Memorabilia — Verena Dürr

Translated by Jonathan Blower

The piano from Casablanca, that classic of film history, has come up for auction twice in the last few years. It was inside this piano that Humphrey Bogart, alias bar owner Rick, hid the transit papers of Doctor Laszlo and his wife Ilse, thereby helping them escape the Nazis to freedom in America. It was on this piano that bar pianist Sam played the famous title track of the film, As Time Goes By, in an upbeat jazz version and as a melancholic ballad. The website of the Bonhams auction house shows the piano in pale orange with painted ornamentation. In designing these orientalising ornaments the set decorators took inspiration from the picture book La décoration marocaine. Underneath the keyboard, petrified: a piece of gum with the culprit’s fingerprint still visible.

After a three-minute bidding war the piano was sold to ‘anonymous’ for 3.4 million US dollars, a relatively high price for a Hollywood film prop. Needless to say, it turned out to be a good investment for whoever it was who had put the piano up for sale again having acquired it for a considerably smaller sum of money perhaps twenty or thirty years ago. Before its first auction at Bonhams the piano had been shown several times at exhibitions in Europe and America. Perhaps it spent the rest of the time as a prestige object on the private estate of its owner; perhaps—precisely because it was so often out on loan for exhibitions, and due to the complexity of regulations governing the import and export of artworks and cultural artefacts—it was kept at an institution with specialist expertise in storage, logistics and taxation. In which case it probably never came to the attention of, say, a passionate collector of film props, though it will certainly have been handled with care and well looked after, as you’d expect of, say, a free port.

This is memorabilia;
nobody will buy this piano as a musical instrument.
But you can’t put a price on what it’s worth to an individual
because there’s only one of these.
It’s basically worth whatever someone’s willing to pay for it—
and it’s gonna be a lot.

That is what pianist Michael Feinstein had to say about the impending auction of the piano from Casablanca, the other piano from Casablanca, which was put up for sale at Sotheby’s a few years prior. Far less opulent, in plain greens and blues, without ornamentation, artificially patinated.

This piano, too, is used for a rendition of As Time Goes By, though it gets much less screen time, in the so-called ‘Paris flashback scene’. Many a cineaste will take it less seriously for that reason. It also partly explains why, contrary to Feinstein’s prophetic remark, which was made with a slightly ironic smirk, it ultimately achieved a sale price of just 602,500 US dollars, significantly less than expected.

Just like the one piano, this other piano from Casablanca has also disappeared from public view. Perhaps the one is now kept on the private estate of, say, an art-loving cinephile, someone who occasionally attempts her own rendition of the famous film melody despite being only moderately proficient at piano. On the wall behind her, neatly framed: an old film poster showing a laughing Dooley Wilson, alias bar pianist Sam, sitting at the very piano whose keys are now tinkling under the tentative fingers of the art-loving cinephile. At an angle on the poster, above the ‘Casablanca’ lettering: the original autograph of the actor depicted. This poster, too, is worth no small sum of money. Close by hangs an abstract painting, carefully selected for the art-loving cinephile by her art advisor. His criteria: ‘art historical significance’, ‘suitability for the collection’, ‘potential for appreciation’ and ‘personal taste’. The painting takes its title from a Frank Zappa song: Does Humor Belong in Music?

Perhaps the piano will be loaned to museums on a regular basis. Perhaps it’ll just sit there appreciating in value until a better price can be achieved in some twenty or thirty years. In which case entrusting it to an institution with specialist expertise in storage, logistics and taxation—a free port, say—would again be advantageous for several reasons.

What is a free port? — A free port is a tax and duty free temporary storage facility for internationally traded commodities. Temporary storage of commodities is available for indefinite periods of time. A free port is a tax efficient alternative to other commercial models. But a free port is also a quiet little forest in a quiet little country with a low population and a thicket of millionaires.

The coniferous canopy starts high up. At ground level the field of vision is dominated by the tree trunks. They stand close together, like iron bars, which makes the restorer think of unobtrusive security measures. Leafy tendrils of wild vine deftly climb the rough bark of the pine trees to get their share of sky. Isolated shafts of morning sunlight penetrate the dense canopy, raking across the mossy forest floor, interspersing the damp darkness of the undergrowth with sporadic patches of light.

If everything here appears to conform to a certain order, the wild vegetation nevertheless contrasts with the more regular landscape of the fields and meadows around the village. At the centre of the village: the hotel. An employee from the free port pulls up in an SUV and collects the restorer in order to take him to his temporary place of work.

