Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington is owned by the Duchess. The Duchess wants to sell the picture to the nation whilst keeping the original! The Duchess employs a master copyist, Alphonse. Instead of making one copy he makes five. All five are created en masse on a specially modified easel.
Alphose has an opium addiction problem. Solly Hughes, the hero of the story(!), does a deal with Alphonse.
Solly is not only an attendant at the National Gallery but also an accomplished artist in his own right and gives Alphose a quantity of poppy oil, as used in oil painting. In return Alphose gives Solly two copies of the Duke’s portrait.
Solly is in contact with two Scots: Rob and Roy who have plans to steal the Duke’s portrait from the gallery as revenge against the English. They also have a copy of a book about Van Meegeran, the master forger.
Solly is also in touch with (in more ways than one!) a group of French female spies who want to steal the picture from the Gallery as revenge for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. They believed that the Duke did not play fair in the battle and used underhand tactics against Napoleon to secure his defeat.
The story also takes Solly to Italy to audition for a part in a film, starring Lex Garrison and Britta Strawhill (Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth respectively). Solly’s part? A gallery attendant. This turns out to be a ruse to get Solly away from the gallery in London while others use Solly’s identity to ‘case the joint’ ahead of a possible ‘heist’.
In real life, the film, ‘The Happy Thieves’, was eventually made in 1962 and features the theft of another Goya, this time from the Prado in Spain. In the film the Goya is copied and a switch is made. Rex Harrison played the lead.
Back to the book: the story ends with Solly selling his copies of the Duke’s portrait: one to Rob and Roy and one to the group of French female spies.
The Goya’s portrait, now hanging in the National Gallery, is then stolen, but of course this is one of Alphones’ copies! And of course this is unknown to Rob and Roy and the French Espiones. Both parties have plans to steal and switch the picture, a fake, for another fake!
By the end of the story you are left with the suspicion, that one way or another, the picture returned in 1965, and still hanging in The National Gallery today, might not be the original!
In real life the picture was missing for almost four years: ample time to copy it? But then again the National Gallery would – doubtless – have conducted their own – very stringent – tests to establish the authenticity of the returned portrait.
The back story to the caper is Solly’s love affair with his girl friend Harriet a painting restorer at the National Gallery. Between them they know a great deal about art, paintings and how to tell a fake from an original. (Or indeed how to make a fake!)
Other side events to the main story include dyeing a flock of pigeons pink. All as part of a New Year’s Eve publicity stunt at Trafalgar Square in London, a part time job stuffing tea cosies and a comic encounter with the Duke of ‘Joppa’, amongst others!