Every issue of The Official Ferrari Magazine carries a short story featuring a Ferrari. Written by international authors, their inspiration comes from the design of the car, its colour or technical features. In this issue, Ben Schott, best-selling author of 12 books, takes us on a Roman intrigue, inspired by the new Ferrari Roma. It all begins when a Russian oligarch commissions a 'specialist' to recover a stolen copy of a book of poems by Pushkin...
First things first: I am not a thief. True, I steal things – frequently, and with great aplomb. But I steal only that which has previously been stolen, returning it to its rightful owners, thereby ensuring that finders aren’t keepers and losers aren’t weepers. My clients are private collectors, public museums, research bodies, religious institutions, insurance companies, even nation states – the kind of people for whom admitting a theft is as injurious as the theft itself, if not more so (would you lend the family Picasso to a gallery that lost your friend’s Klimt?).
For years my work rarely took me outwith London, Paris, New York, and Rome, but recently I’ve had to navigate wealth’s new geography: Miami, Moscow, Mumbai – to name just a few of the M’s. And whilst ‘fine art’ will always be my mainstay, I’m increasingly asked to ‘adjust the loss’ of jewellery, documents, cars, and clothing (so many handbags!). The question of legality is a thorny one. I take comfort in the ‘maxim Ubi non accusator’, ibi non iudex – where there is no accuser, there is no judge – since the people I steal from are themselves thieves, or conniving receivers of stolen goods. Real criminals are far less inclined to call the police than are their innocent victims, for obvious reasons.
What would the police do if called? The honest answer is, I couldn’t say, because I’ve never encountered a policeman. At least, I hadn’t – until last June.
My story begins in Rome. I’d been commissioned by a Russian oligarch living in London to whom I was recommended by the Peruvian curator of an Italian collection in Sweden (thank heavens for Google Translate). This oligarch, let’s call him Ivan, had thrown a Christmas party in his Kensington mansion, after which he’d discovered that a small anthology of Pushkin’s poems was missing from his shelves. The book wasn’t valuable per se – just one among thousands of a cheap, mass-produced edition – but it had accompanied his grandfather from gulag to gulag during a decade of Siberian exile. To Ivan the volume was priceless, and Ivan knew the price of everything.
A nexus of security cameras easily identified the culprit – the trophy wife of an American billionaire had slipped the book into her miniature handbag – but it took my researchers many months of subtle probing to establish in which of their six homes it was shelved.
I was holidaying at the Villa d’Este on Lake Como when the text arrived: Palazzo ‘xxx’ on Via ‘yyy’. The timing was perfect: New York Fashion Week had just begun, so Mr and Mrs ‘zzz’ would be in Manhattan for at least six days. I packed a bag, and set my Ferrari Roma’s GPS for the only place I ever stay in the Eternal City – the paradisiacal Hotel Eden.
I’m not in the business of helping the bad guys (or my good guy competitors), so I’ll gloss over how I ‘re-acquired’ the book.
Hollywood likes to portray burglary as a complex, high-tech affair: elaborate alarms, hidden panels, secret doors, lasers. But in my experience, by the time you find yourself examining floor- plans and wiring diagrams, you might as well give up. The maxim of Israeli security is “find the bomber not the bomb” – similarly, my maxim is “don’t force the lock, find the open door”. You get further, faster with a bunch of flowers than a bunch of skeleton keys.
Suffice to say, I was in and out in twenty minutes, with the Pushkin tucked under my arm.
But things got tricky the next day.
I was enjoying my favourite Roman lunch at my favourite Roman restaurant, Da Fortunato, when an urbane, dark-suited man walked slowly and purposefully past my pavement table. Some minutes later, now flanked by two policemen, he walked back and approached me.
“Buongiorno, signore, parla italiano?” he murmured, discretely flashing his badge.
“Si, un po’ – ma inglese is easier.”
“You are American, I think?”
“English,” I lied. “A tourist. On holiday.”
“Of course, signore. I wonder if you might come with us?”
I gestured at my unfinished vitello tonnato. “It’s not really convenient.”
“I am sorry, signore, but I must insist.”
“Am I under arrest?’”
He smiled. “Of course not, signore. And do not worry about the bill, I will explain to the restaurant.”
The elegance of his manners did little to disguise his firmness of purpose, and so I put down my wine glass, and skirted round my (absolutely fascinated) fellow diners. “It’s not far, signore.”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little trepidatious as we approached the Commissariato Trevi Campo Marzio – though I was reassured by our casualness of pace, and the absence of handcuffs. We entered the police station through a side entrance, and I was led up a series of back stairs to a long, thin, brightly-lit room, one side of which was taken up by a vast and obviously two-way mirror.
“The Usual Suspects?” I forced a smile. “Ah, sì. I soliti sospetti – assolutamente!” the detective joked back, before pointing to the numbers painted on the floor. “Stand at number nine, please.”
By now, my nerves were a little more pronounced. Having never been arrested, let alone in a foreign country, I didn’t really know how, or whether, to object. Did the Italians need warrants? Did they read you your rights? Did I have any rights? I have lawyers, of course, but in a far-flung time zone.
The door opened, and nine other men shuffled in to stand on their allocated numbers. As we examined each other in the mirror’s reflection, attempting to gauge our similarity, there was a loud buzzing noise and the microphone clicked on.
The instructions came in Italian, and I followed the lead of my fellow defendants.
“Gira a sinistra ... e a destra ... mani nelle tasche ... chiudi gli occhi ...”
And then my heart sank.
“Numero nove ... passo in avanti ... scusi ... number nine, step forward, please ... turn round ... and to the left ... take your jacket off ... step back ... okay, thank you.”
The microphone clicked off, and I glanced round the room to assess my options for escape. There were none.
The door opened, and we filed out.
“Signore,” said the detective, taking my elbow, “come with me, please.”
He led me through a maze of corridors, and into a room full of busy, uniformed officers.
“Now we take le impronte digitali – scusi, your fingerprints.”
“Wait! I was identified?”
Before I had time to think of an objection, the detective had led me to a table, inked up my hands, and was rolling my fingers into the boxes of an official form.
Once he’d finished, he handed me an alcohol wipe. “Grazie, signore – you are free to go.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “Posso partire?” He laughed. “Naturally!”
“But was I not identified?”
“Of course. The caretaker swore on his Saint he saw you. But he’s an old man. He drinks. He gets confused. He gets so confused he accused an innocent English tourist I picked at random for an identity parade.”
I pointed to the finger-print sheet.
“Ah, yes,” he unclipped the form and handed it to me. “A souvenir.”
“I will walk you back to Da Fortunato, and buy you a glass of wine.” And then he lowered his voice. “Ivan insisted.”
London-born, Cambridge-educated, 46 year-old Ben Schott is a writer, designer, and creative consultant. His 12 books - including the bestselling Schott’s Original Miscellany, and the Schott’s Almanac series - have amassed sales of some 2.5 million in over 21 languages, including Braille. His first novel - Jeeves & The King of Clubs - was an homage to P. G. Wodehouse. Its sequel, Jeeves & The Leap of Faith, will be published this autumn. He contributes to publications as varied as The New York Times, Inc., Playboy and Vanity Fair. His portfolio can be seen at benschott.com