To right and left of the road: livestock in the late autumnal meadows still gleaning their last reserves for the impending winter. Before climbing into the SUV the restorer pauses to peer deep into the eyes of a curious young goat which extends its neck towards him over the electric fence. He realises it was the pupils that were needling him from a distance: two long lines of ink drawn across its glassy grey eyeballs, obscuring the view. By contrast, the almond-shaped eyes of the typical Swiss brown cattle, a dual-purpose breed cultivated for both milk and meat, are still clearly discernible through the tinted windows of the SUV. These almond-shaped eyes perhaps evidence a greater awareness of what’s going on around them.

Conversation with the employee of the free port is kept to a minimum. For most of the journey the restorer is preoccupied with a beaker of unpasteurised milk which he paid for with change at the unpasteurised milk dispenser, a facility provided by the local farm as a means of finding additional consumers for a surplus product.

Their progress through the forest is interrupted. They are brought to a halt at a high-security fence with a guardhouse and attendant security personnel. Had the restorer glanced to left and right, had he not been preoccupied with holding his half-full beaker of milk while trying to retrieve his identification papers from his laptop and kitbag, he would have noticed the fences either side receding into the forest in perfectly straight lines, apparently just partitioning the territory rather than fencing anything in. This subdivision marks the jurisdiction and non-jurisdiction of conventional tax law.


The restorer crosses the border, an event marked by an amicable but extremely thorough identity check and clarification of his terms of entry: confidentiality regarding the nature of the assignment, maximum length of stay, no photographs, no verbal descriptions of the site. The restorer signs the agreement. His signature—itself worth no small sum of money—is completely abstract: a long line of ink on a grey form.

They are allowed to continue onto the terrain of the free port. As the SUV comes to a stop the restorer drinks the last sip of milk from his beaker. The rock face up ahead looms above him and blocks out the sun, which is yet to reach its zenith. In the shadow of the mountain a ramp describes a line in concrete, grey on grey. The ramp leads up to a plain steel door whose only ornament is a canopy of surveillance cameras. A large evergreen shrub, its branches outstretched, very nearly touches the little black box by the door. The employee of the free port enters the code. There is a rustling from within the foliage and a flock of fowl sounds a shrill alarm as the door opens into the mountain. The musically minded restorer recalls the first few seconds of John Cage’s Bird Cage. The cacophony fades out with the closing door.

The restorer follows the employee of the free port down a long straight corridor, deep into the mountain. Daylight lamps illuminate the way past doors that need no markings. They turn a corner. Without making a sound, a security guard has joined them. There are nods of tacit agreement.

There are routine procedures for external visitors. The principles of colour psychology dictate that the walls are bright and cheery. There are several pictures on the walls: historic maps and landscapes, a black-and-white photograph of the mountain. At the mouth of the tunnel: a group of men with shovels and pickaxes.

Hardly any of them are smiling; the work is too onerous for that. But for the skeleton staff of the free port this image serves as a reminder that their place of work is not unlike a mine.

‘They used to extract raw materials here, but it wasn’t really profitable. Apparently there were large quantities of mineral deposits, but they were of poor quality due to the geological conditions,’ says the employee of the free port. She’s evidently not saying it for the first time; there are routine procedures for external visitors. And with a routine gesture she points at the old German lettering of the saying under the photograph: ‘A country rich in poor mines’. But the free port is profitable; it specialises in sensitive commodities.

What are sensitive commodities? — Sensitive commodities are artefacts that require special inventories; this discourages smuggling, among other things. They are often artistic or cultural artefacts such as paintings or musical instruments. Wines, cigars and original props from the classics of film history can also be regarded as sensitive commodities.

Traditional financial investments such as trusts and foundations are losing their appeal due to growing public demand for transparency, uncertainty in the markets and a lack of confidence in the banking system, so increasing numbers of natural and legal persons are choosing to invest their money in material assets instead. Where workers used to extract gold and silver deposits from the mountain, now employees inside the mountain merely safeguard ingots of precious metal and, increasingly, due to high demand, sensitive commodities as well.

Perhaps there’s a room full of lockers behind one of the unmarked doors. Or a storage room full of large and small boxes, all neatly labelled—since an inventory including data on the ownership and provenance of all sensitive commodities kept in storage is obligatory. Perhaps, if the employee of the free port had taken another turn, the restorer might have found himself in a wine cellar with, say, a case of Richebourg Grand Cru Burgundy, the 1985 vintage, currently worth 14,259 euros per bottle.

