Memoirs of a sleuth in the art world; The glint of gold in King Farouk's closet; The Glorious Obsession, by Maurice Rheims. Translated by Patrick Evans. New York: St. Martin's Press. $12.95.
This book reads like a thriller. And why shouldn't it when it's all about climbing dark, creaking stairs in centuries-old buildings to determine whether a painting owned by an old gentleman is really a Cezanne? Or traveling into the wilds of Corsica after an antique sedanchair only to discover that it had just been buried with its most recent owner inside the family vault?
It's a thriller, all right, but not a frivolous one. For one thing, the protagonists are among the most beautiful and valuable objects in the world: Rembrandt and Renoir paintings, the gold mask of Tutankhamen (founder under a pile of King Farouk's silk shirts), Watteau drawings, the manuscript of Stendhal's "The Red and the Black," the last will and testament of louis XIV, and literally thousands of other characters masquerading as antiques and works of art.
Then there is Maurice Rheims, its author. Hardly a frivolous person. Distinguished appraiser, auctioneer, and collector -- hero of the French Resistance with a Croix de Guerre, a man who served as a secret agent during World War II to help smuggle Dutch soldiers out of France -- and author of several books on French artists.
And -- I gather from this record of his life-long "glorious obsession" for beautiful things -- a shrewd and discerning judge of the true value of a work of art as well as of its price.
Rheims was born in Alsace-Lorraine, learned to love beautiful things from his mother at an early age, studied at the Ecole du Louvre, and went on to gain the qualifications necessary to become an auctioneer, a profession he practiced for 35 years.
He started his career by selling off the entire contents of what was probably at that time the world's largest hotel, an affair highly profitable to the hotel owner and just what Rheims needed to help establish his reputation. From there he graduated to more important sales, rapidly becomin gone of the important experts on aret and antiques as well as one of the pillars of the French art world.
Although he devotes several chapters to the theatrical events known as auctions -- giving us, in the process, valuable tips on how these events work, and on how to survive them -- the most interesting portions of this book have to do with his search for, and discovery of, soem of the most magnificent objects ever fashioned by the hand of man.
Here his cast of characters widens to include some of the great collectors of the world: Gulbenkian, Getty, Niarchos, the Rothschilds, as well as the great art dealers Rosenberg and Wildenstein, the painters Bonnard, Dufy, Picasso. And , last but not least, a cluster of some of the wildest, most ruthless, and most fascinating ladies one could ever hope to meet. All of these people were wild for art -- although often for very different reasons.
It would spoil the reader's fun if I detailed where Rheims went, whom he saw, his great successes, or his failures in the pursuit of his valuable things. Suffice it to say that he went into the lowest hovels and into the most ancient and beautiful palaces -- and that he describes his adventures with great wit and with a minimum of technical jargon.
In the last three chapters Rheims muses on his long career. Having seen so much, and having participated in some of the great auction sales of his time, he is in a perfect position to give advice to beginning collectors. And he does, spelling out with authority and in detail the kinds of pitfalls and pleasures such a person will probably encounter. This section alone is worth the price of the book.
This is a fascinating and charming book, marred only here and there by the translation, which tries a little too hard to sound like colloquial English.
But that is a very small matter considering how much pleasure and information it contains.