Armand Arnolfini, and his bride-to-be, Andrea St. John, stood at the altar in Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, as Bishop Van Peteghem orchestrated a touching service.
In the first row of pews, Andrea’s parents looked on with warm smiles of affection while Armand’s father, Sergio, gazed at his tall and handsome son with a deep sense of love and pride. The six years Armand had lived as a widower, consumed in his work, had concerned Sergio, hoping for the day when Armand would meet another woman to get on with his life and procreate. The mere thought that the Arnolfini bloodline might fade away into oblivion had weighed heavily on him, being rather obsessed with the family’s prominent history.
Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, the bride and groom, each decked out to perfection, turned and walked down the aisle. As they did, they nodded with smiles at their friends who had made the trek to Belgium, including Bernard Higley, Clara Vandermeer, Anton Platzer and Andrea’s circle of friends, many of whom were also in the arts or museum industry. As the entourage followed the bride and groom several blocks to the reception, they appeared like a who’s who of the art world.
To Andrea and their guests’ surprise, Armand had utilized his father’s connection to the curator of the Gravensteen Castle, whereby renting out the historic edifice for the evening’s festivities. Armand had been waiting for this moment to enjoy the shocked look on their faces, knowing that the medieval castle provided a fitting ambiance for his darling new bride and their cadre of culture vultures.
Andrea’s eyes lit up as she turned and hugged Armand. She had been duped into thinking the reception would be held at a nearby hall, but Armand’s touching gift moved her deeply. Unable to contain her tears of joy, Andrea wiped away the rivulets, leaned in for an ardent kiss, then said, “You precious bum, now my makeup will be ruined before the night even begins.”
Armand chuckled, as he wiped away a tiny smudge off her rosy cheeks. “Your makeup is fine, dear. You look magnificent.”
Just then, two knights, decked out in authentic armor, approached the couple: One held a pole with a colorfully embroidered banner, designed by Armand, featuring a coat of arms with their initials, while the other knight held two crowns, also designed by Armand, each meticulously crafted of equal size and weight, for as Armand said, to avoid any trouble.
As Andrea turned and looked on with amazement, the knight placed the crowns on their heads, then both knights escorted the royal couple into the castle.
By all accounts, the reception was a spectacular affair, with fresh flowers arranged in vases on each table, and walls personally decorated by Armand and his father, with framed reproductions by a variety of medieval and Renaissance masters. Meanwhile, during the cocktail hour, a thirty-piece orchestra played Armand’s favorite Classical tunes, including Liszt’s Liebestraume, an excerpt from Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, and an assortment of arias from Puccini’s operas.
Afterwards, Armand escorted his bride and guests through the castle with torches and candles for authenticity. Traversing the labyrinth of tall corridors with barrel-vaulted ceilings and stone columns, they all were captivated by the medieval atmosphere and the castle’s ancient history, including its sordid past as they descended down a flight of narrow stairs and entered the torture chamber. As they entered the dark room, the flickering waves of candlelight danced on the stonewalls and ceiling, as they gazed upon all the morbid tools of death. Included in the lineup were a guillotine, stretching racks, and various tools of torture mounted on the walls.
As the guests crowded around the macabre machines, Armand jested with the intonation of a king, “Hear me well, my most dear and loyal subjects. Whosoever dares to harm my beautiful queen shall be subjected to the tools of my trade!” As the guests laughed, he continued, “So spread thy words of warning to all within our grand kingdom.” Reverting to his own voice, he added, “But now, it’s time to eat!”
With another round of laughter, the entourage followed Armand and Andrea up a series of stairs and entered the main dining hall. A live band kicked off an evening filled with love songs ranging from Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Barbra Streisand to the more rocking tunes of the Beatles, Four Seasons, Moody Blues, and even a thunderous love song that grabbed everyone’s attention—Sabbra Cadabra!
As to be expected, an exceptional gourmet menu of French and Italian dishes, from Veal Duxelles to zuppa di pesce, complimented a truly exquisite night, topped off by an equally impressive Venetian hour with a broad selection of liqueurs, gelato, cannolis, Italian cheese cake, French pastries, and of course Armand’s favorite—tiramisu.
Several hours later, when the festivities ended, the married couple bid their family and friends good-bye, as Armand thanked and kissed his mother-in-law, Marie, who was the second-to-last person to leave. He then turned toward his father.