Skillfully arranged under a bell jar stands an ancient-looking display of edelweiss, gentians and the bright orange lanterns of a physalis alkekengi; they cut a bizarre figure against the high-security door, which conveys the sense of a modern, state-of-the-art storage facility. The high-security door opens and the restorer is led into a salon-like unit where artworks and cultural commodities are presented, bought and sold. Here collectors are able to personally inspect works that have been deposited by art dealers and, if they wish, themselves deposit works for tax relief purposes, for instance. In which case the artefact in question—if regarded purely as an investment—is neatly labelled and assigned to another location in another storage unit behind another heavy door, for an indefinite period of time and without too much bureaucratic fuss.

The motion sensor reacts to visitors, activating lights and music. The restorer immediately recognises an easy-going ambient version of Tapisserie en fer forgé from Erik Satie’s Furniture Music. The walls are painted a neutral grey to show the diversity of the presented works to best advantage. If the corridors were conspicuously odourless, here the stipulations of olfactory psychology call for a fresh and distinguished aroma. Any sense of claustrophobia, the sort that often descends on entering a room without windows, dissipates immediately. With a routine gesture the employee of the free port points at the object in question, glances at the clock, says what needs to be said and, having stated exactly when she’ll be back, leaves the room.

The Furniture Music fades out with the closing door. The restorer takes a moment to acclimatise to his new environment; he has more than enough time. He looks from left to right. On one side: a well preserved baroque fauteuil and a Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer. On the other: a Verner Panton bachelor chair, an easel with nothing on it, a wall with rails for hanging pictures, and lamps so they can easily be shown in the right light.

In the middle of the room: the piano—the other piano from Casablanca, that classic of film history—ready for evaluation. Perhaps it has been kept at the ideal atmospheric humidity of fifty-five percent with the other sensitive commodities that are kept behind the unmarked security door at the other end of the room, which leads deeper into the mountain. Next to it, on a Thonet serving trolley: a carafe of water and a half-full glass. Perhaps the free port contains many a half-empty glass that will become half full of its own accord with a little patience. In twenty or thirty years’ time.

On the wall across from the piano: a picture clock depicting a summery Biedermeier landscape. Next to the quiet little forest and the mountains in the background: the original signature of C. L. Hofmeister, which turns picture clocks like this into ideal investment opportunities. On the clock face set into the summery sky of the painting, time stands still. Biedermeier idyll. The restorer is aware of the security guard, who has remained here with him and keeps a watchful eye on him. He immediately sets about his task, glad not to be left alone here even if it means being kept under observation.

The spare chair provided is another bentwood classic, to complement the Thonet serving trolley. He pushes it into place. The piano stool is part and parcel of the hansomely insured object; it would be foolhardy to use it. The restorer shakes out his hands, and with them his respect for the prohibitively expensive collector’s item he has before him. He’s only moderately proficient at piano, but he’s a keen musician. He opens the lid of the instrument and—‘for old times’ sake’—tries his hand at Billie Holliday’s arrangement of As Time Goes By. He once attempted to master this version in the melancholy of his youth, to no avail. Now he’s sitting at the actual piano from Casablanca. It’s time to try again. The piano doesn’t do him any favours.

Unclear, pounding action, mechanical noises. The restorer takes pen and paper out of his laptop and kitbag and makes a note. Requires general refurbishment: remove hammerheads, realign axes, adjust intonation. Still: ‘Nobody will buy this as a musical instrument.’ Just as the patina should be preserved as an intrinsic part of its value, so too the erratic tuning, which may well be a source of the instrument’s aura, an aura which, on the face of the art-loving cinephile, draws a melancholy smirk which will still be in evidence when she finally signs the purchase agreement—when the art-loving cinephile and her confidante, the art advisor, pay a nocturnal visit to the mountain together at the invitation of the art dealer.

The art dealer stems from a long line of gallerists and knows how to lend the salesroom a touch of glamour. He displays other works from his collection alongside the Hofmeister picture clock. Perhaps one or two of them will catch the eye of his client, the art-loving cinephile. But her art advisor, who also happens to be her former lover, has advised her well. They met in Paris, but their artistic visions diverged; after a trip to the cinema they parted ways. Darkness, fog and rain; time stood still. Even if she did happen to like the Biedermeier picture clock, she would usually refrain from making an acquisition that hadn’t previously been weighed up against the criteria of ‘suitability for the collection’, ‘art historical significance’ and ‘potential for appreciation’.

She has come for the piano, the other piano from Casablanca. The atmosphere is congenial, in no small part thanks to a particular bottle of wine that the art dealer has kept in store here. The label of this wine, a Pétrus, was designed by Louise Bourgeois. The bottle has been increasing in value ever since she passed away a few years ago. An expensive detail, this Pétrus, but it lubricates a lucrative transaction. Doing lucrative transactions has its perks. It’s a perk to be in the mountain at night, in the immediate proximity of these cultural and art historical treasures, buried along with the well-kept secrets of this vast alpine rock.

