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Tax Day coming up, thinking about Bill. Gates, not Clinton. The other
Bill , Forbes Magazine’s Richest Man in
the World, expects to become a trillionaire in five more years. His
Microsoft stock alone is currently valued
at around $90 billion. I wonder what he pays to the IRS. Sigh.

So I am talking to my California lawyer friend “Rat” about money:

Me: I just lost $1.5 million in one day. I have to pull myself
together.

Friend: As if you ever had $1.5 million.

Me: Well, it’s very complex. It was my “N .C. Wyeth” painting.

Friend: You mean Andrew.

Me: Valued perhaps at $1.5 million. No, not Andrew — NC. NC
(1882-1945) is the patriarch of the entire clan. Which is what
patriarchs are. That means he’s Andrew’s father, and Jamie’s
grandfather.

Friend: One of your tacky ex-boyfriends stole it? (teasing)

Me: Such a kidder! No! What’s a boyfriend? Stop! I bought it myself
15 years ago for a sawbuck. Is that a hundred?

Friend: Five, I think.

Me: OK then, a C-Note

Friend: Maybe 100 shekels.

Me: What’s a shekel? So anyway, for a whole month I had an
appointment set up with this big deal NYC art gallery/dealer. The guy
wanted to come down to Philly to check it out. And so he did.

Friend: Well?

Me: I was psyched. I knew N. C. Wyeth had done pirate paintings to
illustrate Treasure Island
in the
early part of this century. And this was a painting of two pirates. One
with bows in his beard, a la Bluebeard, the other peering off in into the
horizon with a spyglass, gypsy scarf, and hoop earrings.

Friend: And it was bupkis? (Yiddish for “nothing”)

Me: Yeah, he got here, I fed him endive crudites with goat cheese,
pimiento, and smoked oysters. He couldn’t get enough of my appetizers.
And, lo and behold, despite such succulent blandishments, he said it was
… NOT an N. C. Wyeth! Even though that name was signed in the lower
right-hand corner with the date 1922.

Friend: Go on.

Me: It might sound like an underwhelming experience to you, I know,
but I’m in shock. For a whole month people were telling me to start
imagining what I would do with between $500,000 and $1.5 million.

Friend: And did you?

Me: I had figured I would: pay off my credit card, get my face
lifted, my fanny liposuctioned, and apply for a job as a White House
intern. Just kidding!

Friend: No you aren’t.

Sudden wealth, to some folks, is as much an affliction as sudden
poverty. I am one of those people. Secretly, I still believe Property is
Theft, the Stock Market is Exploitation, Money is a Burden, and Love is
True Riches. Silly me! But apparently I am not alone. In the Nineties,
such a stance has, natch, been defined as a dysfunction. There are
actually people who do Money Therapy.
I met one of them once. Her name is
Maureen Walsh and she lives in Bensalem, Pa. and Santa Fe, N.M. and
works out of Manhattan. “Ask yourself why,” she once said to me, “you
have prevented yourself from experiencing True Abundance and Prosperity
in your life. Give yourself permission, and Wealth will happen.”

Apparently these exhortations have not yet successfully convinced my
Inner Buddhist. Because I am still opening up pamphlets like THE ART OF
LIVING from the Dallas Buddhist Association at random to passages like
this: “To be a poor, content, and happy person is better than being one
who is rich, worried, and afflicted with greed.”

But I digress: The painting’s the thing. Fifteen years ago, I bought
that pirate painting for $100 from a friend whose dress shop was going
out of business. Hmmm, I said, something to tide me over in old age.
Everyone in Philadelphia knew who the Wyeths were. Once I had even
interviewed Jamie Wyeth, the clan’s bodaciously flirtatious grandson,
who painted pigs and muscular guys on Harleys — same difference, I
guess. Anyway, all this was well before Arts and Antiques magazine had
trumpeted the existence of a hitherto hidden cache of Andrew Wyeth
“Helga” paintings and made the family name even more of an investment.
But to me the name Wyeth spelled “art dynasty” nevertheless. And the
inveterate fleamarketeer in me just knew I had scored something big,
something better than Social Security.

