The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro In the summer 2012, I saw the unique art collection of the Cone sisters from Baltimore. I was fascinated not only by the great art but also by the unconventional life stories of the collectors. This book reminded me of that collection, although its storyline revolves around another great American art collection and another wealthy female art patron: Isabella Gardner from Boston.
The book blends fact and fiction. Fact: in 1990, thirteen paintings worth over $500 million dollars were stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston. None of the stolen pieces has been recovered so far. Based on this ‘successful’ heist, Ms. Shapiro spun a captivating and entirely fictional tale about art and forgery, ambitions and deceptions.
The protagonist Claire is a struggling artist in Boston. She makes her living by painting copies/reproductions of the classical 19th century artists for the fictitious company Reproductions.com. She also paints her original painting, but there is a problem: she has been blackballed by most of the local art world because of a scandal three years earlier, the scandal that entailed lies and betrayal by someone Claire trusted and loved.
When an owner of a prestigious Boston art gallery Aidan Markel appears in her studio and offers her a deal with the devil: to make a forgery of one of the paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum during the 1990 heist, Claire is torn. She knows it’s wrong, but Markel offers her a good payoff and a solo show of her original painting in his gallery. His honeyed promises and convoluted explanations overcome Claire’s scruples, and the promise of her own show seals the deal; she agrees.
The story that follows echoes Claire’s scandalous affair three years ago, which is disclosed in parallel with the current timeline. In both, the tension builds to the breaking point. In both, Claire is betrayed. But is she an innocent dupe or an ambitious artist, willing to sell her soul for a chance to get her art and her name ‘out there’?
The writer asks her readers a series of poignant questions. How much is an artist willing to sacrifice for her art? Would she commit a crime? Would he betray a friend? Would she stoop to forgery? And is forgery really a crime? Does a famous name equal great art? Or is it our society’s obsession with celebrities talking? What if Mona Lisa was painted by John Smith? Would we still admire her?
Claire is a multidimensional character, talented and compassionate. She stands out from the pages like a living, breathing woman and a consummate artist. Her art defines her, makes her what she is. In this sense, her romantic liaisons with men – three years ago and now – are extraneous for the plotline. They could be dropped entirely without the story suffering. In fact, they feel like the writer’s concession to the common demand for a love story. But Claire has the love of her life already – the love for her art. She doesn’t seem to need men.
The other characters in the novel are all rather sketchy, serving as a background for Claire. Fortunately, her personality is so big and colorful that it carries the novel. And the underlying flavor of mystery, where Claire pays a sleuth in the field of arts, enriches the book considerably.
The author’s research was obviously extensive. The engrossing real-life stories of famous forgers, included as vignettes in the book, add an enchanting layer of truth to the fictional account of Claire and her forgery.
I also learned a new word: craquelure. Craquelure – a net of cracks in old paintings – occurs when paintings age and the paint on them dries and shrinks. Craquelure is often used as a way to determine a forgery, but as you can guess, it can be forged too.
All in all – an enjoyable read, a subtle but powerful hymn to the art and its creators.