This is how it started: I was twenty-two and worked in a Belgian cheese factory. I’m not a poet and I can’t sing, yet I wrote poetry and sang in a rock band at night while I spent my days in the underground cold store, making holes in wheels of Emmentaler cheese. One day, I got a phone call from the editor of Antwerp’s weekly Panorama
magazine. He’d seen me onstage and read my poetry and wondered if I would be interested in a job switch. Of course I was. Wouldn’t you be? Panorama
asked me to become the weekly’s correspondent in Hollywood. In an attempt to boost the magazine’s circulation and sell more printed paper, the editors had hit upon the idea of splashing the finest film stars of the day—a very young Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman—on the cover. As I understood it, I had to interview the Pacinos and Dunaways of this world, then and there, in Hollywood. Would you have hesitated a single second? I didn’t. I’d made enough holes in Emmentaler wheels. I immediately quit the cheese business and signed my contract as the magazine’s correspondent in Hollywood.
There was one problem, though: Panorama
didn’t have the necessary funds to send me to California. We worked out a compromise. They gave me an old desk, a chair, a manual typewriter, a stack of Variety
and Hollywood Reporter
back issues—this was the early seventies, well before the Internet and Google—and a pair of scissors with a pot of glue, and asked me to cook up, invent, fabricate, or dream up interviews that would read as if I wined and dined with the stars of the silver screen every day of the week. Instead of languishing next to my swimming pool on Melrose Place, I would be slaving under the leaking roof of an editorial office on an Antwerp backstreet.
I was good at my new job, and for years I fabricated "live" interviews and wrote glamorous cover stories about leading ladies Barbara Hershey, Karen Black, Anita Ekberg, and Anne Bancroft, as well as actors like Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro, among others. Week after week, I found my name on the printed page under the pumped-up byline FROM OUR MAN IN HOLLYWOOD, which pleased me enormously. One week I concocted a story about Kojak, the week after that, I fantasized about Salvador Dalí. Though not a movie star, Dalí was as famous as Kojak and had more facial hair.
This is how I did it: I collected exhibition catalogs, old Life
and Paris Match
articles, Reuters dispatches and secondhand art books and hit upon the idea of situating Dalí in Hollywood, where he was helping Walt Disney create the most scandalous and scabrous animated porn cartoon ever—or so I had people believe. It was all fiction and fantasy and a figment of my imagination. Dalí looked good on the magazine’s cover, in close-up, rolling his bulging, fishy eyes. His famous waxed mustache had never been in better shape.
To see which covers—and which film stars—were the bestsellers, I regularly made the rounds to newsagents and booksellers that had the magazine on display. I soon learned that, on a cover, a female star is superior to a male star for sales—Mia Farrow beats Woody Allen and Ali MacGraw beats Steve McQueen— while a blond
female star far outsells a dark-haired beauty. Faye Dunaway and Farrah Fawcett beat Liza Minelli and Audrey Hepburn ten times over.
But the biggest surprise was still to come. To my amazement, the balding, mustachioed, wrinkled Salvador Dalí, weary with age, far outsold superstars Warren Beatty, Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, and even Elizabeth Taylor, the all-time beauty queen.
That’s when I got my first lesson in life.
Another unexpected phone call. The president of Money Management Counselors urgently needed to see me, seven o’clock sharp. No discussion. I knew that MMC was the brainchild of an American financier who—all through the sixties—sold bonds to American soldiers stationed in Germany. Other, MMC investment branches included works of art, diamonds, and real estate in Dallas and Canada.
I had never met a president, so I agreed to meet him at the Century Center Hotel, in the dining room, right at seven. As could be expected from the president—any president—of a multimillion-dollar company, he was already spooning heaps of beluga caviar on buttered toast when I arrived at his preferred table. A waiter in evening dress brought me an ivory spoon, butter, some very thin slices of lemon, an extra rack of white toast, and half a kilo of choice caviar.
The president told me he was a financier. He was also a playboy. He was restructuring his company’s art-investment branch. "It’s all about making money, and I’m fed up with all these con artists trying to fool the art world," he said. "I want you
to run our fine art–investment branch and supply our wealthiest clients with the finest artworks available."
"Why me?" I asked. "I know nothing about art."
"You know Salvador Dalí," the president replied. "You interviewed him in Hollywood, didn’t you? Boy oh boy, that was one hell of an interview!"
Then and there, I got my second
lesson in life.
Anyone—even presidents—can be taken for a ride.
From one day to the next, I became an art consultant and investment broker. I couldn’t believe my luck. My job description was simple: Talk as much cash as I could out of the greedy suckers of this world. I read. I studied. I traveled to Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York. I bought my first Dalí in Paris. A 1937 futuristic ink drawing representing what looked like a mass of swirls and ovals or fried beans. I didn’t ask for a certificate of authenticity—supposedly, the drawing had been commissioned for American Weekly,
a rather famous magazine in the forties—and I sure as hell didn’t check the credentials of the snooty gallery owner who sold it. For all I knew, there might have been a warrant out for his arrest. Why else would he sell a genuine Dalí at half price, if it was true that—as he’d explained to me—the famous Paris auctioneers of the Hôtel Drouot had estimated its retail value to be almost double the asking price? It was a bargain and I went for it. You see? That’s how unsuspecting and inexperienced I was.
