Modern art often seems to be worth far more than you might expect from looking at it. This short story tells what might happen somewhere that art of that type is on display….
Sadly this is the last work created by the artist before his death by firing squad during the Hungarian uprising in October nineteen fifty-six. So read the tag below the unassuming piece of art on the wall. For the past few years everyone had assumed that was the truth. The real story was stranger than they thought.
Andre was looking forward to meeting old friends at the ten-year reunion. Having arrived early he decided to walk round the science building. As he left one of the computer rooms, the old text-only terminals replaced by flat screen displays, he paused and stared in disbelief at the picture on the wall. As he read the label, the corners of his mouth started to rise. By the time he finished, he was smiling broadly.
“Everything OK?” enquired one of the security guards, as he passed.
“Fine!” replied Andre, “I was just looking at this picture.”
“Yeah?” said the guard, whose badge identified him as George.
“I just remember it that’s all. I was studying Physics here when this was first put up.”
“Really? That’s been up there since I started working here. Well, almost. Couple of years back some students knocked it off the wall. They had to pay to get it reframed and everything.”
Andre tried to stifle his laughter, but didn’t quite succeed. Instead a loud snort emanated from him.
“Yeah, I know,” continued George, launching on a familiar tirade against the thoughtlessness of young people. “Most of the students are decent enough but, there’s always a few bad ones. The pair that knocked it down got kicked out soon after. I wasn’t sorry to see them go.”
“You say they had to pay to get it reframed?” asked Andre.
“Yup!” replied George. “Say, I’ve got to get back to the lodge. If you like, you can come with me. I’ll tell you all about it.”
A few minutes later George and Andre were sitting in the porter’s lodge sipping freshly brewed mugs of tea.
“So, it’s like I was telling you,” said George trying to prevent the mug of tea he held in his massive hand from steaming up his glasses, “These two jokers had a few too many drinks, and decided it would be fun to hang the pictures along this corridor upside down. As they were unhooking that picture something broke. They couldn’t control the thing and dropped it. Joe was on duty that night. He heard the noise and caught them red-handed. The police were called, of course, and they called the Vice-Chancellor, so you can imagine how much fun the rest of the evening was!”
“What happened then?” enquired Andre.
“The Vice-Chancellor was just going to throw it away, but the Chancellor decided he wanted to get the picture restored and reframed. Cost them about five hundred quid by the time they were done.”
The last piece of information was too much for Andre. He barely managed to put the tea down without spilling it before the long-suppressed laugh broke free. George looked at him, startled.
“I’m OK,” Andre finally managed to gasp between guffaws, “I just can’t believe that they did that.”
Andre glanced up at the clock. “I wouldn’t have time to tell you the whole story now. I’m supposed to be at the reunion. Will you be here later?”
“Sure,” responded George, “I’ll be here until midnight. If you promise you’ll come back I’ll hang around for you.”
“Oh, I’ll be back,” Andre replied, “I’ll probably bring a few friends along too.”
It was shortly after midnight when Andre returned, along with two fellow alumni, Steve and Paul. Not only was George waiting for them, but so were three other guards.
“So,” enquired George when everyone had settled down, “What do you know about that picture that is so funny?”
Andre grinned cheekily. “Well for starters, I know who painted it,” he replied.
“We all do,” responded one of the guards. “It’s that Dermon Rushibb chap, isn’t it?”
Andre smiled, and pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of his jacket. On it he wrote the artists name, then tore the piece of paper into six pieces, which he arranged on the floor in front of him. Mo-der-n Ru-bb-i-sh.
“What on earth?” said George, “You mean the picture is a hoax?”
“Yup,” replied Andre, “It seemed like a good idea when we put it together! The university had spent about twenty thousand pounds for some hideous modern art, but they refused the Physics Department two grand for a replacement computer. We wondered if they would be able to tell the difference between a real work of art and a fake. It was Steve here who painted the picture.”
“I just used geometric shapes, and colors that would be found at sunset,” Steve interjected. He was smaller than Paul, with dark thick-rimmed glasses that made him look like Buddy Holly, or would have if Buddy Holly’s hair were red. “At first it looked unbalanced, so I added the wavy lines below. Then it looked too good, so we added the purple triangles.”
“We all used the computers in this building,” added Paul, “so nobody was surprised when we worked late one evening. We knew that when the guard went to do his rounds we would have about ten minutes to put the picture up.”
“We thought it would be spotted in less than a month,” Andre resumed. “Possibly even as little as a week. We never thought that it would still be hanging on the wall ten years later!”
“What’s more,” laughed George, “because it’s one of the Chancellor’s favorites it’ll probably be here in another ten years too!”
It was well after two in the morning before Andre and the others left, having persuaded their new friends to keep the real story secret. As he drove home, Andre found himself looking forward to the next reunion, and wondering what stories he would hear about the picture then.