by Hy Conrad
The Mission of Paulist Brothers had fallen on hard times. The age-old French institution still possessed its huge monastery and grounds in the Loire valley. But huge old monasteries cost a fortune to heat and the brothers’ primary source of income, Paulist Brothers’ Brandy, wasn’t selling as well as it once had. The only choice, it seemed, was to part with their prized possession, a wooden bust of St. Paul with carved marble eyes, a Leonardo da Vinci creation that the artist himself had presented to the order in 1505.
The abbot had made the decision, Rome had approved it, and on a warm spring evening, two limousines drive through the monastery’s gates, bringing two bidders who were prepared to pay a fortune to own the wooden statue.
Julietta Maxima was an imposing woman, still young and vibrant. Her late husband had amassed the world’s foremost private collection of Renaissance art and Julietta had followed in his footsteps, becoming almost maniacal in her need to own every available treasure of the period.
Renard Pujot was an entirely different animal. One of the art world’s most infamous figures, Renard had been suspected, but never accused, in dozens of cases of fraud and misrepresentation. Legend had it that he began his career as a skilled forger, filling museums and private galleries with numerous new masterpieces. But that was only an unsubstantiated rumor. Currently he made a profitable living as an art dealer. “I’m here representing an anonymous client,” he explained to Brother Damien, the grim faced administrator who emerged onto the driveway to greet them.
Brother Damien led his guests into the main hall. “I must be honest with you,” he warned. “I am greatly opposed to this transaction. Selling the da Vinci bust would be the gravest sacrilege. Most of the brothers agree.”
Neither bidder seemed at all moved by the monastery’s plight. “When do we get to inspect the piece?” Julietta demanded.
That night the abbot served up an extravagant dinner. Afterwards, as the guests sipped the best Paulist Brothers’ Brandy, Brother Damien led them into the library. The elegantly painted bust sat in a place of honor directly beside the massive bible, a gift from the current pope. St. Paul had survived the centuries remarkably well and both experts inspected the work with the reverence it deserved.
“Several other bidders will be arriving tomorrow morning,” Damien told them. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must join the brothers for vespers. I trust you’re all settled into your rooms and have everything you need.”
The two bidders sat up until midnight, talking about art and watching the fire burn down to glowing embers. They left the library together and retired to their rooms on the second floor.
As was his habit, the abbot rose before dawn and entered the library for a few moments of private prayer. The first thing he sensed was the warmth of the crackling fire. Then his eyes fell on the missing bible and a second later the pedestal where the da Vinci had rested for hundreds of years. It was empty. Immediately, he raised the alarm.
The provincial gendarmes were shocked by the monastery’s lack of security. “We lock the gates at night,” the abbot explained. “But not the monastery itself. And we have one surveillance camera. It’s mounted in the main hall doors.”
The surveillance video showed a lone figure crossing the threshold and leaving the building. The figure was dressed in a monk’s robe, the hood raised, and was carrying a large, heavy sack. The video was time-stamped at 3:10 a.m.
The lock on the gate had been undisturbed. The police made a circuit of the property and found only one trace of the theft. A bag similar to the bag seen in the video was found lodged in the branches of a tree just outside the fifteen foot high stone wall. “The thief must have had an outside accomplice,” the police theorized. “He threw it over the wall and the bag got caught in a tree.” The abbot blanched at the thought of the bust being thrown over a wall.
“Abbot!” The brothers had fanned out across the grounds to make one desperate search. One of them returned now, a little confused and excited. “Abbot. We didn’t find any trace of the bust, but we did find the Pope’s bible. It was at the bottom of the dry well by the vineyard wall.”
“Vineyard wall?” The abbot scratched his head. “That’s not far from where the police found the sack. Why in heaven would someone take both the bust and the bible and then drop the bible down a well?”
The gendarmes responded by scratching their own heads.