take to get her looking virginal again? Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, and it would still be a bad painting. But mine was a good little painting.

"I'll think about the cleaning, but I'd like to discuss another possible project."

I sat on the stool by the easel and filled the silence with crossing my legs. A natural at listening, I'd rather eat caca than talk about myself. Keep it simple.

"I'm a writer." No need to mention my other work persona. "In the novel I'm working on now, my main character is a painting conservator."

"Really? We usually don't get much ink in fiction."

"I plan to change that."

Her lips twitched, almost a smile.

"I used to be a painter. That career didn't work out, so I took up writing fiction - seemed a cleaner route to poverty." My blackish quip raised Julia's brows and brought up in me the grim reality of my finances. The problem of how to pay for my failing mother's residential care kept my stomach in knots. Thanks to David's bad investments, the creditors would soon be gathering outside my door, cawing like crows. Get back to Julia.

"Actually, I like writing about art better than doing it."

Julia tilted forward. "What kind of paintings did you do?"

I blanked. The loss of my painting career had left me with a big hole inside, but that was a pinprick compared to the black pit of losing David eight months ago. Flashes of him plummeting off the sheer face of El Capitan in Yellowstone Park... Don't go there. I muttered some nonsense about getting stuck in abstract painting, because I couldn't draw worth a damn. "Getting back to writing, my protagonist is British, like you." About to say he was also a master forger, I sensed that was a bad idea and spoke of needing a better feel for conservation work. "Would it be possible to observe you working sometime?"

Her eyelids fluttered. "But what would you find interesting?"

"Just what you normally do - cleaning, repairing damage, and how you match the artist's colors and brushstrokes. There may be other things you do that I don't know about."

"And I plan to keep it that way." Her abrupt cut-off took me aback. Was there something to hide?

Leading the way back to the adjacent room, Julia described cleaning off the centuries of crud from the tall 16th century panel of Judgment Day propped against the wall. Next to it was a 19th century seascape. On her smart phone she showed me her photographic record of cleaning through the layers of grime, yellowed varnish, and bad over-painting that had made the sky a dull gray. I watched the fog gradually clearing to finally expose a majestic old sailing ship under a luminous blue sky.

"Wow, this work is a treasure hunt, like digging for gold," I said.

"That's the exciting part, but first you need to understand the basics." She cleared her throat. "In contrast to an art restorer, a conservator is highly trained at an accredited school and follows the profession's code of ethics. Restorers aren't required to have special training. Since they have no professional standards or ethics, they can easily become corrupt."

"In what way?"

"Restorers often add or subtract things and paint over big sections to improve the picture and increase its value. That kind of tampering is totally against the principles of conservation." Her voice rose. "In contrast, a conservator's mission is to maintain the integrity of the artist's work above all, so you must never let your own hubris and greed take precedence." She said sternly, as though I might be tempted to commit these crimes.

Her point rang clarion clear. Conservators like her were Good; restorers were Bad.

The sun streaming through the windows was heating up the studio, and Julia's moralizing added a stifling effect. With her permission, I skirted the table and cranked open one of the side panels. Street noise and cooler air rushed in. I stared at the traffic, letting the spring breeze clear out the clutter in my head. Should I tell her the truth about my character? Turning around, I noticed that in the Judgment Day panel partly showing behind Julia, one of the freshly scrubbed red demons was grinning right next to her head, laughing at our silly moral struggles.

"I have a confession to make," I said. "I'm afraid you're not going to approve of my protagonist. He's not just a conservator, he's also a master forger of paintings."

"Oh." Her lips pursed.

"I based this character on England's greatest forgers - Tom Keating and Eric Hebborn. I believe they also worked as conservators."

She ignored this unwelcome truth and began organizing the supplies on the table between us, her long fingers moving with compulsive dexterity.

Something compelled me to keep baiting Lady Self-Righteous. "It seems that conservation work taught these artists the skills necessary to become expert forgers."

Her hand shot out, knocking over a can of fine white powder. "Bloody hell," she cursed, a flush blooming on her pale cheeks. She quickly scooped up the power, dumped handfuls back into the can, and said in a starchy tone, "Why are you so interested in con men? They degrade great art. Don't psychologists call them sociopaths?"

"Yes, but I don't. Some have little or no conscience and are probably sociopaths, but I wouldn't put Tom Keating in that category, or one of my good friends, a fine painter who got drawn into forging. He's a kind man who teaches art to homeless children."

"How touching. Is this friend the model for your anti-hero?"

I nodded, uneasily aware of my fascination with this man's dubious character.

She crossed her arms. "You seem to think forging is an acceptable thing to do if you can't make a legitimate living."

