It was a refined middle-class area where the inhabitants liked to keep their heads down on their pillows whatever excesses were going on outside, but we roused them. We kept up the noise until everyone took notice. Shutters flew open. Watchdogs were barking. Tousled heads appeared everywhere while we carried on banging in a slow, deliberate manner as if it were some dread religious rite.
Finally Carus and Servia burst from their front door.
'At last!' roared my father. The helpers and I gravely made our way back to him. 'The vultures appear for the reckoning!' Pa informed the audience. 'Now hear me: Aulus Cassius Carus and Ummidia Servia maintain that my son Didius Festus-who died a national hero, in possession of the Mural Crown-owed them half a million sesterces. Never let it be said that the Didius family reneged!' It was brilliant. After years of observing puzzled punters in the auction ring, he had the knack of sounding like a man who believed he had probably been cheated, though he could not quite see how. 'Here's the cash then! I call on all those present to be my witnesses.'
He walked to the edge of the cart. I joined him there.
'Here's your money, Carus! It's been counted!'
We raised the first lid together, up-ended the chest on the edge of the wagon, and let its contents spill out on to the roadway. The first consignment of our half-million tumbled at the collectors' feet. With an anguished cry they fell on it, vainly trying to catch up the cash as the coins bounced and spun over pavement and gutter. We shoved aside the empty chest and heaved forward another. Helped by our companions we continued this until a mound of twinkling coinage filled the entrance to the Carus home, chest-high, like a great pile of winter grit left beside a steep road.
It was all in small change. Box after box of mixed coppers, ancient bronze bits and silver fell like the mica chips that spangle the sand in the Circus Maximus. We emptied the entire amount into the road. We had no need of a receipt: the whole street could bear witness to our delivery. In fact, as we turned the cart and drove away, many of the collectors' extremely helpful neighbours were rushing up, still in their slippers and nightwear, eager to help gather up the money from the road.
'Enjoy it, Carus,' was my father's parting shot. 'That little lot should see you all right at a few public latrines!'
Some weeks later, the fine-art world was humming with news of a forthcoming private sale.
At the gallery of Cocceius stood an interesting marble.
'I can make no claims,' said Cocceius, who was an honest kind of dealer, 'for its artist, or its antiquity.'
Collectors soon heard about the statue's striking features, and flocked to gawp. It was a Poseidon: nude, one arm poised and throwing a trident, and with a rich curly beard. Very Greek-and quite magnificent.
'It has an intriguing history,' Cocceius informed enquirers in his comfortable way. He was a quiet, reassuring man, a pillar of the Auctioneers' Guild. 'The illustrious Senator Camillus Verus found this rather nice piece in the attic when going through his late brother's house…'
That old tale!
People all over Rome went rushing home to look in their attics.
Nobody else had one.
Two people, a man and a woman heavily wrapped in cloaks and veils, came to view the statue incognito. Cocceius gave them a familiar nod.
'What's the provenance, Cocceius?'
'None, I fear. We can make no guesses. Though it's certainly Parian marble, as you can see.' That was evident. This was no Roman copy in limestone. Even fine Carrara would be noticeably more grey in the vein…
'What's the reason for selling?'
'It seems a convincing story. I understand the Senator is trying to raise cash to put his second son into the Senate. I dare say you can ask around their neighbours for confirmation. The bright young thing has made an unexpected name for himself, and with Daddy having Vespasian's ear, his path is now clear to the top. Finance is their only problem. So offers are invited for this rather handsome sea god, though you'll have to use your judgement as to what it is…'
'Where did it come from?'
'Absolutely no idea. The noble Senator's brother imported things. But he's dead, so we can't ask him.'
'Where did he trade?'
'All over. North Africa. Europe. Greece and the East, I believe…'
'Greece, you say?'
'There does appear to be some minor damage to one shoulder…' Cocceius was completely open, a model of neutrality.
'It's excellent. But you make no claims?'
'I make no claims.' Cocceius was certainly honest; such a refreshing change.
There are many ways of making claims-and not all of them involve direct lies.
The closely swaddled collectors went away to think about it.
Next time they came, the owner was apparently considering withdrawing the statue from sale. Alarmed by this news, the cloaked man and woman stood in the shadows and listened. Maybe other people were in other shadows, but if so they were invisible.
The Senator's noble daughter was explaining to Cocceius that her father might be having doubts. 'Of course we do need the money. But it's such a lovely thing. If it commands a large price, that's wonderful. But we're tempted to keep it and enjoy it at home ourselves. Oh dear! Father doesn't know what he should do for the best… Could we ask an expert to have a look at it?'
'Certainly.' Cocceius never pushed his clients to sell against their will. 'I can arrange for an art historian to give you an authoritative opinion. How much are you prepared to pay?'
'What can I get?' asked the noble Helena Justina.
Cocceius was honest, but a humorist. 'Well, for a small fee I can get you a man who will close his eyes and say the first thing that comes into his head.'
'Forget the small fee,' she answered.
'For a little bit more I can get you a proper expert.'
'Which sort would you like?'
Helena looked surprised-though not so surprised as she might have looked before she met me. 'Which sorts can I have?'
'Either Arion, who will tell you it's genuine-or Pavoninus, who will maintain it's a fake.'
'But they haven't seen it yet!'
'That's what they always say.'
Apparently Helena Justina was now growing tense. 'How much,' she demanded at her most crisp (which was about as crisp as toasted bread when you answer the door and forget it until you smell smoke), 'how much would we have to pay for the very best?' Cocceius told her. Helena drew a sharp breath. 'And what will we get for that exorbitant amount?'
Cocceius looked embarrassed. 'You will get a man in a slightly peculiar tunic who stares at the statue for a very long time, drinks some herb tea in a thoughtful manner, then tells you both of the possible verdicts and says that frankly he cannot say for certain which is correct.'
'Ah I see! He,' said Helena, collapsing with a smile, 'is the really clever one.'
'Why is that?' asked Cocceius, though he knew all along.
'Because without putting his own reputation at risk, he leaves people to convince themselves of what they want to hear.' The noble Helena reached a decision in her usual swift manner. 'Let's save our cash! I can speak for Papa.' Obviously they were a free-thinking, liberal family. (And the women were very forceful.) 'If we can establish my brother's career the sale will be worth it. People will recognise quality. If anybody offers a good figure, Papa will sell.'
The collectors in the cloaks hurriedly sent both Arion and Pavoninus to look at the Poseidon; then they also paid for the man in the odd tunic, who had very peculiar diction too, and who said that they must make up their own minds.