A group stood discussing outside a smartly converted terrace-house row on Kreta Ayer Road. Square and featureless, the walls and continuous portico were uniformly white; but, in the Singapore way, doors, windows and shutters were of varied timbers, some carved, all of high value, all subtly competing.
The most imposing of the three people, a silver haired European man, was a head higher than the others, with a commanding paunch and manner. Perspiring into his roomy R.M. Williams shirt, he looked every bit the Queensland mine owner – which he was, in fact. A young blonde woman, suited and poised, was listening, nodding earnestly as the man rolled his head and jabbed with flattened hand to make his points. A slim young Chinese in dark suit clasped a large portfolio as he kept a respectful distance.
“Maybe these people take me for a hick, but I’ve bought art before, and never once bought a dud. I bought a BMW with Ken Done duco job when everyone told me I’d lose money on it. I sold it the next day at a fifty percent profit. These people are quickly going to learn that I may be a gweilo – but I’m no bloody dill!”
“Sure, sure. Look, Neville, we have to consider that the whole thing may have been an error. Gus Tang has a good rep as dealer, and faking is a very advanced industry across the Chinese world. If we just walk into his gallery and call him a fraud, he loses face. Losing face is fatal for these people. Not good for them, not good for us. You need to understand the way these people think…Sorry, Dennis, I don’t mean anything negative by that, but I’m sure you know what I mean.”
The young Chinese man looked embarrassed to be drawn into the discussion.
“Oh, no offense taken, Kylie. You have to give your advice as you see fit. And the face thing is very important here, as you say.”
“Listen, Kylie – and you too, Dennis – I couldn’t give a tick’s dick about anybody’s face. If these people want to deal with people like me and take our money, then it’s time they understood us. Why is it always white males who don’t understand everyone else? What about understanding me? What about understanding the big, boofy white bloke who ends up writing the cheques for everybody else?”
“Sure, Neville, sure.”
Kylie Kelly swept back one side of her hair, which was straight but oddly puffed out on top in a new power style, then placed a solarium-baked hand on the miner’s chest.
“Neville, we’re going to win this. I’m not just your lawyer in Singapore, and you know it. I’m your mate’s daughter. Nobody is going to dud you, I’ll see to that. I just want us to go quietly. Dennis Choy represents the most respected art evaluators in Asia. I say we put our case, with Dennis’s backing, and see if we don’t get all our money back…”
“Plus all my extra costs!”
“That may be harder, but we’ll see. Gus Tang has a good name to protect and we may find he’s willing to admit fault on an honest mistake and pay up without any wrangling. Why don’t we try a polite probe before bringing in the bulldozers?
“Let’s go in, shall we?”
Kylie Kelly buzzed at the superb door, in Indonesian merbau, to the side of which was a carved ramin-wood plaque with the words: AUGUSTUS TANG AND SONS. DEALERS IN FINE ASIAN ART. The door was opened by a young woman in jeans, tee shirt and red sneakers, casual yet perfect to the last thread. Not for her, the Singapore shopgirl look. Clearly, she was family – one of Gus Tang’s bright grandchildren, in fact – and she instantly recognised Dennis Choy, with whom she had studied at the Lassalle school, before going on to the Slade.
“Oh, hi, Dennis! Please come in, everybody. I’m Olivia Tang. Father is upstairs with grandfather and a client, but we’ve got some fabulous old fans in the bottom gallery if your friends would like to browse…”
Kylie Kelly interrupted as blandly as she could.
“Actually, Olivia, we’re here to see your grandfather on a certain matter. My name is Kylie Kelly and I’m representing Mr. Neville Conklin here. He purchased a silk scroll through your grandfather last week. It was sold to him as a genuine Song Dynasty work by a lesser artist, but with signature seal verified and so on. Mr. Conklin does a lot of business here in Singapore, and he decided to have the work independently evaluated, as a standard precaution…’
“Oh, you mean the Two Birds and Ripe Loquats? It’s a lovely piece. And genuine, I’m sure!”
Neville opened his mouth to remonstrate, but Kylie Kelly grabbed his arm and pinched him into temporary silence.