I paid and took possession of the framed drawing and then had a stroke of beginner’s luck. Unknown to the seller, the Dalí drawing was reproduced in an official museum catalog, in black-and-white, on a half page. The next day, I tripled the price I had paid for it, hung the swirls and ovals and fried beans on the wall in my brand-new executive office in the President Building in Antwerp, and although I’d never actually done this before, I sold the drawing to the first "art investor" who walked through the door.
That’s how a local undertaker carry ing a plastic shopping bag became my first client.
I told him it must be a sad way to earn your money when your clients have all died.
"That’s life," the undertaker replied. "Today you’re on this side; tomorrow you may be on the other side. A dead person is a wooden plank and I’m the carpenter. I plane and polish and when it looks more or less decent, I bury the plank. If you think of it, the deceased are not my clients. I’ve got only one client: the good Lord in Heaven, he who governs life and death. As long as I’ve got the good Lord on my side, there will be dead people around."
I asked him to sit down.
He was wearing the uniform of his profession: dark gray suit, white shirt, gray tie, and highly polished black shoes. He sat perfectly motionless, his back straight as a rod, the plastic shopping bag in his lap, never once crossing his long legs.
"My bank manager said I should talk to you," the undertaker said. Only his mouth seemed to move. "What can you
do that my bank manager can’t?"
"Launder your money," I said.
"What have you got to sell?"
"I’m not a salesperson. I’m an art dealer, and my only client is Salvador Dalí. I’m selling works of art not for their artistic value or their sheer beauty but purely as an investment. The art market is global and has been growing by thirty percent a year for the last five years. New money from China, India, and Russia is joining the chase and pushing prices up. One day, I will resell for you, at a profit."
"How much profit do you guarantee?"
"The sky is the limit."
"At long term?"
"There is no long term. We’ll all be dead planks tomorrow."
"I’ve got ten thousand dollars for you," the undertaker said.
I shrugged. "Dalí is not a clearance sale," I replied.
"Fifty thousand. What have you got for fifty thousand?"
"Nothing. I told you: Dalí is not a clearance sale."
"Make it a hundred thousand."
"Now you talk like a man."
"If Dalí dies," the undertaker chuckled, "I will gladly fix some wax on his mustache. He’ll be as good as new."
"When will I get your money?" I asked.
"Now," the undertaker said, and shot into action, emptying the plastic bag on my brand-new mahogany desk. Suddenly the desktop over owed with British pounds, greenbacks, French francs, German marks, kroner, pesetas, and an assortment of Belgian, Swiss, and Russian currency.
"Where did you get all this?" I asked while trying to act natural, stifling my laughter.
The undertaker apologized. "People die everywhere, all the time. Being in the service of the good Lord in Heaven is an international business, you know," he replied, and briskly walked out, carefully clutching his little Dalí masterpiece.
So began my introduction to the world of art. My first sale had come so easy to me, no effort at all. Beginner’s luck. I thought I would be on a high for weeks. The scene in my brand-new office reminded me of the title of a Woody Allen film I had seen a few years previously, Take the Money and Run,
a classic presented as a documentary on the life of an incompetent petty criminal called Virgil Starkwell, played by Woody Allen. I felt like an incompetent petty criminal myself. I had taken the money, but now that it was time to run, I didn’t run. Though I was unsure of the morality of what I had just done, bluf.ng the undertaker out of his hard-earned cash, my MMC president was delighted. He shot me a wide smile. Next day, he took me to his own personal tailor, who fitted me with a custom-made suit while enjoying an afternoon coffee.
"You’re a natural, Stan! Fantastic," the president exclaimed.
"I’m puzzled. Why do these rich people buy art?" I asked. "To beautify their lives?"
"To add to their cultural … pastiche?"
"Don’t make me regret hiring you, Stan!"
I sighed. "I don’t know … do they really buy as … as an investment?" I asked.
The MMC president nodded and smiled.
"How far can I go?" I asked.
"The only limit to what you can charge is what the buyer is willing to pay," the president told me. "If you’re good, there’s no price limit. None. Rich people need to flaunt their wealth without appearing to be vulgar. I mean, they can’t hang their cash on the wall, can they? Always remember that (a) rich men respect you when you don’t bullshit them, (b) the wives are your secret weapon, and (c) don’t show pity, take the money without remorse, and take as much as you can. Always Stan Lauryssens remember that every great fortune in the world is built on a life of crime."
Excerpted from The Surreal Story by Arendsoog.
Copyright © 2008 by Arendsoog.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.