I’m often asked where I get my stories from and it is always a very difficult question to answer. Goodness. Where to start? I read a lot. I’m a news junkie which means that I read a lot of articles about a lot of different things. I’m also terribly, terribly curious about everything. That again means I read other articles purely because it interests me, even if it’s not news-worthy. All this translates to me having a lot of useless bits of information floating around in my head. When I sit down to start the planning of my books, I suppose some of these bits float in the same direction and form a unit in order to create one complete story. One of these bits that actually played a large role in the initial planning stages of The Gauguin Connection is the story of Leo Nardus.
Vermeer; The Art of Painting; c. 1666-73; Oil on canvas
Purely by chance I stumbled across a story the likes of an exceptional episode of White Collar (a very entertaining show, by the way). Not only was Leo Nardus reported to be charming and charismatic, but he was a conman par excellence. When I read his story it really made me think of Neal Caffrey. Anyhoo…
The story that entertained me so much is about Leo Nardus, a Dutch born art dealer (perfect job for an art-forging conman!) and an American Industrialist, P.A.B. Widener in and around Philadelphia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Poor Mr Widener was taken for quite a lot of money, apparently by purchasing 93 paintings from Leo, especially a few coveted Vermeers. Not all these were forgeries. Leo actually traded in the real thing as well. But Widener was not his only victim. Leo went for the big guys, including J.P. Morgan (the financier), John G Johnson (lawyer and art collector) and Sir William C. Van Horne (president of the Canadian Pacific Railway). In true long con style, Leo established ‘credibility’ by selling to these influential people.
The true scandal, of course, was not the fraudulent art works. No. It was that these astute business men were duped. Even worse: Widener had introduced his high-class friends to Leo. When the con started unraveling, a long line of experts came to inspect the ‘Nardus’ paintings, declaring them all kinds of fake. After the initial outrage John G Johnson (the lawyer) convinced Widener that public knowledge of their ‘foolishness’ would damage their image, reputation and credibility. There were a lot of negotiations involved, but in the end everyone lost. Leo had to take back some of the paintings and return some funds, Widener received most of these funds, but it by no means covered all he had spent.
This is an extremely incomplete and quick overview of a very interesting story involving a lot of prominent people of that time. And ‘Neal Caffrey’. This story ends with Widener spending the next (and last) eight years of his life building one of the finest collections in the world. Another positive result was the influence this embarrassing event had on the standards and practices of the American art market.
Isn’t it too fabulous for words?!?! I love the whole story – the charming conman duping the rich by using their need for show-pieces against them. And their need to keep it quiet in fear of ridicule. Of course this is a crime (said in a very serious tone), but one of the ‘lighter’ crime stories to be found. And for some strange reason there is not a lot of information about this crime or Leo available anywhere.
And so I can say that Leo Nardus played a role in the development of Genevieve’s first adventure. He and loads of other little bits floating around in my head.