With so many real-life thefts of major art, so many of the circumstances surrounding them stranger than fiction, and so many nonfiction articles and books about them, fictional accounts often seem irrelevant, even silly. (Example: the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair with their gorgeousnesses Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo … really?)
So finding The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro, a fun, mostly convincing novel based on an actual heist, was an entertaining surprise, though it does suffer from a few formulaic and cliched elements.
It's based on one of the most audacious and costly art thefts in history. In 1990 guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston admitted two uniformed "police officers" during the early morning before the museum opened and staff had arrived. The thieves bound the guards and made off with 13 artworks valued at $500 million, including paintings by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn and Édouard Manet and drawings by Edgar Degas. The art has never been recovered.
Shapiro imagines a scenario, also in Boston, 10 years later. The protagonist is painter Claire Roth, a talented artist who was involved in an art-related scandal several years earlier, the details of which are revealed as the book progresses. Because she has been blacklisted by galleries and museums, she earns a modest living painting reproductions of famous works (not considered forgeries, which are passed off as originals). She's brilliant as a copyist and ashamed of doing it. She's especially adept with Degas, which figures importantly in the plot.
She is visited unexpectedly by Aiden Markel, owner of the best gallery in Boston, who suddenly and inexplicably expresses interest in her own paintings, which she has continued to create even though they're never exhibited.
(I should note here that Claire and Aiden are young, good-looking and single, which is convenient for story propulsion. We know where this relationship will ultimately go.)
Aiden is polite about Claire's own art, but he is more interested in a Degas reproduction she's also working on and finally tells her the real purpose of his visit: to copy a masterpiece that he will pass off as an original. She, of course, balks but is persuaded by his contention that the fakery will actually be a good deed, not a criminal act.
A shadowy figure has approached him, he tells her, about selling one of the stolen paintings; his plan is to sell the fake and return the original to the museum. The duped buyer won't come forward and risk criminal charges, he reasons. Plus Claire will be paid $50,000 and he'll give her a one-woman show at his gallery, putting her back in the game. The temptation is too great and she agrees.
The painting she'll forge is a Degas work of women emerging from a bath. From this point on, the story is pure invention. The author invents the painting and the circumstances under which it was made, imagining a relationship between Degas and the famous collector and museum founder Isabella Gardner during the late 19th century when she was buying art for what would become her museum. Though they knew many of the same people, no documentation exists that they ever met.
The novel picks up steam as several story lines are interwoven: the Degas-Gardner flirtation and the genesis of the painting, which we learn about from fictitious letters to a fictitious niece; Claire's research into the painting and her efforts to re-create it; the developing romance between her and Aiden; and the circumstances of Claire's scandal three years earlier.
Aiden's plan falls apart after he sells Claire's forgery and the buyer is busted at an airport when he tries to sneak it out of the country. Aiden is implicated, arrested and thrown in jail. Claire, now in love with him, comes forward with a startling hypothesis, which she came to believe as she copied the Degas painting and which will exonerate her lover. The final part of the novel centers on her efforts to prove her theory. After a few unexpected twists, it ends with a big surprise and validation for Claire as an artist.
This is a well-crafted, plot-driven novel which makes it a good read and one that, for all its insider art world information, will appeal to a broad audience. The details of forging an old masterpiece are fascinating. (But don't try it at home.) Shapiro also includes an afterword that lists her fictive plot devices. After a slow start, I couldn't put it down and read it quickly.
That's a positive, but the down side is that character development isn't stronger. Claire is the most rounded out and through her we get philosophical insights about art and how we value it. Aiden especially seems too pat, though, and anyone who has read a biography of Gardner would doubt that she would so fully admit to a potentially scandalous affair with Degas in her letters. Yes, she was flamboyant, sometimes unconventional, but she was also discreet as befitted a 19th century woman of her station. That said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed The Art Forger. I only wish it were true, with one of the stolen paintings found and restored.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.