Even before you enter the long alleyway of flowering chestnut trees that leads to the twin-turreted Chateau de la Chaux in the village of Linazay, a gaggle of geese start cackling insanely.
Until a few weeks ago, the geese kept guard over more than a thousand paintings in the "French Collection," one of the biggest hoards of high-quality forged masterpieces ever seized.Their frenetic vigilance came close to wrecking an ambush set by police in the chateau's untidy garden for a Dutch couple charged with art fraud.
Plainclothes criminal investigators had hidden behind trees and bushes, waiting for the return from Germany of Jan Van den Bergen, whom German police had spotted making a tour of galleries and auctioneers, offering some suspiciously fine Chagalls, Matisses and Dufys.
Not surprisingly, the sight of a small army of out-of-town cops caused a flurry of excitement in the village of Linazay, tipping off a local newspaper stringer, whose once-in-a-lifetime news flash appeared only hours after an unsuspecting Mrs. Van den Bergen drove into the courtyard in her battered Renault to a polyphony of shouting police and cackling geese.
Luckily for the detectives, the news didn't circulate quickly enough to tip off Van den Bergen, who was picked up while visiting a friend near Bordeaux, bundled into a police van and taken to join his partner in Orleans prison.
Today, only imagination can re-furnish the 20-room mansion with its extraordinary treasure trove; the fake paintings - Picasso, Dali, Miro, Klimt, Chagall, Magritte and Dufy - have been whisked away to Orleans.
There, police superintendent Jean-Claude Colin has no doubt about the importance of the loot. "This is the biggest art scandal of its type for at least 20 years," he said. "The pictures not only look like originals, they have certificates of authenticity - forged, of course.'
The story began with Van den Bergen's fateful springtime tour of Germany. During the trip, he unloaded paintings and authenticity certificates on galleries and auction houses in Bonn, Cologne, Munich, Hamburg and Dusseldorf. They were comparatively modest works, and the biggest reserve price of about $225,000 was for a Chagall.
"I'm not allowed to tell you what made them suspicious, but the Germans told us the seller was using postal addresses in Orleans, which is why the inquiry is based here," said Colin. "There were other addresses in Paris, but these were just postboxes where he could collect letters or have them forwarded.
"A few months ago the whole business would have taken ages to clear up, but new European police cooperation meant that our German detective was able to operate with us within a few hours and went to Linazay for the arrest."
In fact, he went twice. On the second occasion, the Van den Bergens accompanied the examining magistrate and the police as part of the inquiry, which revealed a second cache of forged masters.
By the time the second cache of paintings was found, Van den Bergen had explained why there were at least a dozen typewriters in the chateau: Copying signatures for the authenticity certificates was child's play, but he also had to get the right type for the printed blurb.
After that visit, another few strands of Van den Bergen's background were soon unraveled. Aliases spilled out one after another until Dutch police identified him as Geert-Jan Janssen, a frustrated abstract painter who already had a fraud record in the Netherlands.
Linazay-produced fakes have turned up in Britain, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands Scandinavia and the United States.