In the spring of 1997, an art collector in Geneva received a call from a contact at the city’s office of bankruptcies and legal proceedings. There was an auction coming up, of an estate that had gone unclaimed for nine years, and among the lots was a painting that the collector might want to take a look at: a canvas attributed to the British artist Lucian Freud. The collector was a businessman, originally from North Africa, who was used to picking up furniture and art works at competitive prices from Geneva’s plentiful array of galleries, antique dealers, and salesrooms. He is keen to preserve his privacy, so I will call him Omar.
Omar went to see the painting that day, at the auction house in Carouge, a suburb to the south of the city. The estate had belonged to a man named Adolfo di Camillo, who died in 1988. According to auction records, di Camillo appeared to have been a collector, too. In the seventies, he had sold a seventeenth-century painting of Pan, the Greek god of shepherds, that was once believed to be a Rubens.
The work attributed to Freud was a medium-sized, naturalistic oil portrait of a naked man, painted from the side and from behind. Parts of the background appeared unfinished, or hastily sketched, but the figure itself was skillfully captured, with a certain power. “Oh, it’s interesting, it’s strong,” Omar recalled saying to himself.