IT ALL BEGINS WITH GOOD INTENTIONS, An excerpt from the novel Fake is a State of Mind

by Stanislava Kara; translated from the Bulgarian by Stanislava Kara; photography by Diliana Florentin

Stanislava Kara's novel Fake is a State of Mind was shortlisted in the 2012 Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester

Once upon a time… James always began his stories like that, smiling. He thought fairy tales were the best ways of telling a story and he was right. I looked at him like a little child every time he told a story. So, once upon a time, Ruben Sullivan was a legend for Interpol. Young, talented and so very clever, he had been the mastermind of pretty much every beautifully conducted art crime over the past ten years. In order to be the best, he was of course the student of the best before him. There was an old saying that when the student is ready, the master will appear. And he did. I loved that story every time James told me about him. Up to this day they had never managed to catch him and I could see that both irritated and awed him at the same time. The legend of Ruben Sullivan was all around me and, honestly, I really wanted to meet him.

It was not likely that Sergeant Marcelo Rubini suspected that this event would take place precisely in his small village two years ago. He did not have the slightest idea he was about to meet a legend. As he got up to make himself his second cup of coffee of the day, he noticed the shadow of a man carrying a briefcase at the door. The big-bellied policeman approached the door with a very serious look.

"Good afternoon," the thin man said in Italian with a strong American accent. "Could you please tell me how to get to Basilica Santa Lucia, per favore?"
Sergeant Rubini looked at his white linen suit and his dark glasses, after which he put on a crooked smile and showed him the way. The man's name was Ruben Sullivan, according to his American passport, Scott Barker according to his British one and Cristiano Adolfino according to his Italian one. It was difficult to get to the destination, especially in this heat, but Ruben wanted to, even though his sweat was dripping onto his map. At that point his phone rang. He swore but he picked up and nodded for a while. He was walking towards the basilica with a catchy song going on repeat in his head. He was already approaching the basilica, so he stopped for a little break. He had to find the bones of Santa Lucia: Benigni never ordered anything unless he had a plan.

Ruben Sullivan was someone very drawn to the art world and that made him extremely attractive to women. As a child, young Sullivan had been quite short and chubby with huge glasses, but in puberty, when he discovered his love, Ruben changed. He fell in love with Italian and Dutch painters of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. He avidly read books about them and waited for his chance to one day be a part of their world. He grew taller and became reasonably attractive, although he was not very good at communicating. But he loved the female form and its manifestations through the centuries. No modern girl, however, had managed to impress him as much as he impressed them with his knowledge and sensitivity.

Young Sullivan was often the victim of bullying at school. When he was a teenager, older boys waited for him after the classes were over, took his money, threw his glasses on the floor or punctured his bike tyres. Ruben never cried in front of them but he was truly traumatized because he couldn't defend himself. He went home time and time again pushing his bike and promised himself that one day he would be bigger and more important than all these losers who were probably going to stay in this small town all their lives. Ruben found his calling in books, the price of the beautiful and, of course, in the talent of everyone who ever had any kind of appreciation for art, not just the artists themselves. Ever since he was a boy, he had been fascinated with those who broke the law in an elegant manner, and art forgers and thieves fell into this category.

"I'm moving to Rome, mom," he announced one day to his mother. "I can't live in these cultureless surroundings anymore!"

He was twenty one at the time his fascination with Italy became a reality. A year later he was tragically in debt and had maxed out all his credit cards on endless cultural parties, a lot of wine and good food, and he was seeing two Italian girls with neither of whom was he anywhere near falling in love. It was then that he met maestro Benigni.

Fernando Benigni was a Brazilian guy of around sixty, who had been married and divorced three times, and was an innovative figure in the market for forged and stolen works of art. He was the Don Corleone of smuggling art and dealing with fakes. Ruben met him at an art show which the maestro was the main fundraiser for.

"Guess whether this is an original or a fake, my boy." Benigni stood next to Ruben and looked at him with a smile. The exhibition was precisely on that topic, how to tell the difference between the two.

"A fake is defined as a work of art that aims to represent itself as older and better than it is. The idea is to create a false illusion, while the replica is simply an imitation of the original. This is a work by Agnolo Bronzino called The Allegories of Love and the original is in the National Gallery in London. This, however, is not a fake but merely a replica designed to impress those of your guests who are less familiar with the topic." Ruben laughed genuinely.

"What if it was stolen from London?" Benigni asked innocently.

"Even if that was the case, you wouldn't have such a big problem with the authorities," Ruben replied. "In the art world it's a theft only when the works in question are found on the black market. The countries that have these markets rarely send the information to Interpol and there is not much data. But the FBI has 13 special agents in the sector as it's turned out to be one of the most developed industries in the crime world. At the same time, punishment is minimal. A few years ago a man stole a Rembrandt from the National Gallery in London just to prove that he could do it. The painting had already been stolen twice and he just came in and put it on his bike. He got three months in prison."

