The Art Forger

9781616201326Do you believe everything you see?   B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger –  a mix of art history, crime drama, and mystery – may challenge your perspective.

Claire Roth, with her newly minted MFA degree, continues working on her contemporary art paintings while paying the bills with her job at – a company that specializes in copies of famous art.  Because Claire’s specialty is Degas, and because she has a reputation for fooling even the best art authenticators, Aiden Markel – a famous art dealer – targets her for his black market sale of a stolen Degas original.

As she prepares to reproduce the painting of “After the Bath,” stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, Claire realizes that the painting is a forgery.  Not wanting to risk the showing of her own work that the dealer has promised as payment, she conceals the truth and finishes her copy of the copy.  But secrets are hard to keep, and Shapiro creates a complicated tale woven with the process of restoring and copying art, the shady underworld of the art dealers, and one woman’s quest for self-actualization.

The mystery surrounds the real Degas: where is it and who painted the copy that fooled the world? Using a real historical figure, wealthy Isabella Stewart Gardner, who had a reputation for “walking lion cubs and drinking beer,” Shapiro creates a  fictional series of letters by the early twentieth century art collector.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum opened in Boston in 1903, but is most famous for the celebrated unsolved theft of works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas in 1990.  Shapiro uses these historical facts and adds a scenario around the original owner that is not only believable but also adds an element of curiosity to the suspense.  When the possibility of jail time and underworld brutes taking revenge mixes with the media appetite for salacious information, the plot intensifies.  Although you may skip over the details for tediously reproducing forged images, you will attend to the drama and hope that all ends well for poor Claire.

My friendly librarian alerted me to this fun read, and a fellow reader confirmed that it was “the best book” she read this year.   When I looked for more books by this author, most were out of print.  After writing five suspense thrillers, Barbara Shapiro may have finally hit the right formula.  Hopefully, this success will motivate a reprinting of some of her former stories.  The Art Forger has just the right mix of information and thrilling suspense, and will leave you with a feeling of all plots solved, after an intellectually satisfying ride.

The Forgery of Venus

Everyone has good days and bad days, but what if your best day was a few centuries ago – in another life?  In Michael Gruber’s psychological thriller, The Forgery of Venus, Chaz Wilmot is a painter born a few centuries too late for his talent to be appreciated.  Working in the style of the masters – Goya, Gainsborough, and especially Velázquez,
Wilmot has little success; it’s his cheap renditions of famous faces in old portraits that sell –  Hilary Clinton as Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s painting.

Following the adventures of an artist who may be time traveling, but is probably psychotic from all the doping he’s experienced in his life, requires a suspension of belief – just as Gruber demanded in his novel The Book of Air and Shadows.  If  you can do that, you will be rewarded not only with an exciting tale of intrigue with art forgers, crooked dealers, and underworld criminals, but also with beautiful references to famous art that will motivate you to seek it out – if only to see what Gruber is describing.

After being thrown out of  a university research study on salvinorin, a drug that supposedly affects creativity,  because of his failure to reveal his previous dallying in drugs, Wilmot absconds with some samples to self-medicate and finds himself time traveling and becoming Spanish artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez.  As he

Las Meninas

channels Diego as a young boy, he connects to his own present-day miserable childhood memories of being the son of a failed artist.  He recalls his experience with the Velázquez painting Las Meninas, the painting that first inspired his love of art.  Gruber’s description of the painting’s impact on Wilmot as a young boy prompted me to find a replica – one of many pictures that I sought out as I read.

As his time-traveling episodes continue under the influence of the drug, he begins to relate to Velázquez as he becomes the Spanish King Philip’s personal artist, and eventually follows him to Italy to study.  Wilmot’s flashbacks become uncontrollable, and Gruber teases the reader with the possibilities:  is Wilmot experiencing drug-induced episodes or is he really Velázquez?

Wilmot, never satisfied with his own talent, agrees to accept money from a shady art dealer to travel to Rome to forge a painting of Velázquez, and the action suddenly accelerates with clandestine meetings and threats.  Wilmot succumbs to the temptations of money and pride in being able to dupe the experts, and as he paints, the real master – Velázquez, seems to take over his mind and his brush.

Drug-induced inspiration is behind many great works: Coleridge’s vision of Kubla Khan, Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, Salvador Dali – and many more.   Was Wilmot’s best work only possible when he was crazed?  Or was he actually reliving a former life as Velázquez?  Who did paint the Venus? Does it make any difference? Tim Newcomb in a recent article about the actor Steve Martin being duped by a forgery, asks:

If you don’t know the art is fake and truly believe it’s authentic, does it all really matter?

Gruber infuses his own political views into the story, and toward the end, the action gets a little crazy and overwhelming with hallucinations, illusions, and gangsters.  But, stick with it.  Gruber tells you the truth at the end, and it’s a whopper.