Keller’s 1952 cutoff date put most of the world’s art stamps out of his reach. But some countries had issued such stamps back in the old one-color days, more out of pride in their artistic heritage than in a grab for the collector’s dollar. The French were particularly eager to show off their culture, portraying writers and painters and composers at the slightest provocation, and Keller looked now at a set of French semipostals that gave you a real sense of the artists’ power.
And of course there was the Spanish set honoring Goya. One of the stamps showed his nude portrait of the Duchess of Alba. The painting had caused a stir when first displayed, and, years later, the stamp had proven every bit as stirring to a generation of young male philatelists. Keller remembered owning the stamp decades ago, and scrutinizing it through a pocket magnifier, wishing fervently that the stamp were larger and the glass stronger.
In the current issue of Linn’s, as in almost every issue, there was a spirited exchange in the letters column on the best way to attract youngsters to the hobby. Evidently boys and girls were less strongly drawn to philately in a world full of computers and Nintendo and MTV. If kids stopped collecting stamps, where would the next generation of adult collectors come from?
Keller, having considered the question, had decided that he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was add to his own collection, and he didn’t really give a damn how many other men and women were working on theirs. Without new collectors joining the fold, stamps might eventually decline in value, but he didn’t care about that, either. He wasn’t going to sell his collection, and what difference did it make what became of it upon his death? If he couldn’t take it with him, then somebody else could figure out what to do with it.
But others clearly did care about the hobby’s future. The U.S. Post Office evidently saw a very profitable sideline threatened, and had responded by issuing stamps designed specifically to appeal to the young collector. When Keller was a boy, stamps showed great American writers and inventors and statesmen, people he mostly hadn’t heard of, and in the course of collecting their images he had in fact learned a great deal about them, and about the history in which they’d played a part.
Nowadays, stamp collecting was a great way for young Americans to learn about Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Keller thought it over and decided they were doing it wrong. He’d collected avidly as a boy not because stamp collecting was designed for kids but because it was something undeniably grown-up that he could enjoy. If it had felt like kid stuff he wouldn’t have had any part of it.
Would a stamp with Bugs Bunny’s picture on it have prompted a young Keller to whip out his magnifying glass for a closer look?
Not a chance. If they wanted to get the kids interested, he thought, let them start putting naked ladies on them.
He called Dot first thing in the morning. “I hope it’s not too early,” he said.
“Five minutes ago you’d have been interrupting my breakfast,” she told him. “Now all you’re interrupting is the washing up, and that’s fine with me.”
“I was wondering,” he said. “About the client.”
“Refresh my memory, Keller. Didn’t we already have this conversation?”
“Suppose you were to call whoever called you,” he said. “Suppose you ask how the client feels about mushrooms.”
“You going into the catering business, Keller?”
“Innocent bystanders,” he said. “Drug dealers call them mushrooms because they just sort of pop up and get caught in the crossfire.”
“That’s charming. When did you take to hanging out with drug dealers?”
“I read an article in the paper.”
“That’s where you get your figures of speech, Keller? From newspaper articles?”
He drew a breath. “What I’m getting at,” he said, “is suppose something happened to a guy in Brooklyn, and his wife and kid got in the way.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going.”
“And the art gallery’s another possibility, but there too you might have people around.”
“So I should run it past my guy so he can get in a huddle with the client.”
“And I report back to you, and then what? Don’t tell me the job gets done and we can all move on.”
“Sure,” he said. “What else?”
Keller sat in front of the Hopper poster, taking it in. If you wanted to hang something on the wall, you couldn’t beat a poster. Ten or twenty bucks plus framing and you had a real piece of art in your living room.
On the other hand, how many posters could you hang before you ran out of wall space? No, if you were going to collect art in a small apartment, stamps were the way to go. One album, a few inches of shelf space, and you could put together a tiny Louvre all your own.
He could go either way. He could start a topical collection, art on stamps, or he could look for a few more posters that hit him the way Hopper’s did.
He put on a tie and jacket and got on a crosstown bus.
It was ridiculous, he thought, walking from the bus stop to the gallery. The painting he liked best, #19 on the laminated price list, was one of the larger ones, and the price they were asking was $12,000. It would be nice to be able to look at it whenever he felt like it, but he could walk over to Central Park anytime he wanted and look at thousands of trees. He could get as close as he wanted and it wouldn’t cost him a dime.
