The Imperial Wife - Irina Reyn

For Sonya

If I may dare to use such terms, I take the liberty to assert on my own behalf that I was an honest and loyal knight, whose mind was infinitely more male than female.

—CATHERINE THE GREAT, MEMOIRS

Tanya

PRESENT DAY

The Burliuk is a fake. To make sure, I flash the ultraviolet light closer to the surface. No doubt about it—the form’s flat, the red way off. The image has no depth, and the tentative, choppy signature floats. These are not at all the artist’s confident, swirling lines. The painting’s canvas is made of Masonite, a material Burliuk would never have used in 1911. And most damning of all is the bucolic subject matter in keeping with his later, American period. Oh, well. Disappointing, but at least I made the catch before slotting the piece into the catalogue.

“It’s a stunner, isn’t it?” The consignor’s voice slices through the dim light of the viewing room. “I fell in love as soon as I saw it.”

“I can see why you were drawn to it.” This was supposed to be my showstopper, my top star. A Russian-period Burliuk is rare, much less one from 1911. But I manage to maintain a cheerful demeanor.

I’ve got to hand it to the forger; apart from slapping the wrong date on the thing, he did a decent job. The reproduction has its own energy. The farm is vivid, the horse and ducks rendered in the playful vein of the master’s later work as an immigrant living on Long Island. Of course by that point, Burliuk’s most important Futurist work was long behind him, these lucrative if mediocre farm scenes probably aimed toward the tastes of American art collectors.

I imagine a struggling immigrant in Leipzig or Queens copying, line by line, the style of some blown-up original. The love and patience that requires, to apply one’s hand over another’s intention, to reach back hundreds of years in search of connection.

I’d prefer to stay in the dark forever. But the catalogue deadline is looming and I’ve still got nothing pressworthy. I flip the light switch.

“If you haven’t guessed, the Russian market’s sort of new to me. You know how it is. Never sure what you’re getting half the time.” The consignor, Mr. Brooks, is an unassuming-looking man with mild blue eyes, razor-thin eyebrows, and flushed cheeks. A gallery owner from Greenwich, another innocent American wading into the dangerous waters of Russian art, trusting the expertise of others, discounting all the danger signs. I’m tempted to shake him, to offer him the following advice: just stay away from the Russians!

But because he’s considering consigning other, presumably authentic, pieces to Worthington’s, specialists are never to sound the alarm right away. Instead, the matter must be handled with subtlety and delicacy, infusing a fruitless situation with a spark of hope so the relationship continues. One of the worst parts of my job is collusion in this limbo, like a doctor cheerfully recommending further testing when she knows the prognosis is no good.

“You’re right to be wary,” I say gently, warmly. “The market is flooded with fakes. In this case, it might be best to leave the painting in our care.”

“Really? Why?” There it is again, a reed of distress in his voice. A part of him must know. The bony knobs of his knees are pressed together in tan plaid slacks.

I place the flashlight down on the coffee table where our past auction catalogues are fanned out. I’m reminded of the deadline again, the front page that would now have to feature the Goncharova Spanish dancer. That one was a coup, but it’s no neoclassical-style,