“Olivia, according to Dennis Choy and his associates, the scroll is a fake. We have the painting with us, along with all documentation, details, results of thread-testing and so on. Nobody is implying dishonesty – apparently the fake is excellent – but we do have serious matters to discuss. We had no time to make appointments, since Mr. Conklin has to be in Brisbane by tomorrow, and I’m sure you’ll understand that he’s a touch upset. So if we could just have a word with your grandfather…”
“Impossible! He’s with clients all afternoon. This is no way to do business!”
Olivia cast a furious look at Dennis Choy, as if he should have known better. Curiously, Dennis – though he showed very little emotion – now seemed more amused than embarrassed.
Neville Conklin, on the other hand, was quick to make his feelings clear.
“Young lady, if you don’t fetch your grandfather right now, I’ll show you how we do business in Mt. Isa when someone cheats at euchre!”
“Cheat! You call my grandfather, Augustus Tang, a cheat? You can go. And your lawyer-lady can talk to our lawyer! As for you, Dennis Choy, you can forget about meeting me for Qing Ming or any other Festival! I’d rather go with a friend.”
Still Dennis Choy seemed to be the only one not perturbed by the awkward scene. He said nothing…and was there even a faint smile playing on his closed lips?
Neville Conklin proceeded to the staircase which led to the upper floor offices and studio. Kylie shrugged helplessly at Olivia then chased after him, hissing:
“Neville, Neville, this isn’t the way. Neville, please. The way these people think is different…”
The big miner growled, loud enough to be heard through the building:
“Right now, we’re going to have a lesson in how Mt. Isa people think. Everyone can get sensitive to that, for a bloody change! Dennis, you come too – and bring the scroll and all that verification gear with you!”
Olivia fixed Dennis with a glare. That glare said that he, Dennis Choy, of all people, should know better. The young Chinese merely shrugged as Kylie had done, raised his brows as if to say he had no choice, and proceeded to follow the others up the stairs.
The top floor consisted of a spacious gallery and studio, with offices to the sides. As Neville arrived, Augustus Tang and his two middle-aged sons were seated in the middle of the gallery, with a client, examining some fans. They all gaped at the booming-voiced intruder and the blonde young woman emerging behind him.
Augustus was a slightly built Chinese who favoured mercerised cotton golf shirts over western or eastern formality. His sons, however, dressed like Dennis Choy. And when Dennis made his appearance, followed by a furious Olivia, Augustus Tang could only accord him a withering stare. To the big miner, he said as he rose a little from his chair:
“Mr. Conklin, so nice to see you again. I have a client, as you see, but if you’d like some tea…”
“This won’t take long, Gus, but your client might want to have some tea somewhere else. What I have to say is something you might want kept private. It’s up to you.”
“No, no. Benny is a friend. He can stay. What seems to be the problem?”
“Right, you know Dennis, and his firm. You know their reputation. This lady is my lawyer here in Singapore. Her name’s Kylie Kelly. I’ll make it short. I’m not quite as big a drongo as some people think. When I invest, I check. This scroll, this nine hundred year old scroll you sold me…it’s a dead-set fake. When Dennis’s people first alerted me, I had them run a heap of checks and double-checks, which weren’t cheap. It’s fake. It’s a terrifically good fake, and nobody is accusing you of anything, old mate. But I’m out of pocket on this fake, on my time, and on all this evaluation caper. I want my money back, including what I had to pay Dennis’s mob. Simple as that, Gus.”
“I see. May I first examine the scroll again, and the expert documentation?”
“Too right you can. That’s why we came. Dennis!”
Dennis Choy approached the huge lacquered table and placed the portfolio in front of Augustus Tang. As he did so, the older man gave him a career ending look along with a slight nod. Not affected by what should terrify, Dennis stepped back respectfully, still with that blithe, unengaged expression. Augustus opened the portfolio, and began to examine the small painted scroll and the accompanying documentation. Only someone who knew him well would have detected a tectonic mood change in the old man. To all others, he seemed the same as moments before: troubled and politely hostile.
After spending more time examining every detail in silence, Augustus sat back in his chair and sighed. Then, almost song-like, he began speaking to no-one in particular, with his head cast back and eyes closed.