The two embraced, as Sergio said, “Armand, I’m so happy for you and Andrea. You make an extraordinary couple, and that’s not just because I’m your father.”
Armand nodded warmly with appreciation, as Sergio continued, “Now listen, I know you plan on going to Lake Como and then touring the scenic beauties of the Dolomites in northern Italy, but I have a surprise for you, one I just learned of before I left home.” Excitedly, he punched the palm of his left hand. “And boy, is it a doozy!” His eyes glistened as he went on, “I’ve been fighting to keep it a secret all the while I’ve been here, Armand, and you know how hard it is for me to keep secrets, especially from you.”
Armand’s warm smile morphed into a suspicious smirk. He could always sense when his father had something up his artistic sleeve that would divert his attention and consume him. “Papa, I can see it in your eyes. No! Do you hear me? No way! Don’t do this.”
Just then, Andrea walked up alongside her groom, as he continued, “I’m going on my honeymoon with Andrea, Pop, so I’m not interested in starting any new cases.”
“But, son, wait until you hear what I—“
“Dad,” Andrea interjected, as she reached over and grasped Sergio’s hand warmly. “You know Armand will oblige you once we return from our honeymoon. So, I’m sure whatever it is can wait two weeks.”
Sergio glanced back and forth between Andrea’s vibrant and innocent eyes and Armand’s peeved and perceptive eyes.
Armand grasped Andrea’s hand and started to walk her away, as he said, “She’s right, Pop. We’ll catch up when we return. I’ve waited six years for this moment.”
As the loving couple started to exit the castle, they could hear Sergio’s voice behind them say: “Very well, Armand. You’ve waited six years. But the world has waited three hundred and sixty years to see Leonardo’s lost Leda and the Swan.”
Armand stopped dead in his tracks! His head spun around, as Andrea’s followed suit. “Pop! Are you pulling my leg?” Armand demanded. “That would be a pretty awful thing to do on my wedding day.”
Sergio shrugged and playfully gazed down at the castle’s stone floor, littered with confetti by well wishers, then back up into his son’s electrified eyes. “You know I’d never jest about something as monumental as a da Vinci, my son.” He stuck his hands in his pockets, looked down again at the confetti, and softly kicked a few strands randomly with his foot. He looked back up. “But go ahead, you both have your honeymoon to go on, this miraculous lost masterpiece—by Western civilization’s most revered and versatile genius—can surely wait. That is, if the trail doesn’t dry up, of course.”
Armand’s lips twisted with a mixture of love and irritation: love, at how his father knew how to snag his attention, and irritation, at how this astounding news interfered with his amorous plans.
Meanwhile, Andrea’s mind reeled with fascination, as her eyes bounced back and forth between father and son. She was madly in love with Armand and wanted desperately to spend two carefree weeks of utter bliss with her Italian stud in the Italian Alps, but she was also thrilled to now be a part of the prominent Arnolfini clan, a family that dealt with mega-titans of the art world. And who, by most accounts, sat at the apex of the Art World? Leonardo da Vinci.
Andrea had to speak. “So, Dad, just how viable is this lead?”
Armand’s head jerked as he now looked at his bride. “Honey!? You know how much I love Leonardo, but I love you more. Are you seriously thinking about giving up on our honeymoon to chase down a painting, one that very well might not even be authentic? I’m sure two weeks won’t make a difference.”
Sergio smirked as he meticulously straightened out his tuxedo. “I thought I taught you better than that, Armand.” In his well-seasoned and pedantic voice, the emeritus art professor added, “As I’ve always said to you and all my students, ‘You must know all the details before making a decision.’”
Armand huffed as his eyes veered at his father. Before Sergio could say another word, Armand raised his hand. “Hold on! I know what you’re going to say, Pops. I shouldn’t think with my heart in matters such as this. So, tell me, what’s so pressing about this lead that it can’t wait two weeks?”
Sergio walked toward them, as they now all stood just outside the castle’s stone-archway, several feet from the street. “Armand, before I left to come here I was contacted by Claude De Ville, a Frenchman who I had met briefly many years ago. He comes from a very affluent and powerful family with a rich network of friends, not necessarily in the art world, but with fellow titans in the financial industry and many industrialists, most of whom have rather impressive art collections.”