As soon as they saw each other there was a chemistry that was difficult to explain. It was a strange attraction between a master and the student he had been waiting years for. Fernando Benigni himself had been born in Sao Paolo in the family of Branca Benigni. He did not know his father, just that he was an Italian soldier who had never known about him. Branca had been infatuated with Italy and everything Italian, not just the men. When Fernando was born, a half-Italian and very quiet baby, Branca managed to study Italian art and passed on her passion to her son. Fernando took this passion even further. At twenty-one, he was already teaching art, while at twenty-two he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old student and ran away with her to Italy. There he opened an arts shop and supported his wife in a small town. Soon he met a man from Montenegro who promptly opened doors for him into the underground world of art and its "private" business. Benigni was very good at finding good objects for trade and arranged their sale while the Montenegrin took care of the theft. He divorced Milena after ten years of marriage and married a bank clerk called Teresa, who gave him one more child. Maestro Benigni had divorced Teresa a year after their marriage, realizing she was a gold-digger who had probably never loved him. Only a year later, however, he found another bride, this time from Asia. Leana was an exotic dancer from Jakarta, Indonesia and was only twenty-five. This time it was not love for either of them. The story was such a cliché that eventually Leana went back to Asia to be an exotic dancer. Benigni swore he would never marry again and 25 years later he hadn't yet broken his promise.

Just a day after they met, Benigni invited Ruben to a gathering at his villa. With a profession like his, the house was full of art works, as well as people who considered themselves connoisseurs and were eager to hear the host's stories.

"The man was called Giovanni Bastiannini, a legend in his area," Benigni began his story, releasing a puff of smoke from his cigar. "In the fifteenth century he devised a plan that would make his art sell and create a name with a style. His "art" consisted of making a sculpture, baking it, painting it and then chipping a little part off it so that it looked ancient. His business employed two other people – an art dealer and an impoverished aristocrat. The team put the object in the aristocrat's house and then at a party the art dealer would start gushing about the sculpture's qualities and ancient beauty and value, persuading the aristocrat to sell it. At an auction, the sculpture would make a lot of money that the three partners would share. The forger's secret was never revealed and on his deathbed he admitted that he had managed to fool the world for years. Some of his works can be seen today at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London."

The secret of a good story was always in the characters. Who doesn't love the story of Bacchus and Ariadne for example? It is full of magical characters – the winged child- cherub and Silenus, Bacchus's teacher, often portrayed as a drunk on a donkey, with the Bacchants following them with their percussion instruments. Or simply the magical meaning behind the figures themselves, such as Venus and Cupid, who always represent love, or Adonis and his dogs who always stood for loyalty, or Apollo, the god of the sun, beauty and the arts. All these creatures were the inspiration behind the Renaissance, when so many artists appeared and flourished. They were also, of course, part of the inspiration for Ruben, who had just entered Benigni's mansion and was greeted by a perfectly polite butler who showed him into a marble corridor that opened onto a room which combined an African-Oriental style with bright Brazilian colors. Ruben walked in right in the middle of the Bastiannini story and at the end he shouted:

"Hans Van Meegeren managed to sell his own fakes to the Germans in the Second World War and was accused of selling national treasures to the enemy."

Everyone turned towards Ruben and Benigni signaled for him to continue.

"Meegeren painted the works of Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century. He specialized in genre paintings, or in other words he managed to represent the light in everyday life. Vermeer only painted about 35 paintings in his life and supported his family by working as an art dealer. Therefore it was not difficult to attribute paintings to the great Dutch artist. Meegeren painted a few paintings in that style and sold them to Field Marshal Goering who was passing through Holland. He was then accused of selling national treasures and thrown into jail. At the trial he had to paint an "authentic" Vermeer in court. He did so and was jailed again for being a forger."

Benigni's guests started applauding and Ruben laughed and bowed like a real artist under the approving look of the host. Among the guests were Goran Milkovich and his crew. They were the people who delivered the works of art to Benigni, which he sold for a large amount of money. Goran himself had grown up all over Europe. His father was the same Montenegrin guy who had done business with the maestro years earlier. Young Goran had listened to his father and had helped take care of his mother and little sister. People were usually scared when they met him for the first time and his crew did not dare contradict him. He was a huge man with bright eyes and a mysterious charm in his smile, which came rarely due to the huge stomach he had acquired over the years. He was about forty already, never married but he had at least three kids by three different women. He loved his sons and, what was shocking to him, adored his daughter.

"His crew consists of a few Bulgarians as well," James added with a smile, and I was really "proud" of that.

His right-hand man was Boris Nikolov, who was very loyal to him but had two main problems – alcohol and women. Like most men, in fact, but with Boris it was a more serious issue. He came from a small town in Bulgaria that he had left fifteen years before to move to London, where he still spent a lot of time without speaking English. The lack of language ability did not help Boris develop a normal career and he spent quite a while collecting glasses in various bars. Some of the things he had notoriously said in English to his boss included "I'm so fuck you…very sick…cannot come to work yesterday…" Soon after Boris was captivated by a creature of the opposite sex. Her name was Radmila, she was Russian and a prostitute. In just a couple of weeks, Boris was so in love that he popped the question and the dashing bride, thinking this was her chance to get out of the business, said yes. Her position in society was now different and she embraced it. She was still unemployed but she went full on into her husband's night job, where she drank a lot. She was jealous, possessive and, well, quite crazy, as it turned out to her husband-of-a-few-weeks' surprise. After Radmila cut his hand with a knife in what initially seemed to be a suicide attempt, she then tried to burn him alive and eventually he filed for divorce. A few months later he was engaged to a nineteen-year-old Bulgarian waitress. In order to support his new wife, Boris decided to work for Goran when he met him five years before.

Stanislava Kara (BG) is a journalist who has visited places from Colombia to Indonesia, from Cape Verde to Ukraine, in order to interview Presidents and Ministers, as well as ordinary people on the street. Fake is a State of Mind is her debut novel published both in Bulgarian and English. The book was shortlisted in a contest held by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books publishing. Stanislava is currently finishing her second novel and maintaining a blog – She is also the correspondent of the Jameson First Shot competition to interview Hollywood stars Kevin Spacey and Willem Dafoe.



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