The art dealer lowers himself into the Wassily chair in a business-like fashion and leans back into an eccentric artist’s pose. Behind him on an easel: a painting of a man with cane and hat. The art advisor steps up and takes a good look at the painting; he may well be one of the only people who ever gets to see it over the next twenty or thirty years. He utters a few words of astonishment and takes a seat on the Verner Panton chair. Circling above him: a kinetic sculpture, a mobile by Alexander Calder. The art-loving cinephile savours her last sip of the Pétrus and gets up from the baroque fauteuil. She pays not the slightest bit of attention to the lithograph on the wall: Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Last Night I Had a Dream. She has eyes only for the piano, the other piano from Casablanca , the piano from the ‘Paris flashback scene’.  She pulls up the original piano stool. That, too, will soon be hers.

They open another bottle: a sixty-four-year-old Macallan. Achieves record prices. Barely potable now. Another magnanimous gesture, another perk. One can’t not have a glass of whisky with Casablanca. An art-buyer’s idyll.

While the art-loving cinephile runs her tentative fingers over the seemingly familiar keys, her gaze catches that of her former lover. In some respects Paris may have been nothing more than an intermezzo for her, but it really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A brief and passionate affair without prospects ultimately grew into a much longer and more productive relationship based on her vision of her art collection. Yes; the piano from the ‘Paris flashback scene’—the beginning of that beautiful friendship—ought to be taken more seriously. The art-loving cinephile is convinced that the value of this piano will increase over the years, As Time Goes By.

But the time is not yet ripe. And since a free port offers ideal conditions for the safe-keeping of sensitive commodities, for the time being the piano will remain here in the mountain, as one well-kept secret of this vast alpine rock. It will be handled with care and well looked after, as you’d expect of a free port. It will not receive the attentions of the passionate art-loving cinephile because of course she already owns the other piano, the one piano from Casablanca, and she doesn’t think it would be proper to show both of them together on her private estate. After all, a cultural and art historical treasure has to be unique.

With the transaction complete, the three in the mountain shake hands. The art advisor lifts his little finger and sets the Calder in motion; he even goes so far as to compare it to a three-dimensional Miró. Actually designed by Miró: the label of the Mouton-Rothschild, a wine that features prominently in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever, as the art-loving cinephile well knows.

Now, before the piano disappears back into the mountain for an indefinite period of time, she sits down to play it. The art advisor leans over to the art dealer in the manner of Humphrey Bogart and, with a slightly ironic smirk on his lips, says: ‘She hasn’t played it in a long time.’ An idiosyncratic interpretation of As Time Goes By fills the room. The piano’s erratic tuning is well adjusted to the musical abilities of its new owner.

She didn’t buy it as a musical instrument. No; tuning the piano from Casablanca would not be what the owner would want. The restorer decides not to recommend tuning the piano.

Time may well stand still for twenty or thirty years if you’re a commodity in a mountain in a quiet little country with a venerable clock-making tradition, but it doesn’t stand still for the restorer. He digs the oil out of his laptop and kitbag and carefully lubricates the little iron wheels of the piano. The paint at the corners of the piano stool is porous. Another note in the restorer’s notebook.

The door that leads deeper into the mountain opens. Two employees from the free port enter with a flat parcel. They set it down on the easel. The security guard gives a nod of tacit agreement. Procedures inside the mountain are routine. The parcel is opened and a painting revealed. Showing: a man with cane and hat. The restorer would have liked to have known more about this work, but presumably the employees of the free port would just have made firm but friendly reference to his confidentiality clause.

The restorer’s work is done. He strikes up a wild, nocturnally conceived twelve-tone funk version of The Beatles’ Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey. His interpretation is well adjusted to the eccentric tonal range of this collector’s item. It accounts for the fact that both the one and the other piano from Casablanca, each having only eighty-five keys, are missing around three octaves in the lower register. Unlike the restorer, Dooley Wilson, alias bar pianist Sam, only ever pretended to play the piano in Casablanca, that classic of film history.

Verena Dürr is an author, a musician and a social worker. Her first radio play, Herr im Garten, is currently available to download from Bayerische Rundfunk. She is one part of the literary Viennese punk band Smashed to Pieces.

Jonathan Blower translates German texts on the visual arts.

Images courtesy of Sabine Tholen. From her photographic series SÉLECTION ILLIMITÉE (2013)