by Lorell Hernandez
It amused Monica to think how she had come to marry Arthur, a man she would not normally have given a second look. Now here they were, about to retire to Chile, in all respects a desirable haven, not the least being its great distance from Philadelphia. “Everything’s done, Arthur, and we’re running out of time.” Monica knew that to deliver the package and make their flight, there was time only for a last check of the empty apartment and a call to the desk for help with the bags.
Arthur gently laid a little figure on the kitchen counter. About ten inches tall, made of terracotta, it was a female form, ancient, rare, and of extraordinary beauty. He mummified it in a length of cashmere, put it in a velvet bag, and encased it in bubble wrap. Thus cushioned, the figurine sank into its wooden box, swallowed by a sea of styrofoam peanuts. He closed the lid, bound the box with packing tape and affixed a letter addressed to Dr. William Walker Hensley, Director, Institute of American Art.
In the cab, Arthur directed the driver to stop at the Institute and then to take them to the airport. Monica saw his hands tremble and his lips quiver slightly. In her best “there, there” manner, she moved close to him and stroked his cheek. “It’s going to be all right. Everything’s going perfectly according to plan.” Her own feelings were a mixture of anticipation–Santiago’s soft, welcoming air, the Andes’ eternal snow–and anxiety about the business at hand. Now, she was newly astounded at the brazenness of what she and her colleagues had done nearly two decades ago.
To look at them then was to see three aging docents, who might have been discussing grandchildren or medical benefits in a corner of the Institute’s café. In fact, they were making an almost absurdly audacious plan.
She could see Sylvia, her steel-gray hair and designer clothes, her jewelry, restrained and real, and those practiced, long-fingered hands that so gracefully put them on and took them off. She was as smart as she looked. “Then we’re in agreement,” she said. “We share the risks and the rewards absolutely equally.”
Monica thought, too, about Patricia. “I’ll need time,” she said, “but I can do it.” She was dumpling round, neatly but boringly dressed in bulky sweaters and too-long skirts. She looked like she’d be most at home rolling out pie crust. But she was not only smarter than she showed–she was also superb ceramist.
Monica, in her fifties at the time, was the youngest–a bit too young in dress and makeup, still flirtatious and always aware of attractive men who might meet her high standards. She was divorced and, unlike the other two who were widowed, thought she might try again, but only if she were to marry up in a significant way. It was Monica who reasoned finally that the simplest plan would be the best, and that their decades-long presence in the museum would place them above suspicion.
These were respected docents, who revered the Institute and were an important part of its life. To them, American masterpieces by artists like Eakins and Sargent, and Homer belonged to the public and on the Institute’s walls. But, as docents will, they played the game of what if–If you could have just one work in the museum, what would it be? There came a time–and an ideal work–when it seemed the fantasy might become a reality.
When the cab reached the Institute of American Art, Arthur got out and mounted the steps to the front entrance. Inside, he approached a smiling, young woman who greeted him warmly and asked how she might direct him. He handed her the box as tenderly as though it were a newborn. “I am going to ask that you personally place this box in Dr. Hensley’s hands. Is he in now and can you do that?”
“He is,” she answered. “I’ll be glad to bring it to him. Would you like to wait for a response?”
“That’s not necessary, but I will appreciate your attending to it at once.” She rose as he spoke, and he watched her head off on her errand.
Waiting, Monica gave a last look at her beloved Institute, and remembered the long years of illuminating American art–from Colonial to post modern–for audiences young and old. All three loved what they did and did it well. What seemed at first sight like one more dusty marble statue came to life with their words, and they could make skeptical viewers reconsider a stuffed goat with a tire around its middle or a canvas titled “White on White.” They knew the Institute inside out: not only what was on the walls, but what was in the archives, what was coming in or going out, what works the conservator was restoring, what new exhibits the curator was planning. They loved it all and, in particular, they loved one piece beyond all reason.
Commanding the far wall of one of the 19th century galleries was a large painting called Two Beauties by Elgar Hoagland. The subject was a life-size, full-length, formally dressed woman, gazing upon a small figurine, on a table top, seemingly in deep contemplation of its beauty. Called a Tanagra because of its origin site in Greece, the little figure dated from the third century, BC, and was unearthed, with others like it, in the late 1800’s.
Through the fortunate collaboration of a former director of the museum and a highly placed Greek diplomat, a long-term loan of an actual Tanagra had been arranged, enabling the public to see the real thing alongside the painting. Placed on a polished wood column and enclosed in a glass case, she had the grace and charm typical of these figurines. Her clothing was softly draped so as to reveal the contours of her body; she wore a shallow, broad-brimmed sun hat tied beneath her chin and she carried a delicate fan; tiny upturned tips of her shoes showed beneath the folds of her garment. Made of terracotta, she was painted in water color which had faded to soft, matte shades of red, pale orangey pink, reddish purple, and a hint of blue. She emitted an aura of serenity, and her downcast eyes and quiet expression suggested a gentle knowingness. She embodied beauty in a way that spoke to the very souls of the three conspirators.
