Olivia the curator had been working late. It was almost 10pm, and she was feeling exhausted. Only last week the leader of the council had asked for yet another valuation of the oil paintings, this time apparently for insurance purposes. She sighed, local government were unpredictable in times of ‘austerity’, disjointed in all they did. She dared not think about it too deeply, but could not help remembering the newspaper article she had read all those years ago. Bury Town Council; just one Lowry painting; that was all they’d needed to sell to plug their budget deficit for another year. Slowly she screwed the lid back on her cartridge pen, and then placed it back in the ceramic pot. Thank goodness she had undervalued the Swindon Lowrys; some things were best kept hidden from local counsellors, no matter how often they professed allegiance to ‘cultural regeneration’… She reached forward, and felt for the switch behind the desk lamp.
Just as the light went out, she heard a creaking noise from the corridor, followed by the thud of a heal hitting the back of the top stair. She froze, and an intense, prickling sensation rose up the back of her neck. No one should be here tonight, she was sure she had locked the door after the gallery volunteers left earlier, hadn’t she? Stumbling out of the office, she noticed that the door of the store room across the landing was ajar, and then –clunk – the sound of the front door. Out, must get out, she thought, as she fumbled for the light switch. At the bottom of the stairs, she felt her legs tremble. Twisting the lock sideways, she pulled the heavy door inwards, and then, in horror, she saw him…
Counsellor O’Brady was striding across the car park, with a small painting under his arm. ‘Get back Olivia’ he cried, ‘the decision’s been made, this one’s going to be sold. You’ll be notified officially in the morning.’ She fell backwards, clutching the doorknob, a heavy feeling weighed on her stomach.
Next morning she was late into work, switching on the computer, monitor and kettle in a single flourish. Quickly she tore through her emails, looking for that familiar sender, the ultimate authority. She swore out loud as she read the short note from the leader’s secretary; the painting was to be auctioned this morning, first thing, over the internet. There was to be no fuss, and certainly no publicity. As she glanced around, she caught sight of the clock and realised that the auction was about to be finish. The page was slow to load, painfully slow, and she cursed the mouse each time it froze in the corner of the screen. And there, as she read it, she slumped down into the chair… ‘Small painting, winter scene, unsigned, attributed to Lowry, sold’. No reserve price, sold for a fraction of its real value… Holding her head, with a flush of perspiration, she cried out, ‘oh, the fools, idiots, this really is daylight robbery’.