At the end of the Edwardian Era in England two things happened. One, the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum and two, Manfred Müller’s father, after two false starts, finally kicked the bucket bequeathing all his worldly possessions to his son.
For Manfred (known as Manny), God’s summons to his father proved a godsend. Manny was a patron of the horse races at Sandown Park in Surrey. The affliction was his sole means of earning… well, apart from the monthly allowance provided by his father. Sadly, of late, lady luck had deserted him leading to a dry run at the tracks and heavy losses. Manny had had to borrow heavily from a Jewish money lender, a fact that was more painful to bear for the proud second generation German than the losses he had sustained. With his pockets empty and the hoodlums of the money lender yapping at his heels for payment, Manny was in a fix. Recently, he had been issued an ultimatum – ‘Come up with the money in a fortnight or else—’.
But, where could poor Manny get the money? If he couldn’t play the odds at the races, he could not make the money to pay his creditor. The catch twenty-two was that even playing the odds to earn the money required money, something that he had none of. What was Manny to do?
But, with the untimely (or perhaps timely) demise of his father, hope glimmered. Manny’s father had been a successful general merchant in London for over four decades. Surely, he had amassed a small fortune? A few years back the widower had retired to a small country cottage. He had sold the business to his assistant when Manny had scoffed at the idea of taking over. With a dismissive wave of his hand he had told his father, ‘Manual labour…hah, that’s not for me. I was born for fame and fortune. Running a business is lowly work. I am above all that.’
Manny’s words had spelled the end of ‘Müller & Sons’. Self absorbed as he was, he never learned how his father’s heart broke at his words.
Two days later…
Trust dear old Dad to put his faith in a Jew, Manny thought contemptuously as he sat across the table from Mr Goldstein, his father’s solicitor at the latter’s plush office in London. Mr Goldstein turned out to be an old, goblin-like man with a balding pate and silver-streaked bushy eyebrows that presided over shrewd eyes glinting from behind his spectacles. ‘This is the last will and codicil of my client Mr Roger Müller,’ he informed Manny as he retrieved a document from a folder and proceeded to read from it.
Manny leaned forward expectantly in his chair, the desk hiding the nervous tapping of his foot. Finally, all his money related woes were coming to an end. Now I can pay off my creditor and get those filthy, scavenging hyenas off my back. Thank you, Dad. You always looked out for me, Manny thought with a gush of genuine affection for his father. The feeling was short-lived.
‘Tha…that’s all he left for me, his only son?’ he sputtered in disbelief minutes later after Mr Goldstein finished reading out the will. ‘Are you quite sure? Not missed out anything have you, sir?’
Mr Goldstein grunted disapprovingly. He removed his spectacles, directed a withering glare at Manny and replied in a clipped tone. ‘My dear Sir, I assure you I have followed your father’s instructions to the letter. I was his solicitor and friend for over three decades. He has left you his cottage in the country and a painting, his prized possession, titled ‘She Wolf’ which he bought at the artist’s first showing. It is a unique piece of art by Jackson Pollock.’
‘Bu…but, what about the money?’ Manny squeaked, utterly gobsmacked at the solicitor’s words. Who is this bloke, Jackson Bollocks or whatever? – He wondered.
Mr Goldstein cleared his throat and replaced the spectacles on his nose. ‘There isn’t much, I’m afraid. Far beyond his humble means your father educated you at St Harwood’s Academy, the finest preparatory school in all of England. Hobnobbing with the wards of nobility does not come cheap, you know?’ Mr Goldstein said in a brittle tone. He scowled at Manny and added, ‘And then, there is the matter of your monthly allowance. Your father never stopped that did he? He even increased it after you shifted into a swankier flat. Where do you think all that money came from?’
‘So, you mean there is nothing, no money at all?’ Manny asked in desperation, choosing to ignore the solicitor’s disapproving jibe.
Mr Goldstein leaned forward and knit his fingers together. ‘Well, I suppose you could sell off the cottage. But, in this economy I doubt the sale will command a handsome price. And, then there is the matter of umm…the solicitor’s fees. The sale of the cottage will barely cover that,’ he added with a delicate cough. ‘I suppose you could raise some money by placing the painting for sale. If you wish we could have it appraised and handle the transaction for you… at a modest fee, of course.’
Manny shook his head. Blood suckers the whole lot of your ilk, he thought with disdain. You would suck a carcass dry if it were possible. ‘I shall see to it myself,’ he said haughtily and stood up to leave.
‘Mr Müller, if you happen to go to Christies for the appraisal I can write you a referral for Mr Koppelman.’
‘No doubt for a modest fee?’ Manny shot back sarcastically. Mr Goldstein had the grace to flush.
The sale of the cottage went through quickly but as predicted, fetched nothing substantial. Manny was left with exactly two pounds and sixteen pence after settling the solicitor’s fee. His only hope at raising money was now the painting, if it could be called that. The old man went batty in his old age. Who in their right minds would purchase such a monstrosity?
