The Art Forger


B. A. Shapiro




Date Reviewed:

Feb 1, 2014

he Art Forger is the story of a struggling artist named Claire Roth. She is a talented painter, but the art world has ostracized her due a previous set of incidents when she was involved with an older man, an established artist named Isaac. It takes a while for the novel to explain exactly what controversy between Claire and Isaac is.

The background story for this novel is the heist of some famous paintings that actually occurred from the Isabelle Gardner museum a couple of decades ago. The crime has never been solved, no arrests have been made, no paintings have been recovered. Some of the artwork that taken was by the artist Degas. As this novel begins, an art dealer named Merkel asks Claire to paint a copy of one of the Degas paintings, called After The Bath, that went missing in the heist, but Merkel assures her that the painting she will be copying is itself a copy, it isn't the actual missing Degas painting. But is it? There is a lot of interesting information in this novel about forgeries and the techniques used to detect them.

I wished Shapiro had offered some explanation as to where Merkel got his copy of the After The Bath by Degas. There seems to be a whole shady world of stolen artwork and counterfeiting that doesn't get explored. Merkel gets threatened at one point by unnamed people, but nothing develops along that story line. Unfortunately, this book does not explore the actual heist nor speculate what happened to the stolen paintings.

Shapiro writes so enthusiastically about the colors and beauty of the Degas painting, that I went on line to see what After The Bath actually looked like. I was surprised to find that no such painting existed. There was indeed heist from the Isabelle Gardner Art museum, and one Degas painting and three Degas sketches were stolen, but there was no painting called After the Bath. Here is a link to the actual crime and the pictures stolen from the museum.

I thought the first half of the novel more plausible and exciting than the second half. The description of the painting a copy of the Degas by Claire is unexpectedly exciting, but in the second half, the surprises and clues seemed less credible. Merkel's situation is supposed to lend tension and a deadline, but his crisis doesn't seem real. It sure is nice that Claire just happens to have a good friend who is an expert lawyer willing to work for free! Why was Claire so terrified of jails and people who work in the justice department?

There a several chapters which consist of letters written by Belle to her niece Amelia a century earlier. These letters provide clues to the authenticity of the After The Bath, but I was unclear if anyone in the novel gets to read them. Do these letters still exist at all, or where they indeed burned (in a couple of the letters, Belle implores Amelia to burn them after reading. Did she?)

I wonder if there are truly artists like Claire, who earn a living reproducing the works of the masterpieces. These replicas would be targeted toward people who want something more authentic than a print to hang upon their walls; they want actual paint brushed upon real canvas. It made me think that soon 3-D printers will be able to make exact copies - take a detailed photograph of a masterpiece, and soon these printers will be able to churn out unlimited copies, with every apparent brushstroke in the exact spot. How would you detect forgeries then? There is a line used in this novel a couple times that remarks that the best forgeries hang undetected upon museum walls.

What I really liked about this book is the way it reveals the art world to be all about name recognition rather than the quality of the art work. Once an artist is famous (or infamous), the value of the paintings sky rockets, even if the actual artwork is junk (Just look at the ridiculous career of Jackson Pollack). I was in the Orsay Museum in Paris once, and some of the Van Gogh paintings are vibrant, colorful and magnificent. But a few others hung on the wall simply because they were Van Goghs, not because they were good (Yes, I dare to say that not everything Van Gogh painted was a masterpiece). Clearly, the most important thing on the canvas is the signature, not the painting itself. Claire's original work isn't worth much, she struggles to sell anything. But Isaac, who had an established reputation, was able to command top dollar and paintings in galleries, even though Claire is a better painter than Isaac.