I was waiting to board a flight to London from Boston’s Logan Airport in March 1990 when I heard the news: Thieves dressed as police officers had broken into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway and stolen thirteen works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and five pieces by Degas. The story gave my traveling companion and me much to talk about, as we were both art aficionados and regular patrons of the Gardner. We couldn’t have known, of course, that twenty-two years later, the works would still be missing, and that the heist, even after last week’s theft of seven works from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, would remain the biggest of its kind in history.
B.A. Shapiro, a creative writing instructor at Boston’s Northeastern University, uses the occasion of the Gardner theft as the basis for her new novel, The Art Forger. Her premise is clever: What if the whereabouts of one of the stolen works, Degas’s After the Bath, were known, and the thieves hired someone to paint a reproduction that they will then sell for millions to a wealthy collector? (During the 1890s, Degas made several paintings and drawings of women emerging from the bath. None were at the Gardner, but the real paintings are on display in places like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and London’s National Gallery.) Claire Roth, a disgraced Boston painter who makes her living painting copies for Reproductions.com, is the artist asked to make the forgery. But in the process of copying the Degas, she begins to suspect that the original she has been given to work from is itself a reproduction. The Art Forger is the tale not only of Roth’s attempts to determine the authenticity of the Degas but also of her quest to repair her tarnished reputation.
Shapiro’s novel isn’t especially literary, and much of the writing is more melodramatic than it needs to be. But she paces her story well and invents enough plot twists to keep things interesting. If you love to read about the minutiae of artistic creation, you’ll enjoy the many long passages that describe Roth’s painting techniques and the tools she uses to conduct her investigations. (And if you haven’t already, you should see Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, one of the greatest films ever made about artists and the process of creating art.)
My full review of The Art Forger is at Bookreporter.com.
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