The painting was a 41 7/8 x 67″ Oil, gouache, and plaster on canvas. Manny could find neither a ‘she’ nor a ‘wolf’ in the artwork, just a smudged black line alluding to some animal form. The painted canvas looked like a jumble of dull colours that had been allowed to drip over a canvas painted a drab gray. Blimey! It looks like someone’s poured colours and run a dish cloth through them to smear the paint. I dare say, even I could do a better job and I’m no artist.
When it came to art Manny did not have a discerning eye at all. But, since the painting was all he had in the name of his inheritance, he knew he had to sell it post haste. Perhaps, that old tosser Goldstein was correct. Maybe, I can auction this off at Christies for a few quid? Once I sell this off, I’ll have money again and then…
The next morning, Manny carefully wrapped the painting in old newspapers and made his way to King Street. His destination was St James’s, the offices of Christies. Although he had refused to take a letter of referral from My Goldstein, he had every intention of artfully dropping his name to Mr. Koppelman.
Manny had to wait for a good hour before he was ushered into the art appraiser’s office. Mr Koppelman turned out to be a tall, silver-haired gentleman of middle-age. He was seated at his desk and was holding a magnifying glass to an eye and peering over an old, papery looking manuscript.
‘Have a seat,’ he grunted without bothering to look up.
Condescending twats, the whole race of them, thought Manny. Can’t be bothered to treat a fellow right. He took a seat. After a few minutes, Mr Koppelman rolled up the manuscript and turned his attention to Manny.
‘Now, tell me my good sir, how may I help you? I understand you have been referred by Mr Goldstein.’
A lesser man, at the mention of the subterfuge would perhaps have flushed. But, Manny was a seasoned gambler. ‘Yes.’ he replied glibly, unashamed to lie through his teeth. ‘Mr Goldstein advised that I should seek your counsel. He’s a dear friend of my late father’s. You see, my father had an eye for art. He bequeathed this painting to me and I am sure this beautiful piece of work is worth a substantial amount of money. I would like to have it appraised and placed for sale,’ Manny stated and placed the unwrapped painting on the table.
At the sight of the artwork, Mr Koppelman grimaced. What he saw before him was a canvas that was a splatter of depressing shades that washed over the canvas in dripping strokes. Had a child painted it?
‘Erm…your father painted this?’ he enquired delicately.
‘What? Dear old Dad? Oh, no no….this is by a famous artist, some Jackson Bollock or Potluck or something…the signature is too illegible to make out the name properly. See here…’ Manny pointed a finger to indicate the barely legible scrawl at the bottom which looked like a drunken ant had staggered over the canvas.
‘Yes, yes…I see. My mistake, Mr Müller.’
‘So, how much is it worth, you think?’ Manny pressed, his impatience getting the better of him.
‘Well, umm… difficult to say. You see, in appraising art many factors are taken into consideration. Firstly, the artist and the year that he painted the work. Secondly, the artwork’s provenance and other such things are considered. It’s a lengthy process. Might I suggest that you leave this with me for a few days? I promise I shall confer with a few esteemed colleagues and come back to you with its value.’
Manny pondered Mr Koppleman’s suggestion. Time was of the essence for him. A week of the grace period of a fortnight allotted to him by the money lender had already passed. He just had another week left to come up with the money to settle his debt. But, it wasn’t as if he had any other choice. Reluctantly he agreed.
The next two days moved at a snail’s pace for Manny. On the third morning a messenger arrived from Christies with a note summoning him to the offices of Mr Koppelman again. Manny’s hopes galloped faster than a winning steed. The old coot has come through on his promise, he thought. At the appointed hour Manny presented himself at Mr Koppelman’s offices, a radiant smile of relief plastered on his face.
‘Mr Müller,’ Mr Koppelman said after they were seated, ‘I’m afraid I have bad news.’ Manny felt kicked to his gut. His heart sank. Any sentence that began with such words could only portend failure. ‘We have been unable to verify the artist or the provenance of this work. Mr Goldstein did divulge that your father purchased it at a showing at a lesser known gallery but the gallery has closed down. There is just no way to trace the artist. We are unable to…’
‘Can you sell it?’ Manny interrupted too strung-up to hear Mr Koppleman’s spiel.
‘I’m afraid not at an auction here at Christies. We handle works with proven provenance. But, I can refer you to Mr Abrams, the curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. He will be in London in a week’s time. He may have dealt with the form of abstract expressionism that is depicted in this painting. Perhaps, he would like to purchase this. If you wish I can write him a note of reference for …’
‘Yes, I know…a modest fee?’ Manny shot back in a biting, brusque tone that was totally unwarranted. Mr Koppelman’s cheeks reddened though he tried to hide that behind a weak smile.
Left with no choice, Manny picked up the painting, turned on his heel and left. Back home, he did the only logical thing that he could. He meticulously went through the telephone directory and made a list of every art gallery, auction house and art appraiser in London. Armed with the information he spent the next few days traipsing all over London presenting himself with and without an appointment at different art establishments. Sadly, the exercise proved futile. No one was interested in the ‘She Wolf’. At every esteemed establishment he was politely but firmly turned away – ‘Never heard of the artist’, ‘Can’t make out if this is influenced by surrealism or Jungian analysis’, ‘Looks like there are some hieroglyphics here. Maybe you could donate this to the Egyptian section of the museum?’, ‘Not aware of this drip style of painting,’ ‘Sorry mate, can’t help you’, etc were some refusals that Manny had to contend with.
