I put the boxes of clothing aside and reached for a trunk. I was lifting out a photograph album when a picture fell from between its pages. Picking it up, I noticed faint writing on the back: "Mazie and Hoyt. Wynderly. Spring 1924."
Mazie's jet-black hair was pulled straight back at the nape of her long, pearl-white neck, which appeared even paler in the black and white picture. Hoyt Wyndfield wore a crisp linen jacket, white shoes, and fully pleated pants held up high by a shiny dark belt. Wynderly, towering behind them, had finally been completed. Hoyt and Mazie held hands, yet stood apart, as if to give the camera a wider, clearer shot of their home. Though scaffolding was still in place and muddy earth was mounded high around its foundation, I could almost feel their love for the place.
Matt Yardley had told me the Wyndfields named the house Wynderly after themselves and the windblown hills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where it was built. The name seemed perfect; it made me think of Biltmore, Stan Hewett, and San Simeonother houses built by that rarified generation with the money, style, and taste to erect monuments to themselves. Their owners had traveled the world over and returned home with treasures to fill every high-ceilinged room.
Wynderly and its objects had survived the ravages of time, but Hoyt and Mazie's fortune had not. With the fate of the house and its objects in doubt, Matt Yardley knew to be suspicious of the validity of the insurance claim. I had been at Wynderly for only a day and a half, and I was beginning to have a few questions of my own.
Good appraisers are, by nature, detectives. I've always said it's because we see so many fakes and fraudsboth the inanimate and the two-legged varietythat we never take anything, or anyone, at face value. Once upon a time I was as innocent as the next person. I loved antiques for all the right reasonsbeauty, craftsmanship, and especially the memories our treasures hold.
Then I learned how some corrupt silversmith had fused eighteenth-century English hallmarks on the bottoms of Colonial Williamsburg reproduction silver pitchers, and how Granny's beautiful eighteenth-century console table had really been made by a sly forger in the 1920s, not Mr. Chippendale himself. It had forever changed the way I looked at everything.
During my first tour of Wynderly, a couple of pieces sent up red flags, like when I saw the Tang horses. Something about them wasn't right. Authentic seventh- or eighth-century pottery horses made in China as tomb accessories are rare indeed, as is the pocketbook that can afford one. And over the years I'd been shown two or three dozen Tang horses thought by their owners to be the real thing worth tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But instead of being several centuries old, their horses were no more than fifty or a hundred years old, and seldom worth more than a couple hundred dollars.
Wynderly's deep green horses, their heads bowed and their tails arched, had instantly given me pause. It didn't make sense. Wynderly had been open to the public for years. Every publication from Art & Antiques to Southern Accents was constantly looking for fresh material for their pages, so why was it that, outside of Virginia, few people had even heard of Wynderly?
I was beginning to suspect that those horses, along with other pieces, might teeter between truth and myth, honesty and deception. I could hardly wait to start my own investigations. Trouble was, Michelle Hendrix had been dogging my every step. And like the Tang horses, she, too, was proving to be perplexing.
I had thought that since we'd be working together, we would be helpful to each other. Instead, though Michelle never left my side, she seemed to purposely avoid answering my questions about Wynderly's antiques. I had begun to think I could learn more on my own.
Excerpted from The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins. Copyright © 2009 by Emyl Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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