For London’s wealthiest, art is always on the move.
I started work as a part-time art handler two years ago, for a company that specialises in solving the complicated art needs of West End galleries, conservationists, museums and most enjoyably, the denizens of London’s ultra-rich community. We’re called in to take care of the mundane (changing a lightbulb), the intricate (hanging a three-storey floor-to-ceiling mirror in a stairwell), the delicate (taking the Queen’s throne from Westminster Abbey to be re-gilded) and often the ridiculous (spending all day lugging one of Kapoor’s pointlessly heavy statues into every corner of every room until that day’s interior decorator locates ‘harmony in the flow’). We do it all, as long you don’t mind the extortionate fee.
What separates us from the other strangers people let into their houses is just the value of the things we handle. Time and time again I’ve been ushered past nameless cleaners, electricians, plumbers, only to be asked in pleading tones to move a Louis XVI folding stool from one bedroom to another.
And favouritism is great. I love being greeted at the door with champagne, tipped generously, flattered and fawned over for achieving the simplest of tasks (‘What would you think if I centred the portrait on the wall at, say… eye level?’ – ‘You’re a marvel. Honestly what would we do without you?’).
The characters you meet on this job leap from the page. There was the French woman, swollen with so much collagen it was practically seeping out of her ears and who punctuated all her sentences with ‘I die!’, who made me hang a huge black and white picture of her own breast above her bed (‘You like, darling? It’s me. I die!’) And then she really did have to dash out for bellinis at 9am (‘The time darling, I die! I die!’), telling me firmly that when I was done her son would call her for further instructions. But the son wouldn’t get out of bed, saying through the door that he couldn’t help anyway because he only knew her Mustique number. The next four hours were spent kicking around the buildings foyer until – ‘Why you still here darling? My God. I die!’
I could go on and on about my experiences with the ultra-rich. But there is one story in particular that sticks in the mind.
It was in Knightsbridge, a few years back. I’ll call the man who opened the door Valentin. He had the saturnine bearing of an obelisk. Unmistakably Russian. He scanned me, from my face down to my tool bag with its company logo. Now his glare seemed to turn inward. He’d clearly forgotten all about calling us and demanding we come today, at this exact time, paying our extravagant fees in advance. Now, as the rain drizzled down, he was remembering why I was on his doorstep.
He opened his huge mouth and rumbled, ‘Come,’ leaving me to step inside with my things. He kept his back to me, so I had time to take in the heavy, uncomfortable-looking furniture, the sort that’s never supposed to leave the showroom. The house was like that. If something wasn’t made of black marble, it was glass. If it wasn’t glass, it was covered in thick purple velvet. I only stopped gawping when I noticed that a tiny woman was staring straight at me round Valentin’s arm. After a quick check for a ring, I guessed this was his wife, whom I’ll call Irina.
She was Japanese, beautiful and half her husband’s age, but the most striking thing about her was that her long black hair was stuck to her face in a way that looked like she had either just been swimming or was extraordinarily drunk.
She started to talk to her husband in a slurred whisper and Valentin, as cold and blank as a Gormley statue, flatly ignored her. She clutched at him and pressed her whole body against his. He freed his arm, I think, to lead me towards the job at hand, but she started to hold him tighter and nuzzled her nose into his ear. I was looking away when Valentin let out a sharp whimper.
I realised then that I hadn’t interrupted date night. In fact, Irina had pressed herself close to her man in order to sink teeth deep into the meat of Valentin’s neck. She was now twisting her head, as though searching for the jugular. Valentin, having betrayed himself briefly with a yelp, was doing an excellent job of pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Head cocked a little, he gazed straight at me and smiled.
In that moment I briefly imagined quietly backing out of the house and running for the van, happy in the knowledge he’d never call again. Naturally though I just stared, smiling back at him, trying not to focus on the blood that had started to run into his chest hair.
Lost for what to do, I just beamed at them. Eventually I heard Valentin’s echoing, movie-villain voice say, ‘Down. We go.’ (‘Uranium, of course, we have much.’) I grabbed my tools and scampered after him, sympathetic to the idea of putting at least a floor between me and whatever Irina was going to do next.
