'I must confess to you that I was not a journalist. In truth, I was a thief.
The antiquities and curious objects that had been gathered by Mr Umbroldi, over 50 years, had become legendary; more so because of his eccentricity and reluctance to catalogue his collection. There were collectors across the world that suspected Umbroldi of having secured the last few items that would make their own collections complete. He never replied to their letters, personal visits, or other modes of communication.
I was surprised, therefore, when he accepted my first application for an interview. No doubt you were also shocked at the ease with which you gained an audience, or perhaps you have plied him with gifts and pestered him with requests for many years. Well, either way, you are here and have to listen to my story before you are able to begin your own. If you will allow me a few moments of your precious time I feel obliged to entertain you with a short tale; perhaps you could even call it a fable.
I had heard something of Carl Umbroldi many years before. You see I was interested in Japanese antiquities, principally inro boxes, netsuke and ojime. But I also dabbled in militaria and had heard that Umbroldi had a collection of yari heads and items of samurai armour, including some kabuto and rare examples of mempo. These items fetch good prices these days. Everything I had heard of Umbroldi's collection reminded me of the eccentric, Charles Paget Wade, and the collection he had gathered at Snowshill Manor. Umbroldi's collection though sounded vaster, and just as idiosyncratic; an emblem of himself, as every true collection should be. I came across the name again in an auction catalogue. Incredibly he was parting with a fine Harbrecht armillary sphere, from the 1570s. Perhaps he was beginning to run out of finances-it often happens later in the collector's career-and was attempting to consolidate his collection around some specific themes that he no longer had the resources to achieve. I resolved therefore to see him, and the collection, at the first opportunity; to investigate the potential for a burglary with rich rewards. You see, often a collector is little interested in the simple banalities of existence and by the time they begin to think of security I have done my work. It was a thrilling life. I wouldn't have changed it for anything.
As I mentioned, it had been my first attempt to gain access to the man, a notorious recluse. I had expected it to fail. But he had accepted, in a charming letter that suggested a date and time only a couple of weeks from my first communication. Then, I believed that he had succumbed to what I call the "Collector's Curse". I suggest that this illness troubles most collectors in their latter years. As the urge to accumulate subsides, and most prized objects have been acquired, with only a few elusive articles remaining, the collector realises that their project-that had kept them so energised over all the years-is futile. They have, no doubt, sacrificed friends and a family life, perhaps even the joys of children, to amass their great treasure trove. But it exists only as a private language; a history of connections and conquests that they alone understand. To others it is a bizarre assemblage of useless stuff, antique or otherwise. It is then that the collector remembers the world and strives to immortalise not themselves but the meaning of the collection. They aim to secure its future. They try to justify its structure and integrity in current form. The juxtaposition of one object alongside another must be maintained, another curatorial hand could destroy the years of careful construction. They frequently court the press to make of their eccentricity a local legend, at least to secure some protection from the merciless predation of family or friends who might inherit what-to them-is merely a wonderful gift, only one quick deal from liquid cash. Yet, as ever-when courting the devil-one must be guarded against those keen to take advantage; those such as myself. So, although hopeful, I had not expected Mr Umbroldi to be so readily prepared to meet with me.
But before I detail our encounter let me tell you something of myself. All good collectors want to know the history of the objects they encounter. My fascination with antiques had begun straightforwardly enough. Idling, in my many days of truancy, around the boisterous Bermondsey market and dodging boots from the ragmen on Portobello Road I discovered a grimy sub-culture of subsistence trading; the fermenting corpulent bowels of civilisation. There, amidst the dead-men's clothes and broken domestic paraphernalia, one could find gold.
One morning, just as day broke, I found a tray of what looked like wooden buttons covered by a box of rusted carpentry tools. The trader was busy offloading furniture from his cart and so I huddled beneath the groaning table of his wares and dragged the box out to check its contents. Much of it seemed to be discarded wooden blocks, mostly spherical, the purpose of which was indiscernible. However there were a number of small carved items that seemed blackened by fire. Thinking back I believe they may have been Victorian bogwood brooches. I was a child, their dull etchings of churches and gravestones did not interest me.