Andrea looked on with growing interest while Armand pressed, “Well, Pops, that’s all well and good, I’m glad Mr. De Ville is a rich Frenchman with connections, but what’s his connection to Leonardo’s lost Leda and the Swan and the big rush?”
Sergio motioned to the limousine he had ordered, which just then pulled up. “Why don’t we speak about it in the limo on our way to the airport?”
“Pop!” Armand bellowed. “You must be kidding!?” His eyes glanced at the limo, then back at his father. “You mean to say you already arranged this coup? Jeez, are you still going to treat me like I’m twelve?”
Sergio smiled. “No, Armand, not twelve. But as you know, a son never grows older than his parents during their time together on Earth. So, yes, Armand, you are, and always will be, my one and only boy. And this lead is not something we should dilly-dally about.”
As Sergio gently escorted Andrea to the limo, she gazed back at Armand with an enthusiastic grin and winked. “Come on, sweetheart. Listen to your father, this is a once in a lifetime adventure.”
Armand shook his head, his mind reeling. He had invested the largest share of his life learning about and loving art and culture with a fervid passion, knowing well how critical it was to the upward climb of the human species. But with the devastating death of his first wife, whom he occasionally neglected due to work, he had learned a valuable lesson the hard way; namely, how precious the loved ones are in one’s life. And now that he was graced with the beautiful gift of marriage once again, he wanted to set his priorities straight. Therefore, he just had to tell his headstrong father and beloved new wife that the paint and canvas of a priceless painting would not take precedence over the flesh and blood of the people he loved and cherished.
Yet, as he walked to the limousine, his eyes caught hold of Andrea’s, who was now glowing with exhilaration as she sat in the back seat gazing up at him. Her stare was electrifying, just as she was to his very heart and soul, which now tingled with a sublime sensation, one that gave him pause. That Andrea would now accompany him on crime cases impacted his decision, which in this case allowed him to pursue lost artwork by perhaps Western civilization’s most prized genius while having the honor and good fortune of being with the woman he loved, the woman who reawakened his heart and filled his universe with supreme bliss. How fortunate—he now thought, as he gazed at Andrea and his father—to be with the people he adored above all others and engaged in a career that he esteemed above all others. Suddenly, it all felt right.
With a satiated grin, Armand slipped contentedly into the back of the limo. The chauffeur closed the door behind him and hopped in the driver’s seat. With a slight jerk, the car took off toward the airport.
Sergio reached into the liquor cabinet and pulled out a special bottle he had bought just for the occasion. With a smile, he poured each of them a glass of wine, which elicited a chuckle from his captive guests, as Andrea said, “Well, well, Da Vinci Chianti. You think of everything, don’t you, Dad?”
Sergio winked. “Of course, my darling new daughter. As you know, we curators must orchestrate every detail.” He gazed at the deep red liquid in his glass and gently swirled it around to aerate it. “For an inexpensive wine, the Sangiovese grapes of the Chianti region are quite flavorful.”
Andrea clinked glasses with her new father-in-law and her new husband. “Then, here’s to us. Salute!” she said with a warm gesture. “I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”
As they each took a sip, Sergio lowered his glass and replied, “Well, hopefully we’ll all be even happier once we land in France, so we can find Leonardo’s lost Leda.”
Armand practically choked on his wine. “What do you mean France? And we? Are you tagging along on this venture?” Armand had visions of turning this case into a dual endeavor, one filled with love for Leonardo’s lost Leda, as well as making love to Andrea.
Sergio replied matter-of-factly, “Armand, of course I’m tagging along. Monsieur De Ville contacted me, yes? So, naturally, it’s only proper that I accompany you to meet with him in Paris, so we all, with God’s grace, may find and return this masterpiece.”
Armand had to chuckle, as he shook his head, while Andrea raised her glass of wine once again. “The apple—or in this case, the grape—doesn’t fall far, does it?”
As father and son laughed and clinked glasses with Andrea, the limo sped toward the airport, while Armand keenly noticed how his father never answered his question: What was the rush?
Landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the threesome hopped in a taxi and headed toward Claude De Ville’s office, located on the outskirts of the heart of Paris. As they weaved through the city streets, they could see the Eiffel Tower standing majestically across the Seine, while well-dressed pedestrians walked the business sector of Paris. Turning down Rue Louis David, they arrived at their destination. Mounted on the ornate, Mansard-roofed building was a large black plaque with gold letters that read “De Ville Financial Investments.” As they entered, Armand noticed that the building engulfed almost the entire block.