The same Vassar graduate sat behind the desk, reading the same Jane Smiley novel and waiting for her Wall Street prince to come. She nodded at Keller without moving her head-he wasn’t sure how she managed that-and went back to her book while he crossed the room to the painting.
And there it was, as vivid and powerful as ever. He felt himself drawn into the picture, sucked into the trunk and up the branches. He let himself sink into the canvas. This had never happened to him before and he wondered if it happened to other people. He stayed in front of the painting for a long time, knowing that there was no question of passing it up. He had the money, he could spend it on a painting if he wanted.
He’d tell the girl he wanted to buy it, and they’d take his name and perhaps a deposit-he wasn’t sure how that part worked. Then they’d record it as sold, and when the show came down at the end of the month he’d pay the balance and take it home.
And have it framed? It was minimally framed now with flat strips of dark wood, and that worked okay, but he suspected a professional framer could improve on it. Something simple, though. Something that enclosed the painting without drawing attention to itself. Those carved and gilded frames looked great around a portrait of a codger with muttonchop whiskers, but they were all wrong for something like this, and-
There was a red dot on the wall beside the painting.
He stared at it, and it was there, all right, next to the number 19. He extended a forefinger, as if to flick the dot away, then let his hand fall to his side.
Well, he’d left it too long. Remembering to look before he leapt, he’d hesitated, and was lost.
And so was the painting, lost to him.
Disappointment washed over him, along with a paradoxical sense of relief. He wouldn’t have to part with twelve thousand dollars, wouldn’t have to seek out a framer, wouldn’t have to pick a spot and hammer a nail into the wall.
But, dammit to hell, he wouldn’t own the painting.
Of course there were others. This was the one he’d picked, the old tree trying to get through one more winter, but the choice hadn’t been all that clear-cut, because he’d responded strongly to all of Declan Niswander’s work. If he couldn’t have his favorite, well, it wasn’t the end of the world. How hard would it be to find one he liked almost as well?
Not hard at all, as it turned out. But it would be equally impossible to buy any of the other works, no matter how much he liked them, because every single painting in the gallery had been given the red dot treatment.
He stared at the desk until the girl looked up from her book. “Everything’s been sold,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Isn’t it marvelous?”
“It’s great for you people,” he said, “and I suppose it’s great for Mr. Niswander, but it’s not so great for me.”
“You were in yesterday afternoon, weren’t you?”
“And I should have bought the painting then, but I wanted to sleep on it. And now it’s too late.”
“Things happen overnight in this business,” she said. “I always heard that, and here’s an example. When I went home last night there were only two paintings sold, the ones that were purchased the night of the opening. And when I came in this morning there were so many red dots I thought the walls had measles.”
“Well,” he said, “at least I’ve got the rest of the month to look at the paintings. Who bought them, anyway?”
“I wasn’t here. Look, suppose I get Mr. Buell? Maybe he can help you.”
She went away and Keller returned to Niswander’s trees, trying not to notice the plague of red dots. Then a man appeared, the willowy young chap who’d introduced Niswander at the opening. Up close, Keller could see that Regis Buell wasn’t really as young as he appeared. He looked like an aging boy, and Keller wondered if he might have had a face-lift.
“Regis Buell,” he said. “Jenna informs me we’ve disappointed you by selling out to the bare walls.”
“I’m the one with the bare walls,” Keller told him.
Buell laughed politely. “What painting was it? That you had your heart set on.”
“The old horse chestnut? A splendid choice. You have a good eye. But I have to say they’re all good choices.”
“And they’ve already been chosen. Who bought them?”
“Ah,” Buell said, and clasped his hands. “Mystery buyers.”
“More than one?”
“Several, and I’m afraid I can’t disclose any of their names.”
“And they all came through at the same time? I was here yesterday and there were only two paintings sold.”
“Yes, just the two.”
“And today they’re all gone.”
“Ah. Well, I had a private showing last night, after we’d officially closed. And, as a matter of fact, some of the work was already sold when you saw it yesterday. The red dots weren’t in place yet, but several paintings had in fact been spoken for.” He smiled winningly. “I don’t believe Jenna told me your name.”
“I never gave it to her,” Keller said. “It’s Forrest.”
Buell smiled prettily, and Keller immediately regretted the name. “Mr. Forrest,” Buell said. “No wonder you respond to trees.”
“Well,” Keller said.
“You know, there’s always the chance a purchaser will change his mind.”
“And back out of the deal?”
“Or consent to an immediate resale, especially if he’s offered an incentive.”