Then I found something so different that a magical awe descended to mark a moment in which my life shifted course. It was a grotesque round face with a piggish snout and grimacing mouth exposing sharp teeth. Two embryonic horns marked its unusual demonic nature, as did the hollow eyes, which bore into my soul and etched my fate instantly. I did not know it then but it was a boxwood netsuke by the carver Sanshō. I stared at it for some time, rubbing my dirty fingers across its smooth surface, worn down for centuries by other hands, no doubt filthier than mine. A bizarre urge came over me. Not simply to steal the thing-that was certain-but to conceal it in my mouth like some foraging rodent. And so, I did.
That is the mark of the collector's descent into fixation: the fusion of tactile pleasure with cerebral curiosity. I adored the wooden ones the most. They always seemed warm, as though having been passed on from their previous owners only moments before. The ivory ones were cold and lifeless, but they certainly showed me the lucrative aspects of my work. For one day I discovered an intricate example in a tray of broken pottery. It was of an octopus hiding in a hole. This work was doubly intriguing as it was inscribed with what I later learned was a haiku: Takotsubo ya / Hakanaki yume wo / Natsu no tsuki. It was marked with the signature of two great carvers, Mitsuhiro and Masatsugu, who had both worked on the piece. I had discovered this item only a few months after my first one. I swiftly pocketed it and took it back to my stash, now numbering over a dozen other specimens. I took it to a dealer, one who would not ask questions; he offered me ten pounds. Ten pounds! Of course I took it. In the 1950s, to a child, ten pounds was more money than I'd known my entire life. No doubt the dealer sold it on for five times that, and I still regret parting with it. But it inaugurated my passage into the darker criminality of exchange.
So I became fascinated with these Japanese trinkets. Though still a criminal I stole for the love of the object. Something in them captivated me and beckoned me into imaginary realms where their previous owners laughed and fought beneath empty blue skies. It was not simply their Orientalism-I was used to the many races of London's ghettoes-I did not fetishise the foreign. It was their obvious functionality mixed with their comical beauty that captivated me. They seemed to speak of genuine histories.
It seemed I was also a collector, then.
My father had died of tuberculosis in the mid-thirties, shortly after I was born. He had been a miner before the war, somewhere in Wales my mother said. They met when he was on leave, in the midlands, and they had settled in London shortly before his death. Mother was a strict woman, although I believe she had not always been so. After the death of my father she was stricken with fear that I should become a 'bad boy' without the stern supervision of a male parent. So she assumed both roles; the nurturing one gradually becoming effaced by the authoritarian.
You can imagine her reaction upon finding some of my treasures, and a fair amount of money from the sales of those I thought were valuable. I had no opportunity to explain. What, indeed, could I have said? I was a thief-and my damnation was certain. Salvation, mother raged, was to be found in the riding crop that hung on the pantry door. With each beat of the crop-and there were many-the sin in me was not driven out. Rather, it blossomed. Evil rose like a blooming of fetid yeasts breaking the skin of bruised fruits. Mother unearthed in me that day all the hate, perversity and crime a soul could disgorge and from then on I was lost to whatever god might have once been able to save me.
So I continued to thieve, in fact I increased my deviousness and learnt more artful ways to deceive and lie. I prayed mostly on the vanities and secrets of those I courted. Soon I had a network of those indebted to me in various ways, and a willing chain of fences and collectors eager to acquire the trophies of my crimes.
So, Mr Umbroldi was marked down as another victim of my cunning, albeit a prestigious one. His home was not what I had expected though, located in the suburbs and suggesting little in the way of privilege. Most of these people are of fairly noble birth and live in crumbling heaps befitting such station. Umbroldi's home, though relatively large, was by no means stately, or indeed of any great age. It had most likely been chosen for its functionality. There were perhaps six or seven bedrooms, and a sizeable extension had been added to the place recently, as could be seen from the short walk up the road, a cul-de-sac, in which his was the last residence.
He answered the door himself, another great advantage I thought: there were no servants. If he lived alone it would be fairly simple to almost clear the place with some thoughtful planning. I had discovered that he had fled his native Italy with the rise of the fascists and so must be in his late eighties by now. Indeed, the man I had imagined was the one that greeted me. He would have been tall and well built, in his youth. Now though he leant heavily on a cane and stooped low. He wore a brown suit, including waistcoat, with a gold watch chain peeping from his pocket. He was, despite what I had heard, relatively genial.