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A Question of Values


Harry Buschman

Tuesday was their day to travel. Every Tuesday morning Fred and Louise Snapp gassed up the van and headed north from Upper Stepney in Connecticut all the way to Rutland, Vermont. If you are in the antique business you know the really good buys are in Rutland -- a little cleaning up here and there, a few minor repairs and they can be sold for three times the price in Upper Stepney, or ten times the price on Madison Avenue in New York.

"Fred loves to do things with his hands," Louise would say when she told her friends about their business. Louise, on the other hand, had a sharp eye for art and things of value. When Fred took early retirement from B.V.D. & B., he and Louise started a small antique business in Upper Stepney. They did it out of their home for a while but the business grew and they finally had to rent a store in town. They called it "Snapp Impressions." The name was Louise's idea, not Fred's. After 30 years in the advertising business Fred lost his touch for words.

Every Tuesday they closed the store and drove to Vermont. They'd stay until Thursday morning, then drive back to Upper Stepney with a load of butter churns, lobster traps and syrup buckets, then they'd open "Impressions" about one in the afternoon.

On the Tuesday in question Louise began to talk ten minutes out of Upper Stepney. "We should sell paintings Fred, Gladys Brewster-Phipps came in looking for paintings last Sunday .... early American, Hudson River School. We don't have anything like that."

"We're doing okay without that stuff," Fred grumbled. "We don't have a gallery. We don't have the space for it. You need walls and lighting, and besides, you can't buy bargain paintings." Actually, Fred had lost his love of pictures too. After a long and tiresome career in advertising, he no longer respected words or pictures, he knew they couldn't be trusted. Old broken things .... that's what he loved .... putting them back together, giving them value again.

They took Route 103 into Rutland and stopped in Cuttingville for coffee. "Think about it, Fred," she went on. "We could put up hinged panels, you know, swinging out from the wall? We have the space and it would be less work for you too."

As they sipped their coffee, Louise glanced across the street. She recognized a small white building she had seen on an earlier trip -- "Jasper Jones, Canvasses." She looked quickly at Fred and wondered if she could get Fred to over there with her and check it out before continuing on to Rutland.

"Look, Fred, over there -- let's take a look while we're here."

When they finished their coffee, Fred reluctantly trailed after her. "Jasper Jones," he grumbled, how could anybody make a living with a name like that?

He cupped his eyes with his hands and looked through the glass door. "It's dark in there, Louise -- must be closed," but a hand lettered sign on the door said "Open for Business." Another one said, "You Won't Believe Your Eyes."

In the rear of the gallery they could see a tall man in a black suit standing under a skylight. Louise opened the door and immediately the gallery was flooded with soft light. Paintings were everywhere .... the walls and floor were covered with them. It was as though they had blundered into the storage basement of a major museum. She thought there must be a king's ransom here .... how did a priceless collection like this ever find its way into a little town like Cuttingville?

All six feet four of Jasper Jones pulled himself erect and walked toward them. A strange sort of walk -- stiff jointed, like a short man on stilts.

"Welcome, my friends. Welcome to the gallery of Jasper Jones. I trust you are true lovers of the art of painting. If so, my gallery will please you. From the Renaissance to Post-Impressionism .... the treasures of the art world hang before you." He waved his arms expansively.

"This guy must have done time in the advertising business," thought Fred. He whispered to Louise, "We're not going to find any bargains here, Louise .... let's go on to Rutland and get what we came for."

"Sir! -- I have never been in the advertising business .... and as for bargains, where can you find a Monet for $150?"

Had he whispered louder than he thought .... or had this man read his thoughts? He tried to pull Louise's arm but she was overwhelmed by the spectacle of these precious paintings and Fred couldn't move her. She stood like Lot's wife, transfixed in front of a Van Dyke .... a portrait of a beefy, red-faced man holding a silver tankard of ale. "It must be worth millions," she murmured.

"It would be had I not painted it last week, madam," Jasper smiled.

"My God!" she exclaimed .... "You painted this?"

"Exactly madam! An understandable response from someone who knows value when she sees it, but now we've depreciated the painting by a hundred percent,  haven't we? Had it been an authentic Van Dyke, it would certainly be worth  millions -- but now you know who painted it, don't you? And now it is worth next to nothing."

Louise stole a quick glance at Fred and he was aware of an unfamiliar, calculating expression that crept across her normally frank and honest face, one he had only seen at tax time.

"The gentleman in the painting Madam -- it is Charlie Spivak .... the bartender at a local tavern here in Cuttingville. It is not my custom to copy the masters, but to recreate -- in the master's style -- scenes he was not privileged to see. Scenes he might well have painted were he living in Cuttingville today." He pointed to a picture on the floor leaning against the wall. "The Van Gogh at your feet .... that is the cow path leading to Singleton's Dairy Farm .... might I assume you are Louise Snapp, and you, sir .... are Frederick?"

"Now wait a minute .... " Fred began, but Jasper went on as though he were  lecturing children.

