It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of a large fortune will draw a crowd. This young woman seemed unphased the throng surrounding her. But then, I imagine that few things bother a 24-year-old socialite with millions of dollars of her property hung both on the walls and around her neck.
Her afro was sculpted; her coils coaxed into a shell-like structure. She was Nigerian. I could tell by the air of unflinching confidence with which she conducted herself combined with the trepidation that her words and gaze visibly provoked in others. She had the air of someone who had heard stories of the wars fought by her ancestors and had long since decided that she too was capable of striking down anyone who had the misfortune of classifying themself as her enemy. She moved in a precise manner; every motion calibrated to produce an exact effect without expending superfluous energy.
She circled the room, walking from painting to painting, and yet she always seemed to be at the centre of it. Like any celestial body, she seemed to possess her own gravity, pulling the rock stars, curators and A-list celebrities in the room along with her. The rapt attention was not excessively unwarranted. It was, after all, her birthday. No gaudy sash or diet-defying cake for her though. No, this young woman was holding an art gala, sharing a never seen before Caravaggio from her private collection to be sold to the highest bidder. Art sales of this magnitude brought out London’s deepest pockets, but also the art world’s most notorious thieves, which was why I was in Kensington after 9 pm in a ballgown with a gun strapped to each thigh.
An art heist is not an easy thing to pull off; only the most brazen thieves have the guts to attempt one. The biggest risk is that it is not a solitary endeavour. It requires a team. The pros manage the risk by limiting each team member’s knowledge of the whole plan, but a single weak link can still be detrimental to the entire venture.
It was easy to tell the people in the room who were there to adore the birthday girl, those who were there for the art and, by a process of elimination, I eventually identified a few candidates who were, depending on the way you looked at it, intelligent enough or dumb enough to participate in the biggest art heist of the twentieth century.
My name is Rebecca Agbontaen. I spent my prime doing for Queen and country the sorts of things that you cannot bring up in polite company. Former intelligence agent might be my official moniker, but some things never leave you, not when they get into your blood. Suffice to say that my attendance at the soiree was not officially sanctioned. An announcement on an art website I read and some cryptic messages on some of the dark web forums I monitored had convinced me to call in a favour from a friend who could get an invitation to any event in town.
I had come in through the back, not only to avoid the crowds and paparazzi in the front but also to scout potential escape routes for any would-be thieves. The venue’s security left a lot to be desired. Entering via a fire escape, through the kitchen and up into the exhibition area, I was not once asked for my invitation until I was within a few feet of the main exhibition room. I would have had security on every door of the building and every entry/exit point on the perimeter. It was of course expensive excesses like that that resulted in me being bored and unemployed on a Saturday night. They also made me damn good at my job.
I counted five potential escape routes. Two were too crowded to move through easily. One was well covered by security cameras. The other two were near perfect options for would-be art thieves. The kitchen route that I had come through was the first, the other was a warren of offices that had clearly been in use just hours earlier, but were deserted for the night.
The main gallery space was, with its white walls and beech wood floors, the perfect blank canvas for the art and artful display of wealth on show that night. I looked at the art on the walls. Only the Caravaggio warranted the kind of elaborate, high-tech operation that I could feel unfolding around me, but there were other artworks in the room. The other pieces had their own appeal. There were a few works from the contemporary hyperrealism movement in Nigeria. One piece, in particular, was an emotive coloured pencil drawing of a crying toddler. Her tears seemed poised to drop off the canvas and flood the floor. Another piece depicted the Madonna and child. It was by one of my favourite contemporary artists whose work I had been following for a while. In my line of work, it was necessary to gain expertise in a range of areas. I had found that an appreciation for and knowledge of art could open doors that remained closed to more heavy-handed approaches. Moreover, someone looking at my closed file, the one that held the fragments of my life before the service, might find mention of an Art History degree. Like I said, some things never leave you.
The Caravaggio itself was a masterpiece. In his characteristic style, the background was mostly black, visually emphasising the dynamism and richness of the scene the artist had depicted. It was a nativity, but not the saccharine sweet chocolate box nativity that pervaded popular culture. This scene was dirty, busy, nosy. It was what a birth in an outhouse with animals would actually be like. And yet, Caravaggio had captured the divinity and power of the event beautifully.
The exhibition as a whole was well laid out. Despite the fact that centuries separated many of the works, they all seemed to be in conversation with one another. The common thread was the use of art to capture moments as truthfully as possible; to translate moments in a way that included the viewer in the scene. Intimate moments, corporate moments, moments that would be recognised by a select few and moments of eternal impact. It was remarkable that this young lady possessed these artworks, but perhaps more remarkable was her skill in curating them.
