On the end of the year holidays I traveled to the United States to visit a friend. Before the trip I organized an itinerary because I needed to save time and save money.
On the end of the year holidays I traveled to the United States to visit a friend. Before the trip I organized an itinerary because I needed to save time and save money. Although Manuel lives in Georgetown, New Jersey, we arranged to meet in New York, as we both shared the dream of visiting its literary bars and evoking the mythical lost generation. I arrived on a Tuesday morning, at eight or nine, I don’t know. I told Manuel that it was early and that I was not exhausted; I proposed, then, that we take the opportunity to do the tour. We visited Chumley’s, a favorite hangout for Faulkner and Dos Passos; then, on 18th Street, we entered the Old Town Bar, where once Fitzgerald, swallowing a quarrelsome alcohol, challenged Hemingway with his fists; We also visited Pete’s Tavern, where O’Henry conspired the plot of his stories. At the end of the afternoon, tired and already short of money, we arrived at Central Park; we walked a few streets and entered a Starbucks.
I ordered a latte; Manuel a decaffeinated coffee, or an orange coffee, or a plum coffee, I don’t remember. Since Manuel lives in the United States, he has become pedantic to drink coffee. In Colombia he took it as a street thermos. Not now, now he asks for a cup of coffee and demands that it be brought to him on a small round plate, and when they serve him he sprinkles a little on the plate; I don’t know what he’s looking at, but if he doesn’t like it, ask to change the coffee. Then he smells it and takes a sip and makes a weird face, like he’s gargling. I was left with the impression that Colombians living in the United States have their necks lengthened.
We talked about the impressions left after touring the bars. Manuel spoke without emotion, he referred to the anecdotes that they told us as something distant and tedious. I, on the contrary, did it with emotion. I felt ridiculous. There was a prolonged silence, I suppose Manuel and I agreed to keep quiet because we knew that our preferences had changed and perhaps it was better that way. To distract myself and speed up time, I started looking at the other tables. I was surprised – or regretted – to see the eagerness that everyone had to swallow what they drank or ate to get out quickly and continue with the fatigue of the day. He was going to resume the conversation with Manuel, he was going to tell him about his girlfriend (a Texan with liberal enjoyment), he wanted to ask him how he met her. I was debating the laziness of speaking to him, when some people entered the cafe that, although I wanted to, I was not able to ignore.
They were three men and one woman. They sat at a table close to ours. All three guys had an elegantly grotesque appearance; the woman, a little more sensible, was dressed modestly. One of the guys pronounced v like f, and it sounded so stupid that Manuel and I laughed while we pretended by pointing at the television. Another of the guys kept saying, however: what are you going to order? I’m hungry, but I’m going to eat little; Lecy O’Chencil’s exhibition was great, but it has lost its shine. The third guy hardly spoke. The lady looked like a mummy, a mummy with dark glasses. These people generated so much curiosity in us that I left the matter with his girlfriend for later. We pretended to look up something in the city guide to hear what they were talking about.
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They began to have a somewhat discreet discussion, making efforts to lower their voices. They were talking about the latest abstract art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the impersonation of some paintings. We learned that the mummy was Fanny Sanín, and that she was precisely the victim. It was not a question, then, of an impersonation of paintings but of the painter. Manuel did know about Fanny Sanín; I was the first time I heard from her. I will not copy the conversation in detail, it was not memorable.
They said that the paintings exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art were not of the mummy. It happened that someone, very cleverly, managed to sneak into the last exhibition and presented some paintings as if they were hers. Subject posed as his artistic representative. The paintings were successful and the museum received several offers to purchase. His representative, his true representative, found out through the mouth of third parties and gave notice to the mummy. The thing seemed very strange because, according to what we heard of her, her paintings are too abstract for someone to be so witty that they want to buy them.
The fact that someone can hack an artist in an exhibition struck me as admirable. I told Manuel that we had to go to the museum and see if the paintings of the mummy, well, not the mummy, the mummy impersonator, were still on display. Manuel nodded and told me that maybe the impersonator’s paintings were better. Before we stood at the table, Manuel suspected that perhaps the paintings were no longer on display, because they were an impersonation and a possible public scandal. I told him the only way to find out was to go to the museum, and we went out.
We arrived and managed to enter. We asked a guide (in very clumsy English) about Fanny Sanín’s exhibition. He kindly led us to the painting room. We stand in front of a painting. Manuel and I made a long silence. The silence was more uncomfortable than that of the coffee. I didn’t speak because I had nothing to say; I suppose the same thing happened to Manuel. I was more scared when I heard the opinions of other visitors who stood in front of the paintings and said “these colors disturb me”, or “the verticality of this line is violent”, or “the production behind these lines is overwhelming”, or “I can feel the melancholy of the shapes and colors.” After several minutes he still didn’t know what to say. I don’t understand anything, Manuel, I said. Art is not for understanding, Juan, he corrected me. Manuel’s answer let me know that he didn’t have anything to say either because he didn’t understand. But they are very rare paintings, I told him. Manuel suggested looking at another painting, and we stood in front of another. Not this one, he said, better this one. Not this one either, I said, better the one over there that looks easier. Let’s retreat a bit, Manuel suggested, perhaps by taking a few steps away we can get a good look at her. Several minutes passed and we couldn’t say something. We finally got bored and left the room.