"No, not acceptable or moral, but I see it as an understandable crime in many cases. The artist's need for money and revenge against the fickle art establishment are well-known motives for forging, but my friend opened my eyes to more complex motives. Identity issues often play a role. Addiction is also... Sorry, I'm lecturing."

"Do go on," she said. 'Now you've got me hooked."

I smiled. "The forger also gets hooked."

"On what?"

"On the euphoric high when he dupes the art world into accepting his forgery as the work of a master. In that moment he is the master. I say 'he' because most forgers seem to be men."

"The ones who get caught, anyway." Her eyes sparkled, coming to life.

"Seduction is another factor," I continued. "Many young painters get seduced into forging by doing restoration work for unethical art dealers who woo them. Can't you have some empathy for a vulnerable young artist who falls prey to an admired but corrupt mentor or boss?"

The blood drained from her face. "Not easily." Julia looked down at her tightly clasped hands, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Would you believe... that's how I started out."

"You?" I was more surprised by her admission of guilt than her commission of a crime. I waited. Would she reveal more of herself or retreat? Soon she looked up and seemed to find acceptance in my eyes.

"I studied painting in college and soon discovered I was a technical whiz but utterly devoid of originality." She began unbuttoning the top buttons of her high-necked blouse. "Summers I worked in the back room of a dealer's gallery as an apprentice restorer. The dealer had us students doing a lot of shady stuff. In one case, I had to repaint two-thirds of the painting's surface. In the end the picture was more my work than the original artist's. My boss was thrilled. God, he was a sleazy sod, but I adored him at the time."

I was impressed with Julia's gutsy revelation of her shady past and regretted my harsh judgments of her. She pulled a lace hankie from her skirt pocket and patted her damp forehead.

"I remember when the kids were walking home from the local school, they would pass by, see me painting in the bay window, and yell, "Fake!" She shuddered.

"How could they know what you were doing?"

"Because of Tom Keating. At that time, he was famous all over England and considered a hero by many. He was like Robin Hood - the painter and forger who fooled the rich, pompous art world and gave away many of his brilliant Turner and Constable fakes to the poor."

I was rapt. This story was gold.

"Sometime later I saw my 'restored' painting in the window of an upscale gallery. It was featured as the work of a well-known minor painter, priced at thousands of pounds. I was horrified. How could I have gone along with this scam?"

"Need, blindness, adoration." Sondra said. "You saw your sleazy boss as a god."

Julia blinked rapidly. "I told myself I hadn't known, but -"

"Ja, you knew," said a deep, German-accented voice.

Julia whirled around. "Klaus, what are you doing here?"

"Eavesdropping on a very interesting story."

A blond hunk in a black T-shirt stepped through the doorway. Julia introduced her husband and told Klaus that I was writing a novel about a conservator who was also a forger.

"So that's why you confessed." Then he turned his dancing blue eyes on me. "Will you include the forging of frames in your book?"

"You can't help her, Klaus. You've never done anything wrong." Julia smirked.

"Ha, ha." Klaus gave me a wolfish grin. "Maybe I can scratch up one dark deed."

"You can help by looking at her painting's frame." Julia turned to me. "Klaus is an expert on frames - their history, conservation, and construction."

Klaus picked up the frame on the table. "This is a simple California Plein-Air frame of good quality. The gilding is fake but well done. Looks about eighty to a hundred years old."

"That's the right time period for our favored painter." Julia's cheeks flushed.

The three of us moved to the front room and lined up in front of Field of Gold propped on the easel. Standing between the couple, I examined the painting with a critical eye. The composition now looked too simplistic for a master landscape painter.

"This resembles a few of the paintings in Bryce's Plein-Air Collection." Klaus said to Julia.

"He's still downstairs, obsessing about frames. I'll get him up here. He'll know if this was done by one of his pets." With my okay, Klaus called Bryce on his cell.

Waiting for the expert, tension thrummed in my ears, then David's insistent voice - Grab the painting and run! Soon Bryce swept into the studio, his too-white teeth bared in a predatory smile.

Julia said, "Bryce we'd like to know if you recognize the artist who painted Sondra's picture. She found the work in her grandparents' treasure chest. There were no records with it, so we don't know the provenance." She gestured toward Field of Gold.

Bryce strode to the easel. "Oh my." He seized the painting and took it to the window.

The three of us stood in silence, watching him study the picture from every angle. My senses heightened, I heard every honk and squeal from the street. Was this blowhard really capable of giving an honest opinion?

Finally, Bryce looked at us and drew in a breath. "From my initial gut reaction, the distinctive painting style, and the characteristic golden glow, I conclude that the artist who painted this could be none other than Maurice Braun."

