City Chronicles/The Biting of the Biter
No. XII.—THE BITING OF THE BITER.
TO have a proper appreciation of what is fair and friendly, to be ready to make a concession here in order to receive one there, to give on one occasion and take on another, is an excellent thing. This friendly feeling is particularly needful if you happen to be a picture-dealer; you will work harmoniously with other picture-dealers, and incidentally you will find it profitable.
For instance, it may happen that in an auction sale there is one picture which six dealers are anxious to buy. Is that any reason for jealousy and naughty tempers and wicked words, and high prices? It need not be. Possibly one of the six will be able to find reasons which will prevent the other five from bidding. Or, possibly, something of this kind may happen: The much-desired and valuable picture comes up. An air of apathy seems to settle on the little group of dealers. Bidding is slow and soon ceases. The picture is knocked down to one of the dealers for a fifth of its value. And, after the sale, that little group of dealers adjourn to a neighbouring house of entertainment, where they can have a room to themselves, and a cup of tea if they require it. There they hold a private auction among themselves, and this time the picture fetches its real value. The highest bidder takes the picture, and the very considerable difference between the two prices is divided among the other five. Thus the money is kept in the family, so to speak, and is not frittered away upon the original owner of that picture.
Again, it may happen that a dealer wishes to pay much more than he need for something. This is less astonishing than it sounds. If you pay a sensationally high price for a mezzotint at Christie's, and secure your prize after what looks like a very keen struggle, you add to the prestige of the plate; and possibly you have four or five proofs from the same plate already waiting in your portfolio which you will be glad to dispose of to collectors at collectors' prices, seeing that you bought them privately for very little. How can the collector object to a long price when he can read for himself in the papers what you had to pay for the same thing at Christie's.
Yes, in spite of trade rivalries, a dealer should be on friendly terms with other dealers. If Mr. Samuel Levison and Mr. Algernon Franks had not been picture-dealers, they would have quarrelled, for each had taken an advantage of the other that the other considered to be unfair; as it was, they went into partnership. In business they were strictly honest—by which I mean that they did nothing illegal and nothing generous.
There was, for instance, one picture which went through their hands three times. It was a pastoral landscape, and had many merits; but it had no history, and unhappy is the picture that has no history. "I know it to be a Watteau," said Mr. Levison firmly, "and a remarkably fine Watteau, too. No expert who has seen it has had any doubt about it. By the custom of the trade, I am prevented from giving a guarantee, as the picture has no definite history. But the painting is its own guarantee. Nobody who knows the work of Watteau could possibly doubt it." Mr. Levison sold the picture. On the death of the purchaser, a few months afterwards, his collection was dispersed, and the firm bought the picture back again for a song. Mr. Franks knew of a client who wanted an example of Pater. Mr. Franks said he had always considered the picture to be an undoubted Pater, and therefore he had no compunctions at selling it as such—without any formal warranty, as the poor thing had no history. Soon afterwards that client's creditors were rude enough to sell him up; the reputed Pater did not fetch much, and Messrs. Levison and Franks bought it once more. Several points might be urged in excuse for their subsequent sale of it as a Fragonard. Experts may change their minds. Also, they did not actually guarantee it to be a Fragonard. They were strictly honest, with a slight tendency, if they swerved at all, not to swerve on the quixotic side.
One fine morning Levison walked into his partner's room. Mr. Levison was a portly gentleman, with grey hair and whiskers. It was said that as a young man he had been handsome. Franks had never been handsome; he was small and bald, and looked rather like some obscene bird. He might have been a vulture in a previous incarnation.
"I shall be going away after lunch to-day," said Mr. Levison.
"That is all right. What is, it?"
"I had a letter from a friend of mine who is an auctioneer, in a small way of business, at Salden, in Surrey. He is selling the furniture of a little house there—belonged to an old lady who has just died—and he wanted a word of advice from me."
"Advice about what?"
"Well, there are two small pictures, but I can see from what he says they are nothing. I would not go down if he were not a friend. And there is a Turkey carpet——"
"Yes. What about the pictures? What does he think?"
"What do you suppose? Of course, he thinks they are good; he does not know anything."
"All right. If you buy a picture, that is on the firm's account."
"Of course. You need not remind me of that. When have you found me trying to deal for myself?"
"Never. But perhaps I have had my doubts."
"And perhaps I have had mine. Come, Franks, we don't want to begin to quarrel. If this should be a Romney——"
"Romney? Why didn't you say that before?"