Sergio approached the receptionist, as Armand and Andrea looked around the opulent lobby, decorated with an eclectic mix of rare artifacts and two original paintings by French masters, one by Gérôme and one by Fragonard. Sergio turned and waved eagerly, “Come, children! Monsieur De Ville will see us.”
The mature newlyweds shook their heads and chuckled as they followed Sergio into De Ville’s office. The spacious room featured an equally impressive array of fine art by several minor French artists, but most striking of all, were the framed portraits of De Ville’s ancestors, each lined up behind Claude, all titans of the banking and financial industries. On Claude’s lavish rosewood desk—with its intricate inlays, marble top, and 18 carat gold accents—stood a large, bronze statue of Napoleon.
As Claude approached them and Sergio made the introductions, Armand’s eyes surveilled the office, eventually landing on the bronze statue. As he shook De Ville’s soft, frail hand, he said, “I see you like Napoleon, and quite aptly located your office on Rue Louis David, Napoleon’s favorite and personal artist.”
Claude was tall; six-foot four with gray distinguished hair, and a lanky frame, one Armand deduced was prone to sitting and calculating interest rates and transaction fees to fleece his prey, rather than actively producing anything of true value, as De Ville smiled proudly and replied, “You are quite right, Mr. Arnolfini. Your keen sense of deduction is exactly why I reached out to your father. But…” he gazed admiringly at his prized statue. “I must confess, while many view Napoleon as an evil tyrant, I see him otherwise. He was a superior Frenchman, a man of action and bravado, who conquered much of Europe and had instated some fine precedents. He initiated critical road and sewer projects and established the Banque de France, our first central bank, one that we De Villes have long parlayed with to amass even greater wealth,” he boasted with an odious air that was already choking Armand, as he went on, “Napoleon was the true heart and soul of France, affording the De Ville Financial Empire to flourish. And like the emperor, we decimated and conquered our rivals in a similar fashion.” As Armand’s repulsion accrued, like De Ville’s devastating interest rates, Claude added, “And as you certainly must know, Mr. Arnolfini, Napoleon even had an affinity for fine art, not only for Jacques Louis David, but for many great masters.”
Armand had enough and just snickered. “Yes, Monsieur De Ville, Napoleon had an affinity for art, all right, because he looted it.” As Claude’s face turned sour, Armand continued, “And Napoleon’s reverence for art is questionable.” Armand lifted up the statue, gazed deep into Napoleon’s cold bronze eyes, then back at Claude’s avaricious ones. “When your emperor conquered Venice, he snatched Veronese’s colossal painting, The Wedding at Cana, and had it transferred to the Louvre, where he established his headquarters. Then, during preparations to marry his second wife, Marie Louise, he realized it simply didn’t suit his wedding décor. So he ordered it to be destroyed.” As Claude and even Andrea nearly gasped, Armand placed the statue back down and added, “Fortunately, Napoleon’s minions disobeyed him. That’s why the great painting survived and still hangs in the Louvre. A masterwork that should be in Venice.”
Sergio stepped boldly toward his son, and whispered, “Armand! Is it truly necessary to demonstrate your knowledge of history?” Nervously, he looked at Claude, not wanting to lose this singular opportunity to locate a monumental work by Leonardo, and said, “Don’t mind my son, Monsieur De Ville, I’m sure he meant no disrespect to the great name of Napoleon.”
Claude glanced at Sergio, then back at Armand. He squinted, intensely. “Of course he didn’t. As I’ve said, Napoleon was France’s greatest leader.”
Armand smiled. “Of course he was, because Napoleon was Italian. As was the sculptor of your precious statue—Antonio Canova.”
As Sergio cringed, Claude’s face turned indignant. He was about to fire back a retort, but realized he had no ammunition. He laughed. “Touché! Signore Arnolfini. Indeed, they both were.” He glanced at Sergio. “Your son has great intellect and a fiery wit.” He looked back at Armand. “That is why I wish to hire you, Armand. May I call you Armand?”
Armand chuckled. “You already did. Twice.”
With a round of laughter, which somewhat broke the ice and steadied Sergio’s erratic heartbeat, Claude pointed to his plush, pleated sofa, a Riesener original. “Please, have a seat.” He looked at Andrea. “And may I offer you something to drink?”
