The Art Forger a Good Mystery, but No Masterpiece

By B.A. Shapiro
Algonquin Books ISBN: 978-1616201326
·      * * ½

Barbara Shapiro certainly knows a juicy topic when she sees it and, in New England, they don’t get much juicier than the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Thieves, disguised as Boston policemen, talked their way into the Stewart after hours, subdued two night watchmen, and made off with 13 masterpieces valued at over $500 million, including works from Manet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. Twenty-three years later, the Gardner robbery is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time. In March of 2013, the Boston Globe revealed that investigators have turned attention again to one of the guards on duty (though he’s passed two lie detector tests). Thus far, every trail has gone cold or led to a dead end.

Shapiro’s delicious hook is to assume that one of the paintings has surfaced, one by Degas titled After the Bath. (No such work exists; this is Shapiro’s invention based on a famed series of bathers that Degas did paint.) Collector Aiden Markel secretly has the work, which he has secured through some very shady contacts and double-dealing, and wants to enlist artist Claire Roth in a dangerous scheme that she’s told will restore the painting to the Gardner, put much-needed money into her starving artist’s pocket, and lead to a one-woman gallery show of her own. The question is, who can be trusted?

Claire certainly needs a break. She was once the paramour of art world sensation Isaac Cullion, a former whiz kid who hasn’t had an idea in years. Out of love, Roth paints a work upon which Cullion signed his own name. It took the art world by storm and resurrected Cullion’s reputation. Alas, Cullion left Claire for another woman before committing suicide, and her insistence that she actually painted Cullion’s masterpiece is rejected by “experts” and viewed as a contributing factor in Cullion’s death. So say that Claire’s reputation is mud is an understatement. Years later she pays the rent by teaching classes at a local juvenile lockup, and by copying masterpieces for one of those companies will sell you a reproduction of a Degas for a few hundred bucks. Claire is more than good at this task—she’s convincing.

The real action starts when Markel asks Claire to copy After the Bath—from the original. Her task is nothing less than forgery; she needs to convince world art experts that her work is that of Degas, so everything must check out—the age of the canvas, the chemistry of the pigments she uses, and every single brush stroke. There is no margin for error. The canvas?  A Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier that happens to be exactly the right size and is such a minor work that no one will ever miss it, so Claire’s first job is to strip it. It’s also the first of a whole lot of improbable “coincidences” in the novel. Meissonier was once considered an important classicist, hence obliterating one of his works isn’t likely. Another convenient invention is Amelia, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s niece and secret confidant. No such person ever existed, but never mind….
Claire begins to have serious misgivings about the brushwork of the alleged Degas and begins to wonder if she’s copying a copy of a copy. (How meta!) I will not spoil the mystery with any more detail. It’s a pretty good yarn, actually, even when aspects of it spill into Dan Brown territory. It’s probably best if you consume this book the way you might a beach novel, though I recommend you keep an iPad handy to find images of real art works mentioned, as these will supplement your enjoyment.

Shapiro isn’t a great stylist and she’s definitely guilty of contrivances that make sense only within the questionable logic systems she has constructed. If you think too much, you’ll wonder why an artist no one ever heard of knows more about one of the world’s most famous painters than art experts. You may also find Claire Roth too immature, too insecure, and too inexperienced to be part of such an elaborate ruse. And you’ll certainly wonder why all of her friends act as if they are college sophomores rather than adults in their 30s and 40s. But, as I said, try not to ask these questions. If you’re one of those readers that can simply immerse yourself in a thorny who-dunnit, Shapiro’s novel is a cut above those knock-‘em-out potboilers you find in the ten for a buck remainder bins.

You may also acquire a bit of art history knowledge along the way, be overcome by a sudden desire to visit the Gardner, and gain respect for the pure painters who crank out copies of masterpieces to go above living-room sofas across the land. It also reminds us that the wildly eccentric Gardner needs a fictional treatment of her own. All of these are good things, “good” being an adjective I’d also apply to Shapiro’s novel. It’s no Degas, but it’s not a bad Meissonier.—Rob Weir

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