"Romney, or Sir Joshua, or something or other. I don't remember what the idiot said. I told you he doesn't know anything. Why be so quarrelsome?"
"Me? I was not quarrelsome. I like to look after myself a little, that's all. I'm quite friendly. I tell you what—I'll go down to Salden with you this afternoon, if you like."
"No, that's not necessary. It's chiefly the Turkey carpet, and seeing an old friend. If I do anything about the pictures, I shall tell you; the things are on view to-morrow, and you could go down then."
By three o'clock Levison was at the house at Salden where the sale was to take place. His friend Powlet, the auctioneer, was to meet him there.
"Well, my friend," said Levison, "what is it all about?"
"Well, you got my letter and the catalogue?"
"Oh, yes. Valuable oil painting—portrait of a lady—believed to be by Romney. I have heard that kind of thing before. If there had been any chance that was a Romney, you would have come to me before—and perhaps to twenty other dealers as well."
"I'll tell you the truth. I didn't believe it to be a Romney. The old lady hadn't much money, and she didn't go in for pictures. She never spoke of it as a Romney, so far as I can find out—or as anything else. Her nephews, whom I'm selling for, don't believe it, either. In fact, one of them said to me that if I could get a fiver for it, he shouldn't grumble. But when I came to get it down yesterday, I changed my mind; I said to myself that there was quality there. I don't care what it is—whether I understand it or whether I don't—if a thing is really good, I'm on to it. I was mad then that I had not had an expert down before. I did suggest it, but the nephews were against it. When I looked at that picture, I couldn't help feeling——"
"Well, come to business. Let me put my eye on it."
"Right. Jim, just fetch down the smaller of those two pictures, will you?"
The man in a green apron, who was arranging the lots, brought the picture and set it up on a sideboard facing the window.
"Ah!" said Mr. Levison.
"What do you make of it?" asked the auctioneer eagerly.
Mr. Levison did not answer that question. "There was another picture, as well."
"Yes. Bring down the other one, Jim. What do you think about it, Levison? Could it be a Romney?"
Mr. Levison appeared to be lost in thought. Powlet felt annoyed. "Do come on," he said.
"I was trying to think where I saw the original of that."
"What? It's only a copy?"
"It's not badly painted, but there's nothing masterly about it. Look at those dirty shadows and the clumsy way the drapery's handled. I've seen the original somewhere, and I shall remember it yet. If you want my opinion, it's a copy of an Opie, and as it's a pretty subject it might fetch a tenner, or a little more if anybody wanted it. Let's look at the other."
He examined the other with cordial approval. "That's better," he said. "I can't say what it is—nobody very first class. But the man who painted it knew what he was doing; there's nothing weak about it."
"Are you going to bid for either of them?"
"I'm afraid not. They aren't quite up to our class. I might, perhaps, have bought the landscape, if I had seen my way to a customer for it; but the people who buy pictures don't want a painting—they want names. Here, let's wash the dust out of our throats."
"I was just going to suggest it," said Powlet. "The station refreshment-room's the nearest thing."
A few yards away from the house Levison stopped. "I must run back," he said. "I've left my gloves. You go on. I shall be there in a minute."
He went straight back to the room where the pictures were, and was pleased to find that Jim was not there. He went straight to the "copy of an Opie" and examined it with extreme care for some few minutes. "Not a doubt about it," he said to himself; "not a shadow of a doubt. Another of the Lady Hamiltons."
Then he drew his gloves from his coat-tail pocket, and rejoined Powlet in the station refreshment-room. Powlet grumbled a little. "You've been long enough."
"Well, I couldn't find the blessed things. Don't you grumble. If anyone's going to do that, it ought to be me. You write me long yarns about a fine Romney, and when I come down to look at the thing—well, never mind. Mine's Scotch. What's yours?"
Powlet began to talk about the old lady. She had lived in that house for forty-nine years. It was a pity, he thought, that she could not complete her fifty. He supposed it was not to be. Now and again her nephews came to see her. But for that she lived pretty well alone. At the age of sixty she wanted to go as a missionary; her nephews didn't care—it was the parson dissuaded her. Well connected, so everybody said, but eccentric. Sometimes Levison appeared to listen; more often he seemed abstracted. He had a good deal to think about, and Powlet accused him of not being cheerful company. He had quite determined by this time to buy the picture by himself for himself, to sell it again as soon as he had got the history of it—which he thought would not be very much trouble—and to do all this without the knowledge of his partner Franks.
Levison's conscience did not disturb him. Knowledge has a money value in business. The bibliophile who discovers a treasure in the "twopenny box" does not tell the vendor; he pays his twopence and takes his treasure home. Mr. Levison had discovered one of the many Lady Hamiltons that Romney painted; he was not bound to tell Powlet that; and as he did not tell Powlet that, he had to tell him something else. With regard to his treatment of his partner, he felt that his moral position was impregnable. He had discovered the picture, and it was fair that he should have the entire profits from the discovery; besides, he was absolutely sure that with a similar opportunity Franks would have taken the same advantage of it. If he ever did swerve from the paths of the strictest honesty, it was never on the quixotic side; but if any purist had told him that he was a liar and a swindler, he would have been genuinely surprised.
"Well," said Mr. Franks rather sharply, next morning, "do we buy the Romney?"
"What Romney? Oh, yes—that thing down at Salden. Absolutely N. G. What did I tell you? You can go and buy it yourself, if you like—on your own account."
It was a mistake, and his partner was down on him in a flash. "Will you put that in writing?"
Levison made another mistake. He did not put it in writing. If he had done so, Franks would have been reassured, and would never have thought about the picture again. "Don't be a fool!" he said. "I'm not going to draw up documents about that blessed fire-screen. Oh! go and look at it yourself. It's on view to-day." The last sentences were good, and nearly took in Mr. Franks. But the first sentences had already aroused his suspicions.
"I have bought fire-screens before now and made money. It was a big picture?"
"Thirty twenty-five. Portrait of a woman. Head and shoulders. Rather a pretty subject; looks like a copy of a fairly decent thing. No great catch, though, even if you take it at that."
"You seem anxious to run it down. Why do you not say it is rot, and leave it, as you generally do?"
"So I did, until you began asking questions." This was one more mistake. He should not have taken the trouble to defend himself, and would not have done if the picture had really been rubbish.
"Very well, I say no more," said Franks, and walked out of the room. When he was alone he sat for some minutes in a brown study. The more he thought, the more he became convinced that he was being done. Mr. Algernon Franks did not like to be done. He had almost made up his mind to run down to Salden, when, as he went out to the outer office, he encountered Mr. Jewit coming out of his partner's room.
So far as he knew, there was no reason connected with the firm why his partner should consent to see Mr. Jewit. Mr. Jewit was quite impecunious, quite straight, and hopelessly alcoholic. Suddenly an idea occurred to Mr. Franks, and he gave up all notion of going down to Salden. He could manage it with much less trouble to himself.
On the following evening, after Levison had left, Franks sent for a clerk who frequently attended sales for them. "Look here, Peters," he said. "I want you to run down to Salden to-morrow. There's a small sale there. You know Mr. Jewit by sight? That's all right. You're to keep an eye on him, but don't get talking with him. If he bids for any picture, follow him and beat him."
"No limit. Beat Jewit. If he's not there, do nothing, and come home as soon as you can."
"Very well, sir."
Jewit was at the sale, and he followed his instructions precisely. He was to buy the Romney. It was probable, he was told, that he would get it for a few pounds. But if by any chance some idea of its value had leaked out, and there were severe competition, he was to stop at £2,500.
No picture-dealers had thought the sale worth their attention. One or two furniture-dealers who had come down had taken rather a fancy to the Romney. "It's a pretty thing, whatever it may be," said one of them. "I'd risk giving twenty pounds for it, as a spec." It was the general opinion that he ought to get it for less.
Mr. Jewit, who was cold sober for the occasion, opened the ball with a modest bid of one pound. The furniture-dealer went to thirty shillings, and was ironically requested by his companions to be careful. He and Mr. Jewit took it up to twenty pounds, and there the dealer came out, and the clerk that Franks had instructed came in. Presently the two men were raising one another by hundreds; the auctioneer was avoiding anything like a look of surprise, and the room was watching the duel with eager interest. At two thousand, Jewit, in accordance with his instructions, went straight to two thousand five hundred. He stood there, looking determined and truculent, as if he were ready to go on betting all day on that scale.
"Six," said the clerk. "Two thousand six hundred," said the auctioneer. "Good evening," said Jewit. It was all over. Jewit walked out, and the men who questioned him did not get much information for their trouble. In the street Jewit hesitated for a minute; he was very thirsty. Then he decided to put business before pleasure, and made his way to the telegraph-office.
The clerk arrived at the same office a minute or so later, just in time to hear Jewit say to the girl behind the counter, "It's Levison, care of Gasless, London. Ain't my writing plain enough?"