Meanwhile, time as it is wont, trickled by at an alarming pace and the end of the period of grace given to Manny by his creditor loomed close. The painting remained unsold and Manny’s mood grew grimmer than the grim artwork that he lugged around. Why could his father not have invested in something saleable? It was awfully inconsiderate of him to squander all his money on something so ghastly. No one wanted the artwork.
Utterly dejected at all the rejections that he received, Manny ultimately resolved that the only thing left to do was to eat humble crow and request Mr Koppelman for a letter of reference to Mr Abrams.
Armed with the letter, the next day Manny made his way to Central London to meet Mr Abrams. But, as luck would have it, halfway to his destination he ran smack into his creditors’ thugs.
‘Ye’re one slippery eel, ain’t ye?’ The burlier and taller thug sneered through his cheap tobacco-stained teeth. He caught Manny by his shirt collar, nearly cutting off his air and shoved him against a wall. ‘Well we caught up with ye. Time to pay.’
Manny’s heart squeezed in fear. The painting dropped from his hand. The men looked dangerous. They were swarthy-looking with unkempt hair and the unwashed stench of sweat and grime on them. The heftier one even had a reddish-pink scar running down the side of his face. In desperation Manny looked around for help but the street was deserted. There was no one around. ‘Thinking of givin’ us the slip again, are ye? There’s nowhere to run.’ The shorter of the two thugs said smugly.
Manny shook his head. ‘No…no….no slip. See here,’ he gasped though the chokehold around his neck and indicated the painting, ‘I’m trying to sell this off to pay my debts. I swear to you. Please, just give me some time. One week…one week is all I need. Please…’
The men looked at each other. ‘Three days and not a day more,’ the burlier one said shaking a fist under Manny’s nose. His eyes glittered with hard menace. ‘Ye pay up in a week or boss willna be too pleased. Don’t make us come back fer ye.’
‘No, no…I swear. I’ll pay up in three days.’
With a last word of warning the men left but not before landing a hard punch on Manny’s jaw. Manny crumpled to the ground, more in relief than in pain. He waited till the thugs were out of sight before he dusted off his clothes and hastily resumed his journey. Fear has a way of making people hurry, does it not? Manny’s fear was up close and personal now. He had no doubt that the men would maim, injure or even kill him if he did not come up with the owed amount by the end of three days. Come what may, the painting had to be sold today at any cost.
A half hour later Manny reached his destination. Mr Abrams turned out to be a heavily-built gentleman with an officious air about him. He studied the artwork that Manny presented. ‘Hmm…,’ he said stroking his beard. ‘It certainly is an interesting piece of work.’
Manny’s ears perked up. For the first time an appraiser had shown interest in the painting. His heart sang with hope.
‘There is a powerful reference here to symbolism cross-referenced with Roman mythology,’ Mr Abrams said as he inspected the painting.
‘There is?’ Manny quipped in surprise. Then, realizing his mistake he bit his tongue and added, ‘Oh, yes…yes, there is. Only a true patron of art can understand the significance. I must say, quite an eye for art you have Mr Abrams.’
Mr Abrams preened at the generous praise. He continued to mumble as he studied the painting in detail. The words were all gobbledegook to Manny but he nodded and agreed with the gentleman on cue. Any punter worth his salt knows that when your horse is in its final winning stretch, you do not jinx the odds.
The appraisal complete, Mr Abrams looked Manny squarely in the eyes and said, ‘I’ll purchase this painting for MoMA. But, I am afraid that since the artist is new, all I can give you is a sum of three pounds for it. Take it or leave it.’
Expressions of dismay and disappointment danced on Manny’s face. Visions of what the thugs would do to him loomed before his eyes. But, the gambler that he was, he knew when his odds were beaten. Reluctantly, he nodded and accepted.
Today, the ‘She Wolf’ by Jackson Pollack hangs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York among works by famous artists such as Van Gogh and Basquiat. It is considered one of the finest abstract artworks in the world.
As for Manny Müller, once he recovered from the erm…well, you know what and at whose hands…he gave up gambling. Instead of playing the odds he now works at the one establishment in London where he swore never to work – His father’s old business under the new management of his father’s old assistant. He is still paying off his creditor – the principal plus the interest.
Edwardian Era – The Edwardian era of British history spanned the reign of King Edward VII, 1901 to 1910, and is sometimes expanded to the start of the First World War.
Jackson Pollack – Paul Jackson Pollock /ˈpɒlək/ (January 28, 1912 – August 11, 1956) was an American painter and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement.
The She-Wolf – The She-Wolf was featured in Pollock’s first solo exhibition, at Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1943. MoMA acquired the painting the following year, making it the first work by Pollock to enter a museum collection.