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Review: The Art Forger

August 28, 2013

Title: The Art Forger
Author: B.A. Shapiro
Publisher:  Algonquin Books
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Format: Library eBook

On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art today worth over $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in history, and Claire Roth, a struggling young artist, is about to discover that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.

Making a living reproducing famous artworks for a popular online retailer and desperate to improve her situation, Claire is lured into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge a painting—a Degas masterpiece stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But when that very same long-missing Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery.

Her desperate search for the truth leads Claire into a labyrinth of deceit where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can now save her life.—via Goodreads

I am a sucker for heist books.

Also, for art history.

So when I heard about The Art Forger, a book about an art heist and a woman who is a Degas scholar and reproductionist, I was all kinds of on board.

Going into this, I definitely had expectations—this is a pulpy, heisty book that was sure to be full of mysterious intrigue and well-dressed, smart people and some sort of action scene.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be wrapped up in the minutiae of pigments, turpentine, and exactly what it takes to forge a masterpiece. Though that probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I found the tedium of the artists process fascinating. I wasn’t gifted with artistic ability (even my handwriting is terrible) and I’m truly amazed by people who can write legibly, let alone create, and forge, works of art. But I’m also a person who is a curious sort, and learning about process is something that I actually enjoy. So while some people would probably be thinking JUST GET ON WITH IT ALREADY, I was deeply enjoying the descriptions of paint mixing and explanations of stripping art, tempering and applying paint to a canvas, and then having to BAKE IT IN AN OVEN.

But, this book is much more than an instructional manual of how to forge a Degas. The main character, Claire, is an art world pariah due to a past mistake in both love and career, and she is looking to make a comeback. But, because of her pariah status, no one will give her the time of day. So she resorts to reproducing famous works of art for a website, teaching art to young men in juvey, and hoping that someday a curator or gallery owner will see more in her than just her black-balled name.

But while we’re learning about Claire’s past as it unfolds in bits and pieces, we’re also learning about late-nineteenth century Boston socialite and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, the woman who owned the famed Degas that was stolen and that Claire is now forging. Through fictionalized letters to her niece, the reader gets to know Gardner and finds out that there is much more to the infamous Degas than anyone, including Claire, knows.

But Claire is a smart cookie and though she has no access to the letters from Gardner, she knows something isn’t right with the Degas. And that’s where the story really takes off. Shapiro’s writing is sharp and the plotting of the story is calculated so that the reader is never quite sure exactly where the story, from either the past or present, will go next.

A mesmerizing story of art history, propriety, navigating the sometimes unforgiving art world, and redemption, The Art Forger is a book that pulled me in and that has stayed on my mind long after I finished it.

The Art Forger

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