"And this," the clerk observed to himself, "is pretty hot." Then he sent off his own wire to Franks, also care of Gasless, London. After all, it was none of his business. So far as he could see, the firm had been bidding against itself. There might be a reason for that, or it might be a blunder; anyhow, it was not his blunder. He was quite sure that he had carried out the orders that Mr. Franks had given him exactly.
In Mr. Franks's room the two partners sat and talked. They had just returned from a big sale, where they had done pretty well. Mr. Levison was in a good temper, and drank his whisky-and-soda with the beautiful feeling that he had earned it. Even Franks was distinctly less acrimonious than usual. There was a tap at the door, and a boy brought in the two telegrams. "Here is a funny thing," said Franks. "Two private telegrams, one for each of us, and both come at the same moment."
"Don't see much 'funny' in that," said Levison, as he tore open the envelope. He read the telegram and began to swear. He seldom swore, and possessed no fluency. He merely repeated the same word over and over again.
Franks looked up from his own telegram which he had been reading with a smile of perfect content. "Was there anything the matter, Levison?" he said.
"Oh, no!" said Levison, with savage sarcasm. "If a man curses, that is because everything is all right. Got any more fool questions to ask?"
"Dear me!" said Franks. "And that is the man who only the other day accused me of being quarrelsome! What a queer thing! Well, my friend, perhaps I may ask you what it is that is troubling you?"
"And perhaps you may do nothing of the kind. When those telegrams were brought in, you observed that they were private telegrams. Kindly remember that."
"But I was wrong. This telegram here was addressed to me personally, but it is on the firm's business all the same. I have bought a picture."
"What is it?"
"Well, I don't know exactly what it is. I have never seen it. I hope it will be all right. I've paid getting on for three thousand for it."
"Have you gone stark, staring mad, Franks?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
"Because you can't do that, and you know you can't do it. You can't buy like that without consulting me. I'll repudiate the thing altogether. No, you must be mad! Three thousand, or something near it, for a picture you've never seen, when you don't even know what it is. You ought to be locked up."
"A man who is a good judge thought very well of it," said Franks, as if in feeble self-defence. "And I had hoped to get it much cheaper. It may come all right one day. It may turn out very good. I should have consulted you, perhaps."
Mr. Levison was beside himself with rage. "You know very well what the terms of our partnership are; and you'll have to abide by them. I'll have nothing whatever to do with the transaction. You've bought this picture at an absurd price without consulting me—you may pay for it yourself."
"I have been a little irregular; but still, partners should stick together. One day you may make a mistake yourself."
"It's not a bit of use your whining. My mind's made up."
"That may mean a heavy loss for me," said Franks gloomily. "But if you will not share it with me, neither shall you share the profit, if there ever is any. No. You throw me over? Very well—then I will have that in writing." He scribbled a few lines on a sheet of paper and handed it to Levison.
Levison read it, gave a contemptuous snort, signed it, and tossed it back to Franks.
"And let that be a lesson to you not to try monkeying about with me."
Suddenly Franks's eyes blazed. He rose and struck the table with his fist. "No," he said. "It is you who will have the lesson. Here is another coincidence about those telegrams. Both came from Salden—yours told you that Jewit had been outbid—mine told me that I had bought the picture for the firm at £2,600. Now I keep it for myself."
"What are you jabbering about? I know nothing about Jewit, and my telegram's not from Salden."
"Very well. Show me the top of the telegram. If it is not from Salden, I will pay you a hundred pounds and apologise."
Levison swore. It was not a very effective retort. He also tore up the telegram.
"You give yourself away, you see. When you went to Salden, you left a catalogue on your desk. I looked at that. I read 'believed to be by Romney.' I did not like your manner. I felt almost certain, when I saw Jewit coming out of your room—that drunken beggar whom you employed when you were on your own—a man that you said you'd never have in the office again—you meant to get that Romney for yourself. I sent Peters to buy for the firm, to beat Jewit, and not to bid at all unless Jewit did. You tried to do me; now you have done yourself, you swine!"
Levison was equally angry. "Be careful what you are saying. Repeat that and I'll half kill you. You've made a fool of yourself. It is true I sent Jewit to buy, but not for myself; it was for the firm, and intended as a surprise for you. And the picture could have been bought for a tenner if you hadn't interfered."
"Look out of the window," said Franks. "On that roof you see a common black cat."
"What about it?"
"Well, you may go and tell that story to that cat. To me it is no good."