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It was clear that, up to that point, the impersonation of the mummy was not public. The paintings were still there and no rumors were heard. Before leaving, to make sure, we asked how many days the exhibition would be; the guide (the same one who took us to the room) replied that he would stay for eight more days. For some strange reason, that issue, that of the impersonation of paintings, caused me a lot of concern. Who the hell dares to supplant the authorship of paintings like these, I told Manuel; if it is discovered who did it, it will get a hell of a loss; the impersonation, as a crime, is the least of it. Yes, Manuel accepted, and what a loss of prestige, who is so stupid to supplant Fanny Sanín? We left the museum determined to go back to the cafe and talk to the mummy and the guys. When we arrived, they were gone. Shit, I said. Shit, Manuel repeated. We wanted to talk to them to find out if they knew about the imposter; we did not mind confessing that we had been indiscreet.
What do we do? Asked Manuel. I don’t know, I said, it occurs to me that we go back to the museum and pretend to be some interested buyers. You don’t have the face of a paint buyer, Manuel told me. But I know how to lie, I told him, and very well, I put my heart in my hand when I lie. Of course, we couldn’t go back to the museum as we were dressed. That day we went to Manuel’s house and the next day we traveled to go to the museum.
We looked for the museum curator and talked to him, luckily he spoke Spanish. We told him that we were buyers of abstract paintings, that we had a collector’s market, and that there were clients who would undoubtedly be interested in buying Fanny Sanín’s paintings. Furthermore, Manuel said, we would like Fanny Sanín’s paintings to remain in Colombia. Ah, are they Colombian? Asked the curator. Yes, we are Colombians, I replied. They should be proud to have a painter of the talent of Fanny Sanín in their country, said the curator. Manuel and I purse our lips and look at each other without knowing what to say. That’s right, Manuel said, as if resigned. Do you think you can give us the contact of the artist’s representative to agree directly with him? I asked the curator. We have other paintings on display in the abstract art room, in case you’re interested, he answered hesitantly. We have thought about going back to New York, said Manuel, we will definitely visit the museum and we can talk. Well, said the curator, then accompany me to the office. We went and from a notebook he tore a small sheet of paper. This is, he told us, handing us the paper, his name is Sergio Jaramillo.
We contacted this Sergio; I told him that we were buyers interested in Fanny Sanín’s paintings, and that we were willing to pay whatever dollars they were. He also spoke Spanish, although I couldn’t decipher his accent, but I noticed that he was struggling to speak slowly. We agreed to meet that same day at three in the afternoon at his workshop. It took a while to find the address, but we got there. I told Manuel that this shack did not look like a painter’s workshop, that it looked more like a cave. He is not a painter, said Manuel, he is an impostor who falsifies paintings. Well, I told him, but in any case he painted some paintings that today have many buyers behind. Yes, Manuel accepted, even us. Before knocking on the door we talked about how to corner the guy into revealing everything. Manuel suggested several options: to tell her that we were buyers and we wanted to speak with Fanny Sanín to agree directly with her to purchase the paintings; tell him that we were ardent admirers of the mummy and that we wanted to meet her; or tell her that we were curators of a museum and wanted to coordinate an exhibition with her. I told Manuel that they were all absurd. For nothing in the world would I pretend to be an admirer of the mummy, I told him, I would feel ridiculous. And the idea of the exhibition? Asked Manuel, rolling his eyes. No, I replied, it is even more absurd, because he can confront us by telling us that he is there for these matters because he is his representative. Look, I said, I have a simpler idea: face it directly; In other words, to tell her that we already know everything, that we spoke with the mummy and her authentic representative, and that they told us that she had never painted those pictures. Well, what if things get complicated? Manuel asked me. We hit him, I replied.Manuel laughed as he knocked on the door.