They knew everything that could be known about the figure. Patricia, in particular, had learned every detail about the process of its creation, from the components of the clay to the molding, the firing, and the painting, how it was applied and how it aged. After weeks of skillful experimentation with materials and process, she produced her stunningly accurate replica of the original. When she said, “I’m satisfied,” Monica and Sylvia agreed she had performed a miracle. Now they had to wait for the right moment.
The exact location and task of each of them was determined. Sylvia would make the actual exchange, replacing the authentic figure with the copy, and Patricia would be the roving look-out. Monica was the obvious choice to distract the backdoor guard, since the sight of her reduced him to a stammering, blushing, clearly love-struck state. She, for her part, paid him no attention, other than to have noted that he was a nice guy whose close-fitting security uniform revealed a great build.
On a certain evening, they made necessary explanations about having to tend to some after hours docent business, a not uncommon occurrence for docent committee members. That day, Marcella, the conservator, had removed the Tanagra from its vitrine and carried it to her lab for its periodic head to toe inspection. This also allowed access to its housing for cleaning and inspecting. The Tanagra would remain there for one night.
The Institute closed in its usual manner, its imposing iron gate pulled across the front entrance. This left only one means of entrance: the rear door of the building–which could be opened only by a guard in a glass-enclosed, camera-filled office just inside the door.
Sylvia, dressed in black, moved warily on the second floor of the two-story building, staying close to the walls, and entered the conservation studio. From her over-size designer bag, she withdrew the copy and quickly put it in the place of the original. She entombed the original in cotton batting, added two used tubes of water color paint and several used brushes, just in case, and nestled all securely in her sturdy bag.
Patricia, meantime, stopped the night gallery guard on his rounds and engaged him in a long stream of chatter. He liked Patricia and they occasionally passed time discussing art, giving him the opportunity to display knowledge he had acquired over the years. “I should go now, Patricia,” he said, heading toward the second floor. “Oh, Ben, what do you think of ‘Abstraction on the Fence’?,” she asked, referring to a show of wooden fences, covered with swirls of primary colors broken up by occasional graffiti. “I’ll stick with what I like,” Ben said, happy to embark on a favorite theme–the foolishness of bothering with art that you can’t make out when there’s so much really good stuff. Patricia kept him on the topic long enough to feel sure that Sylvia had come and gone from the conservation lab.
Downstairs, Monica, poised on a corner of the backdoor guard’s desk, was being her most alluring self. She suggested it couldn’t hurt if they shared the remainder of a bottle of wine left over from a lunch event. He found her distraction an unexpected delight for a time, but out of habit his eyes began to rove over the cameras aligned above, where he could easily have seen Sylvia. At once, Monica swooped down and planted a long, moist kiss on the guard’s lips, which formed an astonished ‘O’ before they relaxed into the moment. “Oh, shame on me, Arthur,” she said, “but, you know, I’ve always wanted to do that.”
A few minutes later, Sylvia and Patricia entered Arthur’s office and said they had finished their work and were ready to leave. They bid a warm goodnight to the beaming guard as he opened the door for them. Not long after that, an ardent courtship began, and not long after that, Monica and Arthur were married.
Over the years, until Sylvia and Patricia died, each regularly had six months of cherished time with the Tanagra. They rationalized that their superior appreciation of its authenticity and beauty, and the fact that no one suffered a known loss, justified the deed. But Monica knew when the time had come to set matters right.
“Oh, look,” Monica shook Arthur awake. The early morning sun shone on the spectacle of the Andes as the plane descended, and they reveled in the sight. Her excitement and happiness were contagious and he felt overwhelmed by his good fortune. But Arthur still, after all these years, had not made up his mind if he would ever tell Monica about that night. Would he tell her that in the midst of their impassioned kiss, his eyes, by training, scanned the cameras and caught sight of a dark figure emerging from the conservation lab? Would he tell her that a powerful, almost instinctive sense overcame his first impulse and told him that it would be best for everyone if he just closed his eyes again?
◊ ◊ ◊
As a long time docent at several art museums, Lorell Hernandez has found them to be a valuable source of story ideas, incorporating the setting, staff, artists, and public to be found there. With that as a start, she has been encouraged by one acceptance and a number of positive personal responses to expand to other areas. Though starting very late in life, she finds story writing a challenging and rewarding experience.