The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin Books; 384 pages; $14.95).
We’re all a little guilty, aren’t we? We’ve all told a little white lie… or ten. “Yes, I absolutely love your new haircut.” “This new recipe tastes yummy”(quick, spit it out in your napkin while no one’s looking). “I read all of War and Peace last year for my book club.” There are white lies that do not matter in the scheme of life, but then there are big lies and even bigger deceptions that matter a great deal.
In B.A. Shapiro’s taut and intriguing novel The Art Forger, Clair Roth knows all about lies and deceptions.
Scandal has tarnished the reputation of this once-promising young artist. When her married lover, Isaac Cullion, experienced a creative rough patch, Clair offered to be his muse. Clair did more than just help Isaac, though, she painted a masterpiece that went on to earn great acclaim. But it was Isaac’s name on the piece, not Clair’s. After their breakup, Clair went public; few believed her, especially after the painting underwent testing to determine its authenticity. The so-called experts declared it Isaac’s work, casting Clair as the jealous, untalented, and crazy ex.
Dejected but strapped with bills, Clair is forced to take a job at reproductions.com as a professional art forger who specializes in the work of Edgar Degas. She is very good at what she does, maybe even too good. Yet her own talent goes unnoticed. Still, she continues to paint her own pieces and hopes to get the recognition she deserves. Meanwhile, art lovers clamor for her Degas copies, even asking for Clair by name.
One day, the very dashing, debonair, and filthy rich gallery owner, Aidan Markel stops by Clair’s studio. The two strike a Faustian bargain: Clair agrees to forge a Degas for Markel and he will give her a one-woman show in his gallery. For Clair, it sounds too good to be true. Sure enough, it is. Markel’s Degas was stolen AND he intends to sell the forgery as the real thing AND then he wants to return the original.
Aidan knows just how to convince Clair: “The seller gets his money, and the collector gets what he believes is a Degas, at least until he finds out the truth in the press, and then it will be too late. You and I get to feel really good about ourselves. Not to mention, your own work gets the exposure it deserves.” Just in case Claire is wavering, Aidan goes in for the kill: “This is the opportunity of a lifetime for you….”
Standing in front of the painting, Clair cannot take her eyes from the painting; the Degas captivates and obsesses her. She agrees.
For Clair, forging a real Degas is a challenge. Initially, morality is not an issue for Clair; instead, she wonders if she is really good enough to pull off this art caper. In an interesting twist, Clair convinces herself she and Aiden are actually saving the painting. She will do it, although her conscience nags at her. “What is illegal and what is illegal?” she asks herself.
In her efforts to recreate the stolen Degas, Clair stumbles onto a mystery. Is the painting an authentic Degas? Or is it a forgery?
Clair peels away layer upon layer of lies and deceptions in the same way she strips a canvas, layer by layer, bare. The Art Forger is a voyage of self-discovery for Clair, as it allows her to recapture her own authenticity. She forges a new path and is no longer herself a forgery.
Part mystery, part art history, and part morality tale, The Art Forger is plot-driven and tense. Shapiro merges fact with fiction so well that it is sometimes difficult to separate the author’s imagination from the historical record.
Shapiro conducted meticulous and extensive research for The Art Forger and it shows. The heist described in the story actually happened in 1990, when several valuable works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The Degas painting, After the Bath, does not exist; it is a figment of Shapiro’s imagination. Isabella Stewart Gardner, the owner of the fictional painting and founder of the museum where the real robbery occurred, is real. Through a series of fictional letters, Shapiro effectively brings Gardner, who traveled through Europe extensively collecting paintings, to life. Although no evidence exists that Gardner ever met Degas, Shapiro concedes the two traveled the same circles. Their relationship is fabricated but makes for interesting reading.
If you love art history or even appreciate a good mystery, then The Art Forger belongs on your nightstand. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from the story, though, was not the who-done-it but what Shapiro can teach us about our own authenticity and originality. The Art Forger definitely begs discussion.
You’re sure to love the novel every bit as much as I did, and that’s no lie.