review; the art forger

Title: The Art Forger
Author: B.A. Shapiro
Pub. Date: October, 2012
Summary: 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.
Genre: Fiction, Mystery

There’s no crime in copying a painting – obviously, as this is how I make the money I dutifully report to the IRS every April – the criminal part doesn’t come until a copy is put up for sale as the original. Ergo, the seller, not the painter, is the crook.

A few years ago Claire Roth had been blacklisted by the art world. Once an up-and-coming artist with the very real opportunity of having her own show, she’s now living in her tiny studio and making ends meet by selling copies of famous works for

One day she receives a visit from Aiden Markel, renowned art dealer and owner of the famous Markel G gallery. The two hadn’t spoken in years – not since her plummet from grace. Markel offers her the chance of a lifetime: paint a copy of one of Degas’ works that had been stolen in the 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Have her copy authenticated and not only will she receive a nice wad of cash, but Markel will also give her the show she’s been dreaming of.

I’ll be the first to admit I know virtually nothing about the art world – I can rattle off names like Michelangelo, Monet, The Scream, but when it comes down to it, I’m clueless. This book takes the very real theft (in 1990, over ten works of art were stolen and to this day, the pieces haven’t been recovered and even with the $5 million reward, no one has stepped forward with any information) and uses it as the backbone of the story.

Claire had always been a Degas fan and when she was little her mother would take her to the museum and she would spent hours in front of After the Bath, staring at it, drawing it, marveling over it. Obviously she hadn’t seen it since 1990 when it was stolen, so when Markel mails it to her door, she’s more than a little shocked. Naturally she battles with herself over what to do. Markel assures her that after they sell her copy he’ll give the original back to the museum where it belong. In the end, and multiple reassurances that she’s doing nothing illegal, Claