‘Art Forger’ leaves readers wondering what’s real

  • Posted: Saturday, January 19, 2013 12:38 p.m.
'The Art Forger' by B.A. Shapiro.
'The Art Forger' by B.A. Shapiro.

“The Art Forger,” by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2012. 360 pp. $23.95.

SALISBURY — Fictional professional forger Claire Roth is one of the most naive crime solvers you’re likely to meet.

In “The Art Forger,” the sixth novel from B.A. Shapiro, Claire loses her heart, quickly followed by her mind, not once, but twice. As she does, she informs the reader about the tools, tricks and wonders of art forgery and skips along a path of self-destruction.

Claire is a copyist — she is paid to make exceptional reproductions of famous artwork for — again fictional — Reproductions.com, all the while postponing her own work and living under the shadow of her first mistake as a talented artist with skill at imitation.

The book takes its inspiration from the 1990 art theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Among the 13 items stolen are three Edgar Degas drawings. In this novel, the theft includes the fictional fifth version of After the Bath. In real life, none of the stolen works were ever found. In “The Art Forger” one of the paintings resurfaces.

That “found” masterpiece is the result of Claire’s deal with her second devil, gallery owner Aiden Markel. Knowing her genuine talent and noticing her uncanny ability to copy a painting, Markel comes to her with a Faustian proposition. It seems he has found the missing Degas After the Bath. He won’t say where or how, but he has a buyer for it. He wants Claire to copy it so he can sell the copy while he triumphantly returns the original to the museum. Claire is something of an expert on Degas. Seeing the painting in her studio does strange things to her mind. Markel assures her it will all work out; she’ll earn more money than she ever has in her life, and she’ll get a show of her own work in his gallery — quite a coup for a young artist who has been shunned by some of the art community.

What has made Claire a pariah and hungry (greedy?) enough for such a deal? Her previous relationship with artist Isaac Cullion, whose work is sought by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Isaac was one of her graduate school professors; he’s separated from his wife, 20 years older, temperamental, and has a wicked case of artist’s block. He simply cannot paint the thing and the deadline is looming. Claire tries to help, but he wallows in a self-absorbed fog. So Claire paints it for him. She uses his style and technique and they submit it to MoMA. It becomes a sensation. Claire gets no credit; Isaac comes to believe he really did paint the piece.

He dumps Claire while bathing in the attention. When she goes directly to the museum to demand recognition, tests of the painting prove it is Isaac’s work. Claire is disgraced, no matter what she knows is true.

Why she does not run screaming from the Degas deal is puzzling. Markel presents it as a chance to garner attention with the show of her works. It apparently does not occur to her — for most of the book — that Markel is using her based on her experience with Isaac.

Claire suffers all the consequences you can imagine — at every turn, the worst case scenario occurs, right on schedule. Despite her efforts to find the evidence that she has done nothing wrong, she fails. Until ... it all works out. Rather quickly.

Shapiro does several clever things. She uses real artists and real connoisseurs like Gardner in the telling of the book. All the forgers Claire learns from are real, as are the techniques they used. She mixes in chapters of Isabella Gardner’s letters to her niece detailing her adventures with Degas — these are juicy fiction. She offers “A Note on the Research” at the end of the book to make clear what is history and what is fiction.

While the story is interesting, and learning about artists and their work, as well as forgers and their techniques is fascinating, the novel sometimes strains credulity.

Can Claire really be that clueless? Would the media lavish attention on an artist because of one painting in this day and age? Would police and the FBI really allow someone arrested for handling stolen goods, people suspected in a major art heist, to get out long enough to pay their shady clients? Would a gallery remain open when its owner is fingered in international crimes?

“The Art Forger” is entertaining — but the reader may feel a little let down by the denouement.

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