In 1845 a Reading bookseller called John Snare bought a picture in a local auction that he came to believe was the lost Velasquez. He devoted the rest of his life to trying to prove his case.
The portrait travelled with him wherever he went. It was exhibited in London, Edinburgh and New York and cost him no end of trouble along the way. Some connoiseurs agreed with Snare, some disagreed. It was never copied, never photographed and was last heard of in 1903. It has since disappeared without trace.
So there are three vanishing men-
Velasquez- about whom we know about as much as we know about Shakespeare.
John Snare- in his own way as elusive as Velasquez.
And, of course, the man in the portrait.
Along the way we learn about Velasquez's art (Cumming believes him to the greatest painter ever), about 19th century snobbery and connoiseurship- and we follow poor John Snare in his ever more bedraggled quest for validation- a story with all the twists and turns of a fictional mystery.
And the painting? It may still be out there somewhere. Was it a Velasquez? Quien sabe?