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'Sounds great. How many people did you invite?'

'Just ten. Well, nine really, since I was one of them.' He laughed nervously. 'Was going to be eight, but at the last moment Tony—my girlfriend's brother—decided to come after all.'

'And all went well? Nobody threw pasta con vongole at the priceless tapestries, or drew a moustache on the Contessa's portrait?'

'Of course not!' He seemed shocked. 'My friends are all very... beneducato. Well-bred. They know how to behave.'

'Even well-brought-up young people can go off the rails.'

'Of course. Anyway, the next day I had cleaners in to make sure the apartment was immaculate before my aunt and uncle came back. Naturally I'd asked my uncle's permission to hold the party, because if there's one thing I don't want to do, it's to get into Cesare's bad books. He can be... fierce.' Sandro shuddered dramatically. 'I mean fierce!'

'So what do you need me for?'

'Well...' Sandro hesitated. 'I still can't quite believe this, but I was walking down New Bond Street the other day and I noticed a ring in the window of a pawnshop. It looked exactly like a ring that has been in my uncle's family for generations  an heirloom supposed to have been given to one of my aunt's ancestors by some doge or other way back when, as a mark of his esteem or something. And then, when I looked closer, I could see that in fact it didn't just look like my uncle's ring, it 'was' my uncle's ring  or my aunt's, to be more precise. Right there, in a pawn shop!'

His privileged young voice displayed scorn and disbelief at the very notion. Did he have any idea of the hand-to-mouth existence led by some sectors of society? How much reliance some people placed on pawnbrokers? Or, for that matter, what a respectable history the pawnshop possessed? Didn't sound like it.

I cleared my throat. 'Sandro, let me give you a little background here. Pawnshops are not all about furtive criminals slinking in to try and fence stolen property. Nor are they men pawning the family teapot in order to get drunk before staggering home to some sordid slum in order to beat up their wife and kids. In fact, in the United States, they're often referred to as deluxe collateral lenders. They're patronized by all sections of society, people looking for short-term loans, from high-end rollers and doctors, to lawyers and even bankers, believe it or not. And the collateral these  punters offer can be as upmarket as wine collections, or fine art, or cars. Even uncut diamonds. And for your further information, Isabella of Spain used a pawnshop to finance Christopher Columbus's expedition, and whichever French king it was pawned the royal jewels to raise money for the war against Henry the Fifth. There's even a famous pawnshop which was in fact a charity.'

'How come you know so much about it?'

'I had to do a research project when I was at uni,' I said.

'Well, what about this...' He choked slightly with indignation. 'A couple of days after I saw the ring, I was in an art gallery, looking for a gift for my mother, and there on the wall was a small Botticelli, a young man, head and shoulders, with a pastoral scene visible through the window behind him. Very delicate, very lovely.' He coughed. 'I couldn't believe my eyes. I went in  and again, it was my uncle's!'

'You're sure?'

'Well, to be honest, it was probably painted by an apprentice, rather than the master himself, but you'd have to be an expert to spot it. Anyway, it was definitely hanging in the salotto of my uncle's appartamento the night of my dinner party, because somebody said something about how much it looked like me.'

'So what did you do?'

'Well, naturally there was no choice. I had to buy it from the owner of the gallery. Like I did the ring from the pawnshop, earlier. And then I flew to Venice and managed to replace both objects before Uncle Cesare could return from his fundraising meetings and find them gone.'

'Problem solved, then,' I said.

'Not quite. First of all, it cost me a whole heap of money. Then I want to know who was responsible for stealing the two objects from Cesare's place  I mean, it more or less has to be one of my friends, don't you think?'

I couldn't resist saying, 'In spite of them being so well-brought-up?'

He shrugged me off. 'As you said, people can do silly things. But not as silly as stealing my uncle's prized possessions.'

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