Art forger Rick Engels must choose between going straight or accepting one last caper.
When his truck climbs the snow-covered rise, Rick Engels sees the weathered farmhouse isolated amid acres of fields between the Shawangunk and Catskill mountain ranges. Overnight the snow softened the lines of the bare trees and erased the ruts in the land. His tires scrunch over the snow, carving out fresh treads. Anyone looking for him could find him by following the treads.
The family farmhouse, gray and weathered, sits alone on a rise, looking over fields and hills, no neighbors in sight. The farmhouse is more than Rick’s family home. It is Rick’s family hideout. Rick grew up at the farmhouse, going to school in the neighboring town and working summers with his grandparents and his dad. The house is Rick’s now, passed to him last month after his father got sent to federal penitentiary for art fraud. Like his grandfather and his father, Rick is an accomplished art forger, but he wants out. Technology is transforming the art market. Algorithms, digital forensics, advanced infrared and artificial intelligence overtake the art connoisseurs on whom Rick and other forgers rely to vouch for their work. Rick feels like an old dog trying to learn new tricks: He has spent decades perfecting other people’s masterpieces, burying his own talent beneath layers of oil paint, but he can no longer produce fakes as fast as algorithms can discover them. He’s done.
Rick pulls his truck up the driveway and tucks it into the space between the house and the garage. As soon as he opens the driver’s door, Millie leaps from the passenger seat to the ground, sixty pounds of Golden Retriever running, wagging and snuffling around the car and the garage. Two hours in the truck leaves Rick stiff and slow. He slips out of the truck, feeling all of his forty-seven years, and roughly rubs his hands over his stubble to wake himself up. He weaves his hands together on his lower back and stretches back and forth, side to side, swiveling his waist and hips. He catches a glimpse of himself in the wide-view mirror, surprised at the gray taking over his temples and his brown stubble.
He zips his anorak and stills. Red-tailed hawks circle overhead. Chimney smoke flavors the air. Wind whips around his ears and hair. From the seat pocket behind the driver’s seat, Rick pulls out his binoculars and sets the focus. He circles, looking across the property, the hills, the fields and farms, then beyond to the horizon. Snowy white fields, an uninterrupted stretch to the Shawangunk mountain range and then the lavender of the Catskill Mountains. Not a soul. A perfect hideout.
Rick knows the property by heart. He tumbled down every copse, fished the creek by the now-bare willow, and climbed the apple and pear trees. Under the big oak to the northeast, the snowy shape of his grandparents’ gravestones sit beside gravestones of their parents and their parents. Generations of Engels.
Rick picks his way through the snow to the front porch and knocks his boots once, twice to remove the snow. The red door stands out vividly, a snap of color across a backdrop of white and black. Three small windows top the door, a brass knocker at eye level and three strong locks. He checks the metal mailbox attached to the wall and finds flyers and envelopes. Packing the mail under his arm, he selects the right combination of keys from the set the estate attorney sent, opens the red door and enters the hallway.
Late afternoon sunlight angles through the windows, lighting up dust motes over the wooden floor. The house is cold and unused. He raises the thermostat, and within minutes he hears the hot water heater fire up and the baseboards fill as the house snaps and pops into life. Shards of colored light come through the stained glass in the foyer. As a young boy Rick used to lay on the wooden floor and watch the stained glass colors move across the floor, feeling the sun’s warmth as yellows, reds and indigos crossed his eyelids and cheeks.
His anorak unzipped, Rick wanders the house. He is amazed at how little the farmhouse has changed since he last visited twelve years ago, almost as if his father kept the farmhouse as a shrine for a decade. His grandfather’s winter coat hangs in the foyer as if his grandfather just came home, his grandmother’s knitting basket and skeins of colored yarn sit beside her favorite chair as if she just stepped into the kitchen for coffee. Photographs line the hallway. His grandparents, his parents, he as a child. He stops in front of a rare photo of his parents smiling as Rick got his fine arts degree from Syracuse University. They were seldom in the same photograph and rarely smiling.