Andrea shook her head politely. “No, thank you. I’m sure my husband is eager to hear the details of this case.”
“Ah, yes, I hear you are newlyweds. Congratulations.”
As Andrea nodded her thanks, Claude retook his seat behind his elaborate desk and turned toward Armand. “Well, let’s get right down to it. You see, I had the great fortune of living with Leonardo’s masterpiece for many years as a child.” He reached over and opened his cobalt blue and 18 karat gold Fabergé egg, and pulled out a cigarette. He waved it. “Any takers?”
As they each refused, he lit up the cigarette and closed the egg. Meanwhile, Armand was keenly aware that Claude’s claim didn’t jive with recorded history, as he inquired, “What do you mean, you lived with it? Do you mean Leonardo’s original painting, or one of the copies made by several of his protégés?”
Claude rolled his eyes. He took a drag and irritably blew smoke out his nostrils. “The original, Armand…by the master himself. Naturally.”
Armand squinted and leaned closer. “How so? The Leda has been lost ever since da Vinci’s death in 1519, with only one person, Cassiano dal Pozzo, saying he saw it at the Château de Fontainebleau in 1625. Then it disappeared for good.”
Claude smirked. “I can see the doubt etched all over your face, Armand, but I assure you, we owned the original Leda. And, yes, you are very well informed. Cassiano did see it at the Fontainebleau. That’s because my ancestor, Camille De Ville, had briefly put it on loan there. Soon after, it returned safely to our estate. But that’s getting ahead of the initial acquisition, which took place seventy-eight years prior.” He spun around in his swivel chair and pointed to the first of six portraits on the wall. “That is my great, great…” He rolled his eyes once again. “Oh, I forget how many greats precede his name, but suffice it to say, that is my illustrious ancestor, Jacque De Ville.”
He spun around and looked back into Armand’s eyes. “Jacque was the treasurer and dear friend of King Francis I, who reigned from 1515 until 1547.” Taking another puff of his cigarette, Claude blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth and continued, “As you certainly must know, Armand, Leonardo was the king’s personal artist, engineer, architect, and all around man of genius, who was graced with his own residency at Clos Lucé, which was connected to the king’s palace by an underground passage.”
Armand glanced at his father and Andrea, then intently back at Claude. The De Ville family’s lineage was starting to paint a very clear and solid picture of provenance, Armand’s chief concern, as Claude continued, “So, when King Francis died, he bequeathed to Jacque Leonardo’s coveted painting of Leda and the Swan, along with a substantial sum of money, which enabled Jacque to start his own banking institution, which…” Claude pointed to all the walls around them, “you now see before you. The De Ville financial empire was Jacque’s legacy.”
Armand was more than intrigued—he was riveted, but also curious. “So, your family kept Leonardo’s masterwork in your own private possession for hundreds of years, except for that one brief showing at the Fontainebleau, and never told a soul?”
Claude nodded. “Oui, Monsieur. It was the De Ville family’s rightful possession. Why tell the world; that would have only enticed thieves.” Claude took another deep drag, then haughtily turned up his nose and exhaled. He looked back down at the peasants before him, who could never comprehend the privileges of the mega-rich, and continued, this time drifting off into an ethereal mist of his fond memories: “As a child, my father, Pepé, would bring me down into the cellar of our estate to view the masterpiece every Sunday. It became a religious ritual, one that quickly eliminated the mindless monotony of sitting through church. It was liberating and inspiring. I grew very fond of it. Leonardo’s mastery of anatomy, composition, and the ability to capture the inner thoughts and subtle movements of his subjects was unrivalled.” He paused briefly, as the great work materialized in his mind’s eye. Entranced, he went on, “And what a beauty to behold. Da Vinci’s Leda was otherworldly, stunning, like Venus. Utter perfection. It was intoxicating.”
Just then, Claude’s gilded King Louis IV wall clock chimed, waking Claude out of his reverie. His eyes veered back toward Armand, only to notice Armand’s dour expression. Claude’s lips furled, as he said defensively, “You may think I was selfish, Armand, but you’re wrong! Leonardo’s painting was created not for a church or a museum, but for a patron’s private enjoyment. You know that. And it was given to my ancestor with great affection by the king. Leda and the Swan was the De Ville family’s prized heirloom.” Firmly, he added, “It’s mine! And I want it back.”
