Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Art Forger: A Gallery Thriller

If you're a painter, and you're as good at forging a classic painting as the original artist was at painting it, are you still an artist? Most readers' initial reaction would be, "Are you crazy? Of course not." Claire Roth, the 31-year-old protagonist of B.A. Shapiro's art history mystery, The Art Forger, throws the seemingly obvious answer to that question into dispute.

Three years ago, Claire helped her mentor and lover, Isaac, complete a painting (actually, she did the whole thing herself, because he was blocked), and the painting, with his name on it, earned critical acclaim and wound up in the Museum of Modern Art. But Claire couldn't handle the misplaced credit — especially when Isaac started believing his own lies, telling everyone it's his painting, and calling Claire a liar for going public with the truth. So Claire is rendered persona non grata in the art community, and has to earn a living making copies of paintings for a website called Reproductions.com.

Isaac's is the same cognitive dissonance, Claire tells us, that afflicts those who authenticate art (including those "experts" who examined Claire's painting and still attributed it to Isaac) — they often see what they want to see and believe what the earnestly want to believe, even though they know the truth.

But then, a lifeline for starving artist Claire? Aidan Markel, the handsome owner of a popular art gallery, has, through mysterious means, acquired a famous (but fictional) painting stolen in the biggest unsolved art heist in U.S. history (this is factual). And he offers Claire a pile of money and her own show at his gallery to paint a forgery (or copy?) that he can sell. His plan, then, is to return the original to the Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum from whence it was stolen. It's a perfect scheme, because only a shady, unethical collector would buy a painting known to be stolen, so when s/he finds out s/he bought a forgery, s/he has no recourse. Claire gets money and a chance to overcome her past, Markel is a hero to the art community. What could go wrong?

Lots, as it turns out. What if Markel's original isn't actually the original painting? As Shapiro's inventive plots careens forward, Claire finds herself smack dab in the center of huge legal and ethical gray area. Will she do the right thing? What even IS the right thing?

At last year's Book Expo America, the folks at the Algonquin Books (the book's publisher) booth raved about this novel. And ever since it was published last October, most readers have, too. I liked it well enough —but it fits in the "good, but not great" category for me. There's some real logical leaps and "conveniences" that made me question how real this seemingly realistic tale could be. Also, in the first half of the novel, Shapiro breaks into the action of the real-time plot to give us snooze-inducing and seemingly superfluous letters from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece describing her art-acquiring adventures in Europe. I know why they're there, but the novel would've been fine without them. And finally, there's lots of wooden, eye-rollingly bad dialogue — Claire, it's clear, is a character, not a real person.

But on the plus side, it IS a fun, quick mystery read. If you're interested in painting, there's a lot here about technique, and a lot of name-dropped artists and artworks. So if you're into the brainier-than-the-average-mystery mystery, don't let my dissenting opinion deter you. Give it a shot!


  1. I had looked forward to reading this. The premise sounded interesting, and I've always been fascinated by the Gardner robbery, so I gave it a shot - and didn't finish it. I found the bits about painting technique and practices quite interesting, but the dialogue and poor characterization put me off.

    1. Yeah, it left me flat, too - it's too bad, because as you say, it's a great premise and rich material with the Gardner robbery.