“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
“Do I remember my Shakespeare well? Never mind!
“Mr. Conklin, I have been the victim of deception, or, I hope, error, by somebody I trust. Who can know if the lady who sold me this scroll did so in the knowledge that it is fake? One thing is certain: at a certain point, a clever artist used his god-given talent to perpetrate this fraud.
“The fraud ends with me. I will, of course, repay the full purchase price now. And I will make the valuation by Dennis’ company my own, keeping all these documents and making immediate payment to Dennis. Mr. Conklin, you will be more than welcome to keep copies. Though I cannot compensate you for your trouble, you will find me very accommodating in our future dealings, should you wish to buy from me again.
“I assume that you, Mr. Conklin, and you, Dennis Choy, will be happy to take cheques right now from Augustus Tang and Sons? Yes? Very well!”
With his usual deliberation, he drew a cheque book and fountain pen from an exquisitely carved writing stand. The two cheques were made out as if they were masterworks of calligraphy. Augustus was careful to pass Conklin’s cheque to his lawyer, for her verification. Kylie then handed it to her client, who gave her a quick wink.
“Now, I’m afraid I have neglected Benny, who is also here on business. I hope you have a pleasant trip back to Brisbane, Mr. Conklin, and that you will make an appointment to see me next time you are on the island, so our time together is not hurried. And it was a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Kelly. I hope you will leave a business card with Olivia.”
Neville Conklin was having trouble containing himself.
“Gus, I’m going to let the whole southern hemisphere know that you’re a man to deal with. You’ll certainly see me again, on my very next trip. Anyhoo, come on Kyles – you too, Dennis. I’m buying the beers.”
“One moment, Mr. Conklin. I’d very much like it if Dennis could stay back a moment…”
“Gus, I hope you’re not going to get stuck into Dennis over all this…”
“Oh, not at all. Dennis has been perfect – most ethical and thorough. But you’ll understand that there are details about the scroll and so on…”
“If Dennis doesn’t mind, I don’t mind. Looks like it’s just you and me for the beer, Kyles.”
Olivia saw the pair of them out after taking one of Kylie Kelly’s business cards. The girl had seemed distant, but no longer hostile. As they stood waiting for a cab, Neville could not resist a little triumphal dig.
“Remember, Kyles, instead of worrying all the time about how these people think, let these people worry about how we think! Bugger all that cultural sensitivity caper, when you’re the one writing the cheque. Take a tip from an old cane toad!”
Augustus Tang pored over the fake scroll, as Dennis sat by with the same faintly amused expression. He waited for the older man to speak, as did the others present. When Augustus did so, it was in English, as a courtesy to his visitor, Benny Chue, a New Guinea Chinese.
“Dennis, at first I didn’t understand. I was bewildered that you hadn’t called me, alerted me. When you just walked in like that…”
“Oh, we wanted to surprise you, Mr. Tang. You know how my uncle is.”
“You certainly managed to surprise me. Now, is there any doubt whatever about the scroll? Any at all?”
“No, Mr. Tang, it’s all in the documentation. It’s a fake by Chang Dai-chien, from the 1950s. He’s used one of the seals they found in Brazil. We have microscopic proof that it was one of those phony seals. The silk, the ink – it’s all a fake by Chang Dai-chien. We stand by our evaluation one hundred percent.”
Augustus Tang continued to shake his head in amazement. Benny Chue then slapped the table.
“If you’re absolutely sure…I’ll double whatever the big Aussie paid you, plus the valuation!”
The others laughed. Olivia, who, by this time had rejoined the group and was fairly beaming at Dennis Choy, spoke next.
“Grandfather, I’ll give you three times what the Aussie paid – but you’ll say no.”
“Business is business. I think we may need to send this to Hong Kong to get best price. That price will be many, many times what our Australian friend paid for the scroll. But, really, Dennis, is there any doubt that this was done by Chang Dai-chien? He’s bigger than Picasso with the new Shanghai money. We’ll need to be sure…”
“Mr. Tang, we absolutely guarantee that the fake is one hundred percent genuine!”