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The door opened, but we didn’t see anyone. We took a step and saluted. No one answered us. Who opened us up? Asked Manuel, raising his hands. I don’t know, I don’t know, I replied. When I turned to close the door, I saw a rope tied to the sheet metal, the rope was wrapped on tiptoes glued to the wall and was sliding towards the end of a corridor. Let’s follow the rope, I told Manuel. We followed her and she led us to the workshop, or what we thought was a workshop. There was Sergio, the painter, or the phony, or the representative, or the crafty, whatever you want. He greeted us by raising his head and whistling. I knew then that he was Colombian. And I guess he found out that we were too. So what, he told us, how are they doing? Manuel and I looked at each other, without answering him. The guy was sitting at a dirty table full of papers. I’m full of work, see, see, he said, clutching the messy papers; I have many offers. I walked up to the guy and stared at him, trying to intimidate him. Before speaking to him, he offered us to sit on a sofa. The sofa was torn and dirty, and it smelled of dog urine, or cat urine, perhaps. He stepped in front of us, leaning against a closet. Tell me, gentlemen, let’s talk business, said the guy with a certain excess.
In order not to feel inferior I got up from the sofa and sat on the table (actually I stood up because it smelled horrible). Sir, I told him, we know that you are not a painter, we know that you posed as Fanny Sanín’s artistic representative and sent those paintings to the Museum of Modern Art to be exhibited. The guy got scared and asked me, almost begging, not to raise my voice. Then he pounced on the table and grabbed all the papers that were scattered around him. I glanced at Manuel with an air of victory. How much do they want, he asked us. 20 million pesos, said Manuel. No, we don’t want anything, I said, as if scolding Manuel. I’m getting a lot of money, the guy told us, looking at us with bulging eyes; I can give you a few million and leave the matter here; You as buyers would do very well, you would do good business. Or I can give you paintings, without any price, and you sell them, no one will suspect that the paintings are not by that lady, all those who have bought me say “this painting is worthy of Fanny Sanín”. We let the impostor continue to unravel his nerves. Then I interrupted him by telling him not to bother any more to convince us, that we were there with another intention, and also that we were not buyers. We want to know how he did it, we want to know why he did it, I said. Will they tell the police? He asked in a challenging tone. No, Manuel replied, getting up from the sofa, if we had wanted to report him, the police would already be here. You have to take advantage and sell what you can, I told him. I told him about the coffee episode, I told him that we had overheard the mummy’s conversation with the three men. She plans to sue, I told her, they are waiting for the exhibition to end so as not to harm the museum. The guy was grateful and calmer, and agreed to reveal everything.
I imagine that you already know that I am Colombian, he began by saying, and you have also seen how I live. This is not a workshop, it is my home, but it also serves as my workshop. A month ago I saw in the subway station a museum advertisement about an abstract art exhibition, the background of that advertisement was a painting by Fanny Sanín. I stared at the painting for several minutes. When the guy said that, I remembered Manuel and I standing in front of the mummy paintings, not knowing what to say. And after a lot of looking at her, she continued, I thought I could paint something like that too. Are you a painter? Manuel interrupted him. No, he replied, I’m a surveyor, but you don’t need to be a painter to do those things. As I was saying, looking at the advertising I thought that I could also paint like that. I remembered my technical drawing classes in high school and wondered how difficult it would be to make that patch of rectangles. I am going through some very painful financial needs; let’s say it was happening, because the last few days have improved. But when the subway happened he was really needy, some days he could eat and others just swallow. Don’t you have a job? I asked him. Yes, I have a newsstand, but it is going bad. I have lived in New York for nine years. I just arrived I bought the position with some savings that I brought. At first it paid off, but in recent years it has deteriorated. I understand, I said, go on.
Then it occurred to me to paint some pictures and try to sell them on the stand, but I thought maybe I might have problems. I spent several days planning what to do, and I started painting them, I painted seven. After finishing I decided to go to the museum. Something will occur to me, I told myself. I entered the exhibition room and came out convinced that I could plagiarize Fanny Sanín. I went to the museum manager’s office, but he wasn’t there. I asked the secretary for her phone number; I told him that he always bought me the newspaper, and that that morning I had not picked it up, so I felt obliged to give it to him. The secretary gave it to me. I called him and posed as his representative, I was very precise and somewhat derogatory to gain ground. I told him that it was rude to us that Fanny was not in an abstract art exhibition. Also (and here I took a lot of risks), I told her that in her last participation, the museum had breached the contract for not exhibiting the agreed amount of works. The museum manager, a bit bottled up, apologized and told me to send the works.
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I sent the seven paintings to the museum, and within hours they were already on display. The next day the offers began to arrive, several visitors asked the manager to contact them with the painter’s agency. The manager called me and that’s how I started selling the paintings. When I thought about selling them, I did so without knowing how much I could ask for them. The first offer impressed me, it was $ 12,000. And well, all that has happened until now, until you arrived.
After listening to the impostor, I looked at Manuel and asked him if the mummy was not also an impostor for selling that bullshit. Manuel didn’t say anything. We told the guy not to worry about us, we wouldn’t give him away, but we did warn him that this matter would be news soon. We said goodbye and left the house. This guy is a genius, Manuel finally said. Yes, necessity justifies the theft, and it sharpens intelligence, I told him.