Talented artist Claire Roth, makes her living painting copies of old Masters and Impressionists for Reproductions.com. This is a completely legitimate occupation, requiring only that the buyer be made aware that the painting is a reproduction. Starving artists need to pay the rent, so if people want the copies hanging in their homes, Roth is happy to oblige and talented enough to recreate the best.
While in grad school, Roth worked with a well-known Boston area artist who took credit for a large piece she painted under his direction. When the canvas was chosen to hang in MoMA, Roth was horrified at his duplicity, publically claimed the work as her own, but was disgraced when she could not prove it. For the next three years, she was a pariah in the art world, barely keeping her head above water, needing the Repro jobs to survive.
A Boston gallery owner, Aiden Markel, knows of Roth’s talent despite the scandal, is curious about her status, and sees a Degas copy she is working on. He asks Roth to copy one of the paintings from the Gardner Museum theft. Illegality is discussed, but “there is illegal and there is illegal,” and Markel promises that the Gardner painting will finally be returned to the Museum. It’s all for the greater good.
Markel bribes Roth, not with money (although there will be $50K when she completes the painting) but with the chance to work with a genuine Degas, and most importantly, with fame via her own one-woman show that would legitimize her work to the world.
What could possibly go wrong?
Markel and Roth discuss the feasibility of getting caught with the Degas in their possession, but the very phrase “What’s a promise among thieves?” hints at the heist/con feeling of the book, the danger inherent in every choice that is made to keep the original painting secret.
Roth’s talent and training are both her gift and her undoing in this suspenseful mystery. The authentication process of the pieces in “The Art Forger,” both condemns and exonerates her as the story unfolds. We are privy to a fascinating look at how the rarefied art world works and when we read, “People see what they expect to see. Including the experts,” we believe it.
Shapiro has the inspired sense to ground the lofty merits of the scheme with the most human of thoughts in Roth’s internal struggle – this down-on-her-luck artist needs a new cellphone and a real bed and wants the red couch that is 70% off down the street. It’s the dream of a lifetime, but after all, Roth eats mac and cheese to subsist, despite the promise of more.
Art and museum lovers will revel in the marvelous descriptions of the methods used to create an oil painting, whether Modern or Impressionist or forgery. The techniques, the brush strokes, the materiel, the entire process – all accurately depicted as a result of Shapiro’s extensive research. We feel Roth’s excitement, her aching back, her sweat, while she paints and is swept into the passion of her creations.
The real-life theft of the paintings at the Isabelle Gardner museum in Boston (still unresolved over twenty years after the fact) is the underpinning for “The Art Forger” plot. Shapiro has embellished the actual robbery with extra players and weaves a terrific story that kept me spellbound throughout. The FBI, paintings that are not as authentic as they appear, the courts, jail-time, back-stabbing colleagues, a love interest, the remaining descendant of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum itself – are masterfully intertwined in this superb New York Times best-seller.
One theory posited in the book for the reason that the paintings are still missing is that some were used like ‘blood paintings’ (a la ‘blood diamonds’) as barter for guns or drugs or a hedge against some other deal. In real life, it is thought that some of the paintings may be lost or damaged, gone forever. In any case, despite the statue of limitations having run out, and a $5 million reward, nothing has been found.
Click on the link to read about the actual heist:
Please visit www.bashapirobooks.com for more information about Barbara Shapiro and her work.