Armand stifled a retort, he was getting tired of hearing it was Claude’s painting or the De Ville’s private heirloom, and instead stuck to the business at hand. “Well, then tell me; how did it disappear?”
Claude leaned back in his chair and extinguished his cigarette in a lavish Hermès ashtray. His shoulders slumped. He looked into Sergio’s eyes, then Andrea’s, then back at Armand. His voice turned sullen. “It was at the onset of World War Two.” He paused in thought, then continued, “You see, when Hitler invaded France, my father panicked. He was well aware of how the Nazis looted great works of art, so he called upon his friend, Ettore Bugatti, the famous French automaker, to use his subterranean vault at his factory to store the work.”
Armand rubbed his chin with growing interest, but needed to clear the air about misconstrued facts, not to mention giving Claude another dig, as he replied, “Well, another minor correction, Claude. Bugatti was also Italian.” As Claude irritably bit his lips, Armand went on, “But what happened to the painting?” Eager to get to the punch line, he bulleted Claude: “Was it stolen by someone at the factory? By the Nazis? Or destroyed by an air raid? What?”
Claude just shrugged and flipped open his Fabergé egg once again. He slipped out another cigarette and lit up. After taking a deep drag, he exhaled. As he spoke, his words traveled upon a wave of smoke toward his guests’ faces. “I don’t know! You’re the expert,” he said snippily.
He opened the top drawer of his desk, pulled out his checkbook, and grasped his gold and diamond studded pen. He started filling out a check and, without looking up, said, “I’m issuing you a retainer of five thousand US dollars, Armand, to find my precious Leda and the Swan and return it to me. The balance shall be either twenty thousand dollars, if you fail, or one hundred thousand dollars, if you succeed.” Having finished filling out the check, he lifted it up and looked at Armand. “Is that agreeable?”
As Andrea and Sergio smiled, relieved to have finally reached this historic moment, Armand simply chuckled.
Sergio and Andrea’s heads snapped in his direction, as Armand glanced around Claude’s lavish office, and said, “Claude, I see you’re a man who knows the value of things. And not only am I worth more than that, but as you surely know, Leonardo’s lost Leda is worth a helluva lot more than a hundred and five thousand dollars. In fact, Leda and the Swan is so coveted, that some predict that, if found, it would rival the most famous painting in the world; namely da Vinci’s own Mona Lisa. So, this is a very special case and requires a unique payment plan. And your little finder’s fee is not a reasonable percentage of the Leda’s total market value.”
Claude’s face cracked with a devious smile. He ripped up the check. “You’re even smarter and more savvy than the legendary reputation that precedes you, Mr. Arnolfini. I apologize if I insulted you. However, while I agree that the Leda is worth far more than my offer, I question your expertise regarding it rivaling the Mona Lisa. Not that I wouldn’t want my Leda to do so, but I’m curious to know how you can justify that?”
Armand unbuttoned his jacket and leaned back comfortably and confidently into De Ville’s vintage sofa. “Simple, Claude, because Leda and the Swan was the only painting by Leonardo of a pagan myth. I’m sure you were aware of that during your Sunday rituals while avoiding church.” As Claude squinted and crossed his arms, Armand went on, “Meanwhile, Leonardo’s entire oeuvre consisted of works glorifying the Christian religion, private portraits, or even secular in nature, such as the Battle of Anghiari, or the Sforzas’ equestrian monument. However, Leda was unique, and in more ways than one.”
Flashing through Armand’s mind were the sketches Leonardo left behind of Leda’s complex network of braided hair, giving a hint at what the masterpiece might have looked like, as he launched into a concise explanation of the Leda tale, of which all ears paid heed.
Armand explained how the story of Leda and the Swan emanated from the often-bizarre realms of Greek mythology. Full of exotic and erotic overtones, it told how Zeus transformed himself into a swan to fool and seduce the mortal princess Leda. That was to fulfill his odd penchant for fornicating with humans, whereby creating demigods in his lustful wake. To some, however, it also symbolized the folly of women to be easily deceived.