My heart started to sing. "But couldn't it be an excellent copy or a forger's pastiche?" Bryce must know from the Metropolitan Museum's extensive study that forty percent of the art in museums is fake.

"No one knows Braun's œuvre better than I do," Bryce said. "It's not a copy of any of his known works. It's an unknown work. A tremendous find. I wouldn't be taken in by a pastiche."

"You know, Bryce, lust blinds," Klaus warned.

Bryce ignored him, his bewitched gaze fixed on me. "Would you consider selling it?"

I stifled a whoop, adrenalin pulsing through my body.

"I'll give you a hundred for it?" Bryce said.

"A hundred?" I murmured.

"A hundred thousand," Klaus clarified.

"Oh?" My voice cracked. The floor tilted, and the room began reeling. I teetered. Klaus guided me to the desk chair. I drank the water Julia offered me, mortified. Apparently, my
over-heated brain couldn't handle a hundred-thousand-dollar offer. That amount wouldn't cover my escalating debt for my demented mother's care or pay for my son's college tuition, but it would hold the creditors at bay.

I tried to say, "I accept," but Bryce's feverish gaze held me speechless.

"How about a hundred and fifty?" he offered.

"Slow down Bryce," Klaus said. "A forensic evaluation should be a part of the deal."

"I believe in my eyes and years of experience more than all that science fiction equipment." Bryce looked at me. "Sondra, what price would you accept?"

"I don't know. Where's the bathroom?"

Slumped on the wooden toilet seat, my bladder bursting, my muscles so tight my pee wouldn't come out. The small, windowless space added to my feeling trapped. I saw no good way out of my dilemma. It was wrong and reckless to sell the painting to Bryce, but I needed the money to pay for the expensive Alzheimer's facility where my mother was happy and well-cared for. I couldn't face putting her in a sordid state-run home, and Tommy's school tuition was due.

The TV series, Breaking Bad, came to mind. I'd thought it so wrong and destructive for the cancer-ridden chemistry teacher to make and sell methamphetamine to provide for his family after he died. Now I was plunged into a similar dilemma. My dark deed would be less harmful than selling meth, and Bryce was awash in money. Then David's drumbeat sounded in my head - You could be caught and ruined.

I needed the impossible - a win-win. Step one: know your adversary. What made Bryce tick? Winning? Status in the scam-infested art world? Hoarding his collection like Midas? My pee started to flow as a wave of hope surged through me. Relieved of one pressure, I flushed the toilet. Washing my hands, I saw a pair of calculating eyes looking back at me from the mirror.

"Marvelous bravura work with the palette knife, so characteristic of Braun," Bryce said, as I strode toward the three experts gathered around the easel. Seated on the stool, Bryce was examining Field of Gold through the magnifying goggles. Hearing my footsteps, he turned toward me, grinning like a kid with a grand new toy.

I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Bryce, but I can't sell you the picture. The truth is... Maurice Braun didn't paint it."

"What?" His face froze. "What nonsense." He stood, pulled off the goggles, and tossed them on the cart. "You've just decided not to sell it to me."

Julia looked at me wide-eyed. "If Braun didn't paint the picture, who did?"

"My grandfather painted it in the manner of Maurice Braun."

"I don't believe it," Bryce snapped.

"Sondra, how do you know your grandfather was the painter?" Klaus said.

"Granddad told me he painted it and said if I ever needed big money, I could pass it off as a Braun. The canvas looks old because it is. Granddad was a gifted artist and took care to use materials from the right time period. And he could imitate any technique flawlessly. Even if you paid the big bucks for forensics, I bet it would pass as a Braun."

"It would pass because it is a Braun," Bryce insisted. "I think your grandfather misled you."

"Why in hell would her grandfather tell such a lie?" Klaus said.

"Because he wanted his granddaughter to think he was as good as the master. Because he wanted to believe he was as good as the master. Artists have monumental egos coupled with massive insecurities. Trust me, I know." Bryce stood rooted in smug certainty.

According to the brilliant forger Eric Hebborn, the biggest claim to fame for an art collector, an expert, or a curator was to find an undiscovered work of an important artist. Bryce thought he'd done just that with Field of Gold. I'd offered up Granddad as the forger to spare Bryce the less palatable truth and worse humiliation. But he would not let me spare him.

"Bryce, what if I confessed and said - I am the one who painted Field of Gold."

He rolled his eyes. "I'd think you were pulling my leg, or you were a pathetic female - probably a failed artist - desperately seeking attention and admiration."