After a glance at the artworks, I surveyed the room. A pair, husband and wife, in their sixties, stood in front of a modern piece by a Nigerian artist. The man was clearly enthralled by it and was attempting to convince his wife that they should buy it. A group of five twenty-somethings were clearly as close as the birthday girl could get to close friends. They stayed near to her and would periodically make comments eliciting smiles and the occasional giggle. Their deft and unengaged gazes at the artworks informed me that they knew little to nothing about art, but I could tell that they were adept in conducting themselves in a manner that gave other people the impression that they knew what they were talking about.
At one point, I got close enough to the girl to see her clearly. She was comfortable in the crowd, comfortable in her own skin, in her wealth. Hair perfectly in place apart from a single, unexpected, strand of silver. No, it was gold. Perhaps that was the fashion nowadays, I thought to myself.
Suddenly I saw it, a collective of eight people. They were trying very hard to blend in, but I could see the synchronicity, the individuals were working as one unit. They were trying to seem like they were having natural conversations; they were trying to move around the room whilst not getting too close and not making discernible eye contact with one another. Each one focusing on the paintings and people they had obviously been assigned. I knew that this was obvious to nobody but me; this invisible dance taking place in plain sight.
Looking at the faces, there were none that I could recognise. It was most likely that the more notorious power players, hidden in the back somewhere, had recruited a crew of unknowns with the skills to get the job done. The painting would be stolen, sold to a private buyer and split ten or maybe twelve ways.
Art theft was generally a stable business. The thieves built their reputations on efficiency, the ability to obtain a work with minimum fuss; at times without a single person realising its absence. The buyers were amongst the most discreet people in the world. Their choice to procure art pieces on the black market, if discovered, would lead to a censure within their social circles that pretty much guaranteed their absolute silence, more so even than the potential for criminal sanctions.
Truly, the young woman was like a flower; her guests buzzed around her as the evening drew on. I waited. I was looking for the window, the opening that the thieves would use to swing their plan into action. And then it came.
Two members of the gallery staff approached the painting. Apparently, it was being moved for the auction into an area specially set up. The two staff members wore gloves. The collective of eight moved in invisible synchronicity, two of their number a little too close to the gloved attendants. Two women, one wearing a green dress who had cornrows that ran into braids that reached down her back, the other wearing a blue dress with short dark straight hair in a pixie cut. I could see their plan. There was an arch which the attendants would have to pass through. The arch connected the exhibition area to the offices I had checked out earlier. A few deft moves and the painting could be spirited away.
I drew close to the two women from the collective of eight. I grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. I walked in front of the two of eight and spilled a portion of the contents of the glass on their path as I walked by. Their high heels were no match for a slippery surface. They both tripped and fell to the ground, tangled in one another. Guests gathered around to help them up.
The gloved attendants proceeded with the painting, oblivious to the attempt they and the artwork had survived. I followed them and watched as they placed it in its new spot, on a wall next to an auction table that had been set up.
The main lights in the room suddenly went out, but the spotlight beneath the paintings remained on. I stood as close as possible to the Caravaggio. There was no way it could be taken without going through me. As close as I was, I could see the detail of the brush strokes. I could see the colour of the paint. The faint gold line of a halo around the young Christ’s head. But Caravaggio never used gold. He considered it gaudy, so he always used ochre instead. But this was gold. The same as the colour I had seen in the young woman’s hair.
It was not an art heist. It was a kidnapping. She was not merely a socialite. She was an art forger. She had not intended to debut a much sought-after work of art. Her intention was to debut her greatest work, her masterpiece, her finest work of artistic brilliance and deception. What was more valuable than a priceless Caravaggio? A means of producing several Caravaggios, and potentially other priceless works. The attempt on the artwork had only been meant as a distraction, and I had provided an adequate alternative.
I was seeing the whole picture clearly for the first time. In the corner of my eye, I could see the young woman being bundled away through the door in the arch. Three of the eight were guiding her out, no doubt her silence gained by the threat of a weapon. The other five were independently but collectively making the most of the distraction, that I had unwittingly supplied, occupying the attention of her friends, her bodyguard and the rest of those gathered to adore the art and, unknowingly, the artist.
I rushed to the arch door. I could see the kidnappers and the young woman up ahead. They were already exiting the building. I moved quickly and quietly as I was trained. Coming up behind the two women who were covering the rear, I kicked them both in the back of the knees. Their accomplice, a smartly dressed young man, had his arm around the birthday girl. I twisted his arm around and punched him, knocking him out cold. His gun clattered on the floor. I could see the girl’s bodyguard through the glass of the arch door. I rubbed the paint-stained strand of her hand between my index finger and thumb. I showed her colour.
“I’m going to suggest you cancel the auction,” I said. “Happy birthday.”
As her bodyguard appeared in the arch door, she ran towards him. Using a pencil from one of the office tables, I handed him the gun that had fallen. Exiting the same way I had entered, through the kitchens, I slipped away into the darkness.