Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New This Week: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Art Forger (Algonquin Books) is one hell of a novel. This thriller by B.A. Shapiro is set in the world of fine art -- the finest, actually. It’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of museums and throughout the art business. And yes, it is a certainly a business, where prowess isn’t just about the art itself, but in owning it. It appears that what we know about art isn’t always factual; art, like so much else in life, is all about the story, and the story is all too often about hiding the truth.

This tale is told through the eyes -- and in the light, nothing’s-gonna-faze-me voice -- of a woman named Claire Roth, the art forger of the title. By day she copies paintings for an online business, all on the up-and-up (it’s not a crime to copy a painting). Her specialty? Works by Edgar Degas. But there’s more to Claire than how she pays her rent. There’s also her past and a scandal that’s not quite old enough for people to have forgotten. It seems she painted a painting someone else took credit for -- it hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art -- and when she blew the whistle, no one believed her.

Now, as this new book begins, Claire is approached by Aiden Markel, a well-known gallery owner, who asks her not to copy a Degas ... but to forge one that was stolen from Boston’s famed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. It’s when Markel produces the stolen Degas that everything begins to get a little wonky for Claire -- and undeniably magnetic for the reader.

The Art Forger is simply a terrific novel, and it’s also a how-to manual for fine-art forgers. Author Shapiro (through Claire) knows a thing or two about what it takes to forge a painting convincingly. Why the brush strokes matter. How to age a painting so it looks like it was made a century ago. How to fake-out the professionals who authenticate paintings. She also knows about the art business: how museums and galleries work, why hanging a forgery as the real thing is sometimes actually desirable, and much more. What’s pretty darn amazing is how Shapiro teaches us all of this while also weaving a pretty darn wonderful read. Her plotting is crisp and clever, her characters are well-drawn, and the layers of moral and practical predicament Claire gets herself into are nothing to envy. Often, she’s as up-against-the-wall as the paintings themselves.

The Art Forger is part Indiana Jones adventure, part Da Vinci Code conspiracy yarn, and part college-level art class. So yeah, it’s got great parts -- and even so, it’s much greater than their sum. ◊

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