Immediately I hid the painting behind a door, where it stayed for
years. Early on, I called the Brandywine museum deep in Pennsylvania
Wyeth country, bucolic Chadds Ford,
and told them I had a pirate
painting signed N.C. Wyeth. “You’re welcome to donate it to us. Send us
a Polaroid,” someone with a veddy crisp upper class accent instructed
me. Donate it? I didn’t think so.

Meanwhile, my life had become very hectic — bizarre, even — with
family stuff, buying and renovating a house, moving, job changes. For
awhile, I actually forgot about the painting, if that is possible. And
then I was reminded of it, seemingly by accident. Late last summer, I
began seeing advance publicity for a new biography
of N.C. Wyeth and I made a mental
note to contact one of the better auction houses like Sotheby’s or
Christie’s to determine if the painting indeed was authentic or not.

I’m a great believer in synchronicity. I love to seek the links in
apparently unrelated events, and make a story from them. Maybe that’s
why I am a writer. So anyway, this fall I find a huge spread of N.C.
Wyeth paintings in the local Sunday paper’s book review section, and I
have to tell you, it looked promising. I was getting psyched. And then,
almost subliminally, I notice the biography’s author is coming to town.
I mentally shelve that information. And then a hundred details distract
me.

A few weeks later, one Tuesday morning, I’m having breakfast over
another local paper, my custom before I got hooked on WorldNetDaily.
Though the paper is a tabloid, for some strange reason it lists this art
lecture: that evening, David Michaelis will be at the Philadelphia Art
Alliance, for Joseph Fox Books, to discuss his much-ballyhooed biography
of N.C. Wyeth. I remember thinking, I should go to that, but then I get
distracted with the Disaster du Jour: trying to determine how it was
possible for someone — a Brooklyn freelance writer-turned-Hollywood
studio development executive — to have taken MY copyrighted profile of
S. J. Perelman and used it as a chapter in THEIR book without notifying
me, asking my permission, or even paying me. Yeah, the nickels and dimes
of life, the Real Important stuff of existence.

Stupid, uncontrollable things like that were why I sometimes turned
to Buddhist meditation for tranquillity. That evening I rushed through
dinner to get to my weekly Buddhist meditation session at the Ethical
Society, taught by the most fascinating young crewcut British nun. For
some reason, I headed down 18th Street near Rittenhouse Square and I see
the sign on the Art Alliance: Tonight, Lecture on N.C. Wyeth, 7 p.m.,
David Michaelis, which I had totally forgotten about in the day’s
hubbub. Looking down at my watch, I see it’s 6:45 p.m. I could meditate
any time, I reasoned. I didn’t want to miss David Michaelis.

He was setting up slides as I entered the room. “Do you have one with
a detail of the signature?” I asked him before the lecture started. He
obliged with several. My heart lurches. It was, to my unschooled eye,
identical, sharply angled black block letters. He wondered why I was
interested. I tell him about the painting. “The last N.C. Wyeth painting
auctioned off sold for $500,000,” he says. “But if you decide to ride
out the current bull market and hang on to the piece for awhile, its
price could go $1.5 million.”

I return to my seat, which was a good thing. My knees go weak. I am
breathless. There I was quibbling earlier that day over a puny
hundred-dollar reprint fee. Though I have trouble concentrating on what
David Michaelis is saying to the audience, I see he has skillfully woven
together the psychology behind N.C.’s paintings, personal history,
familial mystery. The Wyeths, he said, were a self-sufficient clan
emotionally addicted to each other.

The many slides he shows are definitely similar in style to my
painting. After he finishes his talk, he gives me his card, with a
recommendation I contact a particular Greenwich Village art gallery, and
to please let him know how it turns out.

I return home, hide the painting under my bed, and sleep the sleep of
the newly financially emancipated. No more haggling with rip-off
artists, I say to myself, my sigh becoming a snore.

It takes three days for me to muster the moxie to call the gallery
guy. I hate cold calling for anything. Anyway, for three more days we
play phone tag. When we finally connect, he tells me that they handle
most of N.C. Wyeth’s artistic legacy. Patiently listening to my little
narrative of the painting’s provenance, he surprises me by being
instantly interested in coming to Philadelphia to see the painting. It
could be very valuable indeed, he reaffirms; even a good N.C. Wyeth
forgery can go for $125,000.

You know the rest.

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