For Olivier on his 21st birthday
Olivier, your father and I have known each other since I was eighteen and he was thirty-one and I always associate him with hilarious moments. None was more hilarious than our visit to the Soviet Union which coincided with your arrival.
You will have been told a thousand times how your great-grandfather was a Bolivian hacendero, who, one day, found two American trespassers with bags of mineral specimens on their backs. He locked them in a stable, thinking the minerals might be gold or silver. Finally they confessed the specimens were tin. That is one side of your family history.
In the spring, twenty-one years ago, your father learned that I had an official invitation to visit archaeological museums in the Soviet Union and also to meet Soviet archaeologists. The man who invited me I had met the year before in Sofia where I assured him that a treasury supposed to have been found at Troy, was either a fake or a fake on paper. The rest of the party was to include my professor of archaeology and a lady Marxist archaeological student from Hampstead.
We met in Leningrad. G.O. was Doctor O of the Basel Museum. For the first days he behaved like Dr. O. He listened patiently—although he nearly exploded afterward—to the rantings of an orthodox Marxist archaeologist. The museum impressed him greatly. He saw Greek objects, but he saw objects he had never seen before, treasures from the frozen tombs of Siberia, objects from the Siberian taiga.
On our last day in Leningrad we had an interview with the deputy director of the Hermitage Museum. The director himself was away in Armenia excavating the site of Urartu. It would not be fair to say that your father reached the door handle, but he is not a tall man, and the space suited him ideally. We were, after all, in the Tsar’s reception room. The Deputy Director greeted us with great kindness, but was plainly quite shocked by his previous visitor. As we entered a notorious peddler of fakes from Madison Avenue went out. He had told the deputy director, in the name of his own foundation for the investigation of forgeries, that the celebrated Peter the Great Gold Treasure had been made by a jeweler in Odessa in 1898. Your father rose to the occasion and assured the man that his visitor had been a complete fraud. He then got carried away. The mask of Dr. O vanished. He said, “This is the greatest museum in the world, right? I am the greatest collector of Greek bronzes in the world. If I leave you my collection in my will, will you appoint me director of this museum for a number of years?”
We went on to Moscow and stayed at the Metropol Hotel. Dr. O reasserted his identity. Again, in the Russian Historical Museum, he saw objects he had never dreamed of. We went to a reception …
Copyright © 1989 Bruce Chatwin
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