He enters the sitting room lined with bookcases, stone walls, a massive fireplace and a trestle table. An oil painting of a red-headed girl — a stunning Renoir that is one of Rick’s best and earliest fakes — glows above the trestle table. Rick leans close, blows away the dust and flips on a switch, bathing the painting in gallery light. He inhales the reds and blues, as moved now by the fake as he was when he saw the original painting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
From the sitting room Rick crosses into the solarium stretching across the southern exposure of the farmhouse. Floor to ceiling windows extend nearly the full length of the room, and a hand-carved hutch dominates the opposing wall. The smell of linseed oil and turpentine hits him. Home, he thinks. Three easels stand at the windows, one holds a stormy ocean and the second an incomplete Fragonard. The third easel is open. This is where I’ll paint, Rick decides, mentally laying out his pigments, linseed oil, palettes, brushes and brush cleaners.
In the kitchen, late-day gold colors the white-wood walls, the calendar, the potholders, the percolator and the glass-front cabinets of dishes and glasses. Rick sees his grandmother cooking up dinner on the stove, he smells the roast coffee always brewing, and he savors the hint of his grandfather’s pipe tobacco. Memories flood his senses.
He heads back outside, lowers the back of the truck and unfastens the tarp and the bungee cords from the truck bed. One by one he unloads four wooden crates, each narrow and several feet long. He carries them into the front hallway, stands them up against the dark wall and carefully pries open the crates. The fakes glow with color — Andre Derain, Franz Marc, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet — as breathtaking as the originals. The fakes are his loves, his children. He breathes them in, smelling the paint, the canvas, the beauty.
Rick goes back to the car and grabs his duffel, his cooler and the dog food. Looking north to the lavender Catskills, he catches a flash of a reflection in the snow banks — a flash where he should see nothing. He grabs his binoculars from the back seat and zooms in on the area. A half-mile away, a lone figure stands in the snow banks looking through his binoculars at Rick. As he turns the binoculars in the man’s direction, the man drops, as if swallowed by the snow bank.
A man, Rick guesses, black parka, high collar, black hat. Who the hell is that? Rick wonders. He hears a high-pitched whine and a snowmobile heads away from the snow banks, crossing the fields behind the ridge. Rick’s mouth goes dry. Is it the FBI? How did they find me here so quickly? Rick feels the lasso tightening: Last month the Feds sent his father, Dan Engels, to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury for art fraud. A week later members of Rick’s crew warned him that the Feds were asking about him near the studio in Tribeca.
Spooked by the stranger in the snow, Rick decides to hide the paintings. He carries the frames to the solarium and rests them against a chair. He turns to the hand-carved hutch, runs his fingers along the right edge and presses down on two small depressions for middle and pointer finger. The giant hutch swings open, exposing a locked door. Finding the right key, Rick opens the door to an empty closet with shelves. On the door jamb he presses a small indentation, and the closet splits midway, folding into a custom rack as if it were a ship’s galley. The ceiling light activates, and Rick descends into the windowless vault.
Whiffs of linseed oil, turpentine, dried paint and mustiness meet him as he heads into the vault. Small critters skitter into dark corners, and dust covers surfaces. Rick walks aisle by aisle through the trove, his hands trailing over frames, canvases and stretchers both small and large. His family’s legacy lays in front of him: His grandfather concentrated on recreating Turner’s oceans, English landscapes and Hudson River School forgeries. Dan Engels concentrated on still-lifes, portraits and abstracts. Dan Engels was not as talented as Rick or as skillful as Rick’s grandfather. What Dan lacked in artistic talent he made up for with his mastery of the family’s business of fakes.
Rick heads toward his corner of the vault, an area outfitted with high-intensity lights and covered with clippings, art and catalogue photos. Unlike the muted and dark palettes of his grandfather and his father, the fakes in his corner are luminous, colorful, vivid, uplifting — dancers, bathers, sunflowers, haystacks, skies, towns, picnickers, village greens and boats stretch across the canvases. After he records the new fakes he just unwrapped, he flips through his originals, paintings created during his apprenticeship, his college years and his productive faking years. He takes out one, two, three paintings and examines them under the light, pleased with the substance, the color and the varnish. He selects two originals, signed Rick Engels in the lower right, to hang in the sitting room. It’s time to bring my paintings into the light.