"Your names are well known in Rutland sir .... you go there weekly, and what goes on in Rutland is the talk of the town here in Cuttingville. I am not psychic, but I am quite able to read your name on the van across the street. I am acutely aware of the actions of others .... I am by nature an impressionist, you see." He picked up the Van Gogh and hung it next to the Van Dyke. "You are practical people. You must know magic is a practical business and the better the magician, the better the business .... the better the magic."

Louise took a deep breath .... "You mentioned $150?"

"Ah, yes, the Monet. It is lovely isn't it? Claude could not have done better; he often did far worse, mind you, but I'm sure he could not have done better." He picked it up and moved closer to Fred and Louise, close enough for them to detect a dusty smell. "Like he'd been beating a rug," Fred thought.

"You place great value in money, madam?"

"I .... well .... I think money is the scale we use for value, isn't it? I mean, you can't put a price on everything .... but, well .... you know what I mean. Unless you put a price on something, you don't know what it's worth."

"I did not mean to be elliptical, Mrs. Snapp, but it occurs to me that the price we put on things of value is based on what we think people will pay for them. Do you agree, Mr. Snapp?"

Fred didn't like the way this was going. He could sense the manipulation, and he didn't like Jones's effect on Louise. She seemed to be mesmerized by the paintings. That's what he hated about paintings, people talked about them too  much. Give him lobster pots every time.

"Money's just about everything, Mr. Jones," Fred sighed. "When you've got  money you can have anything it buys."

"Then why bother with values .... heh, Mr. Snapp? Yes .... why not steal it?"  Jasper's eyes narrowed. "Things of value fade quickly in the face of money. Your wife is quite willing to spend $150 for this painting that looks like a Monet. Is that not so, Madam?" Louise nodded eagerly. "For the sake of argument, let me ask you if you would still pay $150 for it if I sign it 'Jasper Jones?'" Louise looked helplessly at Fred, then back to Jasper Jones.

"Somewhat less, I expect, Mrs. Snapp. Is it because of the magic -- the illusion that perhaps this painting is really a valuable Monet after all? Or perhaps someone else might be convinced that it is. Enterprise! Yankee ingenuity! Is that not the American way? I am not so out of touch with the world up here in Cuttingville that I have forgotten the value of good business."

"Would you excuse us, Mr. Jones? I'd like to have a word with my husband -- alone."

Louise steered Fred to the front door. "Listen to me," she started. "You see the possibilities, don't you? -- we don't have to claim they're authentic. We don't have to guarantee anything -- just put a bug in someone's ear. We'd come in somewhere between the $150 we spend and the million we could sell it for. Is that a profit or what?!!"

"Louise, I don't like this. It's crooked! It's why I got out of the advertising business in the first place. I don't want to spend the rest of my life cheating people."

"Ridiculous," Louise snorted. "What do you think we're doing with butter churns and lobster traps, why only last week Gladys Brewster-Phipps bought what she thought was a stuffed alligator planter from us. You and I both know it was papier-mache."

Jasper Jones was silently pacing in front of the Monet. He had placed a smaller, colorful Picasso next to it. Together, they made an irresistible combination.

"Look at that, Fred," Louise was almost beside herself. "If that isn't an honest to goodness Picasso!" In a voice louder than it had to be, she announced, "We'll take them both Mr. Jones .... the Monet and the Picasso," she hastily added, "and we'll pay in cash if that's all right with you."

"Cash is an excellent choice, madam. Quite acceptable, and untraceable as well I might add."

With Fred's grudging compliance, the pictures were bubble wrapped. He carried the larger Monet and Louise, with great care, carried the smaller Picasso.

The return trip to Connecticut was stressful to Fred. Louise, however, could see nothing but profit ahead. It waited temptingly, just beyond every turn of the road. Fred was silent, but she bubbled with enthusiasm.

"We just don't guarantee anything, see. That's the beauty of it, right .... and if push comes to shove we take a minimum mark-up, but once in a while we'll get lucky and somebody's going to talk themselves into a Monet or a Picasso or whatever. Fred stared glumly ahead. "Damn it, Fred, will you lighten up!"

"I watched Jones when he wrapped the pictures. Did you notice the canvasses are stapled to new stretchers .... huh, Louise? You think Monet or whatever used a staple gun? What about the price tags on the stretchers .... huh Louise .... $4.98 Glick's Art Supplies?"

"No problem. We bought them rolled up, see. A lot of paintings are brought in from overseas that way. We tell them they were rolled up and smuggled into the States by a wealthy Arabian oil millionaire. Honestly Fred, you're making .... "

Missing Connecticut Couple
Found in Great Barrington

           4/15 (AP) Frederick and Louise Snapp, of Upper Stepney, Conn. were killed in a one car collision on State Route 7 Wednesday afternoon. Driver and passenger were pronounced dead at the scene by trooper Les Dickett. Their van contained a small collection of antiques and two oil paintings of undetermined value ...

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