B.A. Shapiro’s novel The Art Forger finds its beginnings in the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Millions of dollars of art stolen, but despite large rewards and ongoing efforts by the FBI, nothing has been recovered.
Enter main character Claire Roth, a talented but ostracized young painter who is paying the rent by creating “art” for Reproductions.com when she is approach by Aiden Markel, one of the most powerful gallery owners in Boston. Markel offers Claire $50,000 to copy Edgar Degas’ fifth After the Bath (a fictitious painting that Shapiro makes part of the 1990 heist). Claire desperately needs the money—she’s practically the stereotype of the starving artist—but even so, the opportunity to have her own show in Markel’s gallery after she successfully completes the job is probably more important. And to make the offer even sweeter, Markel positions it in ridiculously positive terms:
“Think about it… After the Bath, back in its rightful place in the Gardner Museum. Millions of people are thrilled. The seller gets his money, and the collector gets what he believes is a Degas, at least until he finds out the truth in the press, and then it will be too late. You and I get to feel really good about ourselves. Not to mention, your own work gets the exposure it deserves.”
It’s enough to tempt Claire, who says yes and begins the project. There’s just one slight glitch—after studying the painting Markel brings her, the painting that is supposed to be the real After the Bath, Claire starts to believe it’s a forgery. And if she’s right, it means that a fake Degas was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It also raises the question of where’s the real painting, and this is a question Claire becomes obsessed with answering.
To push the plot along, Shapiro uses two back stories. The first is in the recent past—just three years ago—and it explains the reason why Claire is not welcomed in the art world—despite her talent. The second is a series of letters from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her fictitious niece Amelia; these letters suggest how Gardner came into possession of the Degas and reveal the inspiration for the piece. For some, this might be one back story too many; however, the more recent back story provides a wonderful foil to the central plot and Gardner’s back story ties many of the book’s ideas together.
Where the story may really disappoint: the number of thrills. Both front and back cover state that the book is a thriller. The front cover proclaims “A highly entertaining literary thriller about fine art and foolish choices.” Remove the word “thriller”, and this blurb nails it. But the book isn’t a thriller. Mystery book, crime novel, literary fiction—absolutely. Is it filled with page-turning suspense? Not so much.
However, the book surpasses expectations in other ways. The Art Forger has well-developed characters and a nicely-paced plot. Even the mini art history lessons—such as when Claire explains the beginning of her forging process: “I’ve cleaned the Meissonier canvas with hydrogen peroxide and the sizing glows pearly white. This is important—more than important, it’s imperative. As oil paint ages, it gains translucency, allowing more light from the sizing to refract through it, giving the painting its depth and luminosity.” Such detail doesn’t disrupt either the pace or story.
Shapiro also includes a few subtle (and not so subtle) critiques of the art world. From Claire’s pretentious MFA professors to the idea of what makes art popular—is it the aesthetic appeal of the work or the notoriety of the artist? To the naiveté of many people in the field. After Claire discovers the forgery, she thinks:
“I’m astonished I was able to fool myself for as long as I did. That, I, a self-proclaimed Degas expert, could be so taken in. I felt the truth the first moment I set eyes on the painting, yet I convinced myself otherwise. And I’m not alone. If my assumption that this is the painting that hung at the Gardner is true—and what else would it be?—then art historians, the critics and the public were equally gullible. This is why there are so many successful forgers, plagiarizers, con men.”
The Art Forger is not just a book for people who inhabit the art world, though. It includes plenty of mystery, secrets, and romance—all of which should appeal to readers of good quality fiction. It’s a thoughtful book—about seeing and what people want to see versus what’s really there. And it’s about choices. The kind of hard choices people in all different places and occupations must face.
At the end of the book’s trailer (below), Shapiro asks “What would any of us do to secure our ambitions, to get what we want? Unknown artists, famous artists, gallery owners, collectors? Belle? Me or you?” It’s a good question.
This is a book where almost every character faces a moral or an ethical dilemma, and just like in real life, rarely are there any easy answers. If given the chance, would Claire do it all over again? Would she risk going to prison, what was left of her reputation, and damaging friendships for the opportunity to have that one-woman show (and a brand new sofa)? I don’t know, and I’m not certain if she does, either.