We went down past the lap-pool floor, the cinema floor, the gym, finally reaching a playroom with cathedral ceilings. Sitting in the corner, doing a heroic job of distracting a 12-year-old boy on a computer was a Kiwi nanny. She had clearly found a nook far away from the fighting but wasn’t taking any chance so bellowed over a YouTube video playing on maximum volume, ‘Look at that, buddy! That’s so cool! How did you do that!? You’re just so brilliant, mate!’
Valentin was standing beside two framed pictures propped against the wall. By this point, I was expecting to be hanging a framed copy of the Magnitsky Act above his shark tank, until I saw that the larger of the two was made of black and white sequins. He lifted this up and held it against the wall, indicating where he’d like it hung. I realised that what he was holding up was a metre-long American Express card made entirely of sequins. A set of pink cursive sequins were embedded across the monochrome, spelling out the name Annika. He nodded at the card. ‘My daughter.’
Valentin held up a framed dollar bill with the word ‘Dillinger’ signed across it. ‘Public enemy number one,’ he said proudly. I told him I’d seen and liked the film, which seemed like the sensible thing to do.
‘He, the last great gangster,’ Valentin responded. ‘That his signature. The last only.’ He pointed to where he wanted it hung.
I thought about how passers-by had dipped their notes in Dillinger’s blood after he’d been gunned down outside a theatre in Chicago and wondered if he’d had the same foresight as the Apollo 11 team, who’d signed postcards for their wives to sell in the eventuality of a fiery death. No, is the short answer.
We were interrupted by Irina, who had trod quietly down the stairs. She had managed to break away and came running down to continue her argument in earnest, which she did by leaping on Valentin and attacking him. At this point, Nanny went nuclear, screaming, ‘GOD YOU’RE CLEVER! I’M SO BAD AT COMPUTERS!’
I smiled at them all, then pulled my phone out and gave the Dillinger note a quick google.
It was not in fact the scrawl of Baby Face Nelson’s partner-in-crime, but a piece by the German artist, Joseph Beuys. Before I registered that this avant-garde work of post-Dadaist satire had ended up hung below an enormous credit card in a mega-basement, there was an almighty ripping sound and like the whimper before it, I was brought back to the room. I didn’t really even need to look to confirm that it was Valentin’s Ferrari-branded polo shirt that had been turned into a tattered rag.
In the fleeting moments of silence I realised it would do me no good to know details about the maniac that personalises AmEx cards with sequins and that really, I should hurry up and get the hell out of there.
In double-time I measured up, knocked four neat pins into the wall, plonked the pictures up and levelled everything straight. I tossed my tools back in my bag and made for the stairs. An ancient Babushka suddenly barred the way. She took both of my hands in hers, kissed me on each cheek and then once very gently on the lips and said, ‘Special boy. Pray for us. You pray.’
‘It’s my pleasure,’ I told her, burning red. ‘I should get out of your hair.’
‘No!’ she barked, before littering my hands with more kisses, and then led me upstairs. ‘Money!’ she shouted back at Valentin, who indicated his pennilessness by patting himself down and pleading tragically with his eyes to be left in peace.
‘It’s fine.’ I said. ‘It’s all been taken care of.’
‘No! More.’ She said, now dragging me. I daren’t look behind me until Babushka let go of me at the front door, commanding me to ‘wait!’ Only then did I see that the whole cast had followed us up.
Shocked and obedient, I gazed back at the scene behind me. With the low lighting casting shadows on the walls it looked like a wretched stained-glass window. Irina, hair befuddled, had finally slumped in a chair, battle-fatigued. Babushka, swearing into her tiny purse, searching for money. The young boy poking his face around the glass banister and Valentin, standing motionless in the middle of the room, staring at the ground, his red polo-shirt in tatters, a trickle of blood working its way down his bare chest.
His stillness, after what had been such a frenetic half-hour reminded me of a disease I’d heard about that had plagued Charles VI of France. He believed he was made of glass, and that were he to be touched he would simply shatter. It led him, in a wild fit, to kill one of his own knights, the Bastard of Polignac. This glass madness, it was thought, could only afflict nobles. It made me think: Valentin was a man with everything (except John Dillinger’s signature) – but if you saw wealth as a means to control your environment and if you succeeded in amassing it, but then failed catastrophically to control the world around you, you might end up gazing down at your reflection in a marble floor, afraid that you were not only crackable, but worse, translucent. Because the other great fear for the glass man is that he is empty.
I left clutching seven pounds in coins, with the taste of Babushka fresh on my lips, and headed to South Kensington station.