Julia and I shared a slit-eyed look of disgust. This arrogant, misogynistic prick deserved a hard kick in the balls. Choosing blindness over admitting a mistake, Bryce was another in the long list of the infamous and famous to be duped by the seductive gleam of fool's gold.

"Now will you accept my offer?" Bryce said. "I'll up it to two hundred thousand, because you had the decency to tell me what you thought was the truth, even though it was against your interest to do so." He squinted at me, puzzled, as though I must be mentally challenged or utterly naïve to have acted against my own self-interest. "Honesty is so rare in this game, it should be rewarded," he said.

"A magnificent gesture, Bryce." Julia grinned, and we exchanged a knowing glance.

"Ja," Klaus grunted and gave me a thumbs up.

"Thank you, Bryce, I accept your generous offer."

We shook hands, and Bryce wrote me a check for the exact amount, bubbling over with his good fortune. "By the way, were there any other paintings in your grandparents' treasure chest?"

The check in my hand, I stopped breathing. The slippery slope of easy money yawned before me. Beckoning. What the hell was I going to say? I didn't know until the words came out.

"Doubtful." I sighed. "But wishing could make it so."


  1. Enjoyed this story! Kept me guessing all the way

  2. I was holding my breath until the end. I had thought I knew what the ending would be. I can't wait to read more of Sheila Sharpe's stories. Perhaps "wishing could make it so"?

  3. The unexpected twists of this unusual story make it a compelling read. It is especially fun for those interested in the art world.

  4. A wonderful tease of a story, subtle and clever in its detail. Who knew art forgery could be such a fun and fanciful ramble? Loved it.

  5. Loved the story! It kept me guessing and wondering. And so well written. Thank you, Sheila!

  6. A clever, entertaining and well-written story. Great description and dialogue--kind of makes you want to get into the art forgery game! Nice twists along the way. Kudos to the author...

  7. A great read. The writing is spare and clean, the dialogue crisp, the characters surprisingly well-drawn for so short a work. The story moves at a lively tempo and accelerates to a satisfying and clever conclusion.
    Just plain good writing. I'd love to know what happens next.

  8. Amazing how such a short, amusing, suspenseful story can stimulate the reader to think about drama in daily life: fame, pride, ego, temptation when life is tough.

  9. Great story---very well written, the ingenious plot moving like a slalom.


  10. A fun story. Good dialog and characters that seem real. I enjoyed learning something about art restoration vs conservation and art forgery. It made me think about other parts of our culture that may be fake

  11. An intriguing story with interesting characters. It grabbed my attention from the start and held it to the end.

  12. Highly entertaining and well-written story. Its cast of equally flawed characters are instructive about art and the psyche, and will keep you guessing until the last sentence as to who, if any, is the “guilty party.”

  13. Fascinating story! The author pulled me right into the narrator, smelling the studio, feeling clammy and running through her range of emotions and memories. There is so much here to contemplate, from relationships to ethics to personal growth, and much to learn about conservation, restoration, and the art world. An engaging, energetic story with complexity that will linger. Thank you for this story.

  14. Sharpe's engaging descriptions of character and place serve to keep one engrossed in this clever and informative story.
    Enjoyed it!

  15. So well done from the beginning to the very end. The ending was superb. You really know how to capture your audience! You just gained a new follower that can’t wait for your next story.
    -Annemarie Mohler

  16. A suspenseful story with well-crafted characters and dialog, and a clever plot. Gives a wry glimpse of the twisted underbelly of the fine art trade. A fun read.

  17. I enjoyed this glimpse into a very specialized craft. Based on this small snapshot one might assume that the entire field is corrupt. Especially enjoyed the MC, such masterful con-artistry.

  18. Delightfully surprise at this short, compact story. Loved that it was in the art world and forgery. It put me right next to Sondra in Julia’s studio. The ending is perfect. Can’t wait for the next one.

  19. Wonderful story! Loved the character development, felt like I might encounter folks like those in Sharpe's story. Interesting dilema presented, wonderful, unexpected ending. A compelling story.

  20. Wow, what a series of emotionally conspiratorial twists and turns! And, the greyness at the ending keeps the story going in one's mind. Would the final comment be dismissed as a joke? Or, as an invitation to a burgeoning new business arrangement? I would surely love to secure an entire book (or two or more!) of such stories on my Kindle. Let's see, note to self: Sheila Sharpe... check!

  21. This is a brilliant story. Subtle, intriguing and just enough detail about the characters to make them interesting without giving too much away.

  22. A fun criminal case of the artist being more important than a painting itself. Thanks, it was well-written.

  23. Great story! Witty and gripping, with a well-woven storyline. Thanks.