While most artists portrayed this scene in graphic, erotic detail, often with obscene positions of bestial sex, Leonardo—in his atypical and profound manner—had created a tender-loving vision of Leda, one that evaded the carnal act and focused on the beauty of motherhood and procreation. Standing naked with the swan god by her side, Leonardo’s Leda gazed lovingly at two cracked eggshells on the ground, each of which had given birth to a set of twins that she and Zeus bequeathed to the world, namely Helen (who would become Helen of Troy) and Clytemnestra, along with Castor and Pollux. Hence, Leonardo turned what others portrayed as lust and depravity into a divine vision of love and fertility.
As Armand finished his mini lecture, Andrea smiled with admiration, while De Ville sat pensive, almost in a trance. Meanwhile, Sergio’s eyes veered back and forth, between his bold and brilliant son and at De Ville, hoping they would come to a resolution and seal the deal. The thought of losing this opportunity weighed more on Sergio’s mind than the mere weight of gold bullion in dollars, as the colossal weight of perhaps Western civilization’s most priceless masterpiece was, to Sergio, equal to the weight of the Earth itself. Feeling as if Atlas, Sergio found it hard to manage the pressure bearing down on him, and finally spoke, “Well, gentlemen? What will it be?”
De Ville awoke from his foray and glanced at Sergio, then over at Armand. “Uh, yes, very well put,” he said as he now realized that the Leda was far more valuable than even he had imagined. He smiled. “So, here’s my revised offer: A twenty-five thousand dollar retainer, twenty-five thousand more if you fail, and a five percent commission of the current market value of the painting, if you return it to me in good condition.”
Once again Armand chuckled.
Andrea twitched nervously, while Sergio leapt frantically back into the conversation. “Armand! For God’s sake, settle up with him and let’s get this show on the road.”
Armand calmly looked at his father and raised his index finger. “Un minuto.” He gazed back at De Ville. “Claude, you just added ‘in good condition.’ I can make no guarantees as to the condition I’ll find it in. Furthermore, five percent is unacceptable. Make it ten percent, and returned in as is condition, and we have a deal.”
De Ville’s lips twisted as his eyes gazed irritably down at his desktop, focusing on the numbers flashing in his calculating mind. He was accustomed to dictating his terms, not negotiating them, especially with a man who had the temerity to needle him—a De Ville, a proud and eminent Frenchman—with his porcupine-like tongue. After a brief moment, of which Sergio and Andrea held their breaths, De Ville looked up and said, “That’s an awful lot of money to find my lost Leda, Mr. Arnolfini. I’m sure I could hire another private investigator at a much cheaper rate.”
“You most certainly can,” Armand said as he sat upright and glanced around Claude’s posh office. “But, by the looks of things, it’s clear that you know the old adage; you get what you pay for. I don’t see any $10.99 posters hanging on your walls, nor is your furniture laminated-pressboard by IKEA. Each piece is a vintage work of art by master craftsmen, made out of the finest materials.” Armand glanced down at Claude’s desk. “Such as that beautiful desk, which appears to be by André Boulle. I love the combination of ebony and tortoiseshell marquetry with gilded accents. It’s quite exquisite. And dear me, even your ashtray is not some two-dollar trinket from Sears; it’s at least an $800 Hermès special, with 18 karat gold trim. You know quality when you see it, Claude, and I’m sitting right here. Open your eyes.” As Claude couldn’t help but smile, enjoying Arnolfini’s impressive presentation, Armand continued, “And let me say this: if the Leda truly exists, I will find it. There are very few private eyes in this line of work. It’s an extremely specialized field. So, if you want to piss away your money on some penny-ante P.I., who will drag out this investigation for months or even years, and nickel and dime you with mounting miscellaneous fees—something I’m sure you’re an expert at—then be my guest.”
As Andrea nervously looked on and Sergio clutched his heart, Claude cracked a mysterious smile, which soon withered, as he just sat pensive and mute. Only the ticking of the King Louis IV wall clock could be heard as the seconds passed. Sergio began to sweat and took deep noticeable breaths, as if a Lamaze exercise, while Claude indecisively shook his head, then gazed at his statue of Napoleon.
Armand noticed. “He never would have procrastinated, Claude. Napoleon knew when to strike, he was successful because of his quicksilver decisions.” As Claude gazed up, startled, Armand added, “So, what’s it going to be?” He glanced at his watch. “I have a honeymoon I could be enjoying.”
Claude glanced at Andrea, who smiled, then back at Armand. He paused briefly, then uttered, “Very well. But the current market value of my Leda will be assessed by a third party, someone we both must agree upon.”
Armand stood up. “Fair enough. We have a deal.”
As Sergio and Andrea sighed, Claude dutifully reached into his drawer. “Give me a minute, I’ll draw up the contract.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Armand said firmly. “We can do that later. It’s crucial that I jump on this case immediately.”
Claude squinted, while Sergio leapt to his feet and patted Armand on the back. “Good boy!” With a beaming grin, he walked over and shook Claude’s hand vigorously. “Thank God you two ironed this out! You won’t regret it, Monsieur De Ville.”
De Ville stood up. “I hope not.” He handed Armand the check. “As I’ve stated, there’s no way of knowing if the painting even survived the war. But if it did, I must have it. I’m counting on you.”
“Understood,” Armand said, as he handed Andrea the check.
Andrea flinched with surprise. “Why are you giving it to me?”
“We’re married now, and some time ago I said that you’d make an excellent treasurer. So, the job is yours.”
“Okay, fine, dear,” Andrea said, as she leaned toward his ear and whispered jokingly, “But we never talked about my salary.”
Armand chuckled, and whispered back, “We’ll discuss that later. After all, there are other forms of payment.” He winked, then turned back toward De Ville. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
Claude nodded and walked toward his exquisite Riesener bookcase, stocked with first editions, precious artifacts, and in one cubical, a scaled model of the 1932 Bugatti Royale, Coupe De Ville Binder. He lifted up the classic car and looked at Armand. “Ettore Bugatti only built seven of these beauties, this one being the second one, and aptly named Coupe De Ville.” He placed it gently back down and added, “Naturally, that was in homage to my father.”
Armand gazed at the beautifully designed classic with intensity. “I’m a bit of a car enthusiast myself. I own several old classics, but nothing like this. The Bugatti Royale has always been one of my favorites.” His eyes drifted up to Claude’s icy blue irises. “If your father was close friends with Ettore, I imagine you must have stayed in contact with the Bugatti family, yes?”
Claude’s expression soured. “Actually, no. There was a big falling out during the war years.” Claude walked back to his desk, lit up another cigarette, and sat down. A wave of melancholy washed over him once again as he gazed solemnly into space, then back up at Armand.
Claude explained how Bugatti had developed the luxurious car exclusively for royalty. Unfortunately, the timing was impeccably wrong. The Great Depression hit and severely damaged the Bugatti Company. Meanwhile, Ettore’s son Jean died while test-driving one of his cars in 1939. With the advent of the war, the Nazis began commandeering businesses, and Ettore was forced to sell his company to the Germans at below market value. Claude added, “Bugatti was devastated. With his life spiraling into a black hole, Ettore became bitter, my father being just one casualty.”
Claude’s hand shook as he took another drag. As he exhaled, an air of animus reshaped his words. “So, between their relationship falling apart and the damn Nazis gaining control of the factory, my father lost the ability to gain access to the factory’s underground vault. We suspect that the Nazi pigs never located the hidden vault, but that’s mere conjecture.”
Claude irritably extinguished his cigarette in his dazzling ashtray and forcefully stood up. “So, I have no damn clue what happened to my precious Leda. And I strongly advise you to avoid contacting any surviving Bugattis, Armand, because it would yield nothing of value. They won’t even return my phone calls, the dirty bastards!”
He grasped Armand’s shoulder and edged him toward the door. “I apologize for getting so emotional, but Ettore and that family did much to kill my father. Not overtly, but psychologically and financially. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say, there’s no love between our families.”
Sergio and Andrea uncomfortably glanced at each other, then followed them toward the door, as Armand asked several questions, which Claude answered tersely. He then added, “The Bugatti factory is located in Molsheim, right here in France. It was largely destroyed during the war and remains in ruins, but that would be the place I would start my investigation.” Abruptly, he edged Armand out of his office, as Sergio and Andrea squeezed by him and also stepped into the main lobby. Claude closed the door halfway, his face peering out. “My secretary can help you with anything else you need. Keep me posted. Good luck!” With that, Claude firmly closed the door.
The trio looked at one another and shrugged as they marched toward the exit. Meanwhile, Andrea paused at the secretary’s desk and asked, “Is he always that odd?”
The secretary glanced cautiously at De Ville’s door, then back at Andrea. “He’s a billionaire,” she whispered. “They’re all odd. If they were normal there wouldn’t be any billionaires.”