A fortune so tantalizingly close

October 21, 2009 at 4:30 am (Angoram, artifacts, expatriates, Fiction, Short Story) (, , , , , , , , , )

Sam Bell sat on the verandah of his house in Angoram on Tobacco Road facing the Sepik River and he contemplated the future and the past. He had reason to be reflective as he was, just now, recovering from a rather virulent dose of clap thanks to the penicillin injections given by Jamie Ward, but life went on, and a man had to make a bob and the future offered interesting possibilities in this respect.

Angoram in the 1960s had its fair share of dreamers and schemers with little to sustain them but the hope of better things to come. Sam, who arrived in New Guinea shortly after the Second World War had put his hand to most things from Airways employee to gold mining and trading but never had he been so hopeful of making a fortune than he was just now.

When he first arrived in Angoram he could see that there was money in running a trade store and in buying crocodile skins, and with his partner, Bill Clayton, a pretty penny had been made. But Sam wanted big money and the events of the last couple of days held out the prospect of this.

A couple of weeks previously Sam had sent Carlos Ruiz, a mixed-race employee, to the Amboin area up the Karawari River to check out the kwila or ironwood stands. In this endeavour, his information was of little value. All he could really say was that he had seen the occasional kwila and that the people would cut them down and float them down the river to Angoram, but they wanted axes, saws and an outboard motor to do this as well as an exorbitant amount of money for each tree.

Sam thought to himself that Carlos was a bit of a useless bastard, he’d been up the river on good wages and this is all he can come back with. He knew that he was a bit of a piss-pot and he had become more so after some of those do-gooders had allowed him to become a member of the Angoram Club, as Sam said: “A man’s got to work with them I can’t see any reason why you have to relax with them.” These words of precaution were offered in the soft tones of Sam’s Scottish brogue and became more meaningful in observing the expressive Hemingway look-alike face of his.

But then life is full of surprises, for the good Carlos went on to reveal and show Sam something of earth-shattering importance. Sam, an inveterate art fancier, was all ears after Carlos showed him a piece of woodcarving he had collected while in the upper reaches of the Karawari River.

Carlos could detect that Sam was not too impressed with what he had to tell him about the timber and its availability. As an afterthought he said: “Sam, I did get as far up the river as Inyai, ol yangpela there kept on talking about some caves they wanted to show me. I could tell that the old blokes were not too keen to show me where these caves were. This made me think that there might be something good to see there. Well, I did go to the caves and all I saw was a whole lot of old junky carvings. I bought this one for $10 from the young blokes. A bit of rubbish as far as I’m concerned but I thought you might be interested.”

To say that Sam might be interested was the understatement of the century. What Carlos produced was a wooden carved female figure standing at about 5 1/2 feet and made, as far as Sam could tell, from ironwood. The figure was in the frontal position with upraised arms and the head was crowned with a spiked elevated adornment. Sam, who had been collecting on the river for years, had never seen anything quite like it. It appeared to be very old with an indefinable quality about it.

An appreciation of so called primitive art is an intangible quality that grows on some expatriates without them necessarily being very knowledgeable about the culture that produces such art. What is the difference between a curio and a piece of carving that radiates and gleams to the aware? Sam knew, but could probably not give you an answer. In his years on the Sepik River, Sam had seen piles of good and bad carvings and he had a very good idea what was an artifact and what was just fairly good carving. He had no doubt that what he was looking at now was important aesthetically and financially. Or in Sam’s terminology, “there’s a bob to be made here.”

He knew he had to conceal and disguise from Carlos how impressed he was with the carving. Otherwise, the whole town would hear about it and what was left in the Karawari would be collected by others. He thought to himself, “that bloody Pietro will be up there like a shot and as for that German doctor this would be just the excuse he needs to go on a medical patrol up the river and get as many carvings as he can.” John Pietro was a trader very often in competition with Sam for a good carving. Jan Speer, the German doctor, Sam accused him of building up his own museum and selling artefacts in Europe, all at government expense by collecting on so- called medical patrols.

If there were more like this piece, Sam thought to himself, then I’ve struck it. He could talk of gold, heavy yellow gold. Of course, the very thing he intended not to do was talk about it. He would imply to Bill Clayton, his business partner that he was on a good thing.

“OK Carlos here’s the $10 for this piece and what you’ve found out about timber in the Karawari could be useful. I think I might check it out for myself in the next few days.” He got the carving back to his house pronto, and got his houseboy to brew a very strong pot of coffee. While drinking, he reflected, and tried to suppress his excitement and he decided to share and show Bill Clayton the carving. After all, Bill and I are partners, he figured. But the truth was that he couldn’t help but tell someone of what he considered his good fortune.

Bill when he saw the piece was equally blown away by it. Together they made plans to get up the Karawari River as soon as possible. “We’ll not take that blabbermouth, Carlos, with us.” The lure of gold was now firmly planted in Sam’s psyche and he saw his El Dorado on the horizon. “Bill, we’ve got to get to those caves as soon as possible.”

Sam and Bill made to the caves. Up the Karawari past Amboin to the headwaters of the Arfundi River to Inyai and Awim village territory and beyond to limestone escarpments, where caves were discovered full of the most extraordinary artifacts. Sam nearly had a heart attack on the trip as the going was so hard; tramping through swamps and bush tracks to finally reach the treasure.

The pieces consisted of hooks in a complex style and female figures like the one that Carlos had shown Sam. Sam managed to persuade the locals to sell ten pieces to them and they were up and out of there as soon as they could leave. When they arrived back in Angoram Sam had no trouble getting an export permit from the Assistant District Commissioner.

He decided he would send them off to a contact he had in the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, merely to get them priced. This is what was done but alas, alas, they never got to New York. According to Sam, “some rotten bastard in Madang nicked the lot of them.” For years after Sam and Bill scanned museum catalogues and displays and talked to private collectors, but had no success in tracing their pieces. All that Sam knew was that similar pieces had come on the market and were conservatively priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sam and other collectors did subsequently collect from the caves much to their personal profit. But the ones that were taken were always a source of grief to Sam.

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