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THE ART FORGER by B. A. Shapiro: Book Review

Living near Boston, over the years I’ve followed the news about the art thefts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with great interest.  Earlier this month the FBI announced that it knows the perpetrators of this crime but is unable to locate the thirteen paintings that were stolen in the middle of the night in March, 1990, paintings that are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.  Strange, but that’s the official line as of now.

In B. A. Shapiro’s thriller, The Art Forger, disgraced artist Claire Roth is approached and asked to make a copy of Edgar Degas’s After the Bath, one of the stolen paintings.  The man who brings Claire the painting, Aidan Markel, is the owner of a prestigious art gallery in Boston.  His plan is to sell the copy that Claire makes to a foreign buyer who has already agreed to purchase it.  Of course, the foreign buyer thinks that what he’s getting is the original, not a twenty-first-century forgery.

Aidan won’t tell Claire how he’s come into possession of the masterpiece, saying only that it’s a win-win situation and that “there are many layers” between the art thieves and the person from whom he received After the Bath.  He tells her that the buyer will be happy, Claire will receive $50,000 for her work, he himself will get his share of the purchase price, and then he will give the original back to the museum.  He never makes clear exactly how this last part will work, but he reassures Claire that there’s no danger for either of them.  And, a huge bonus for Claire, Aidan promises her a one-woman show at his gallery, Markel G.

The reason that Claire is in disgrace in the art world goes back three years before the novel opens.  She was in the midst of a clandestine relationship with her art professor, a well-regarded artist who had been unable to complete a commissioned painting for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Desperate to help Isaac Cullion overcome his mental block, Claire paints a work in his style as he looks on and protests, but when she’s finished he signs his name to it.  And when the MOMA curator sees the work, she pronounces it his best ever and arranges for it to hang in the museum’s show.  But, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, and Claire is still feeling the repercussions of her action three years later.

B. A. Shapiro has written a thriller that is true to the name of the genre.  Even as we know Claire is making bad choices, we understand her reasons for doing so.  Part professional pride–could she actually produce a painting that would fool the experts as well as the buyer?  Part economic necessity–living in her art studio, her bed a mattress on the floor, her meals consisting mainly of take-out Thai and cold cereal–she’s behind on her student loans, her rent, and payment for the art supplies she needs to complete her current project.  The temptation is too much to resist.

The Art Forger is a terrific, compelling read, and knowing that the heist is still unsolved after all these years adds to the tension of the novel.  The characters are true-to-life, and their morality, or the lack of it, comes straight from today’s headlines.

You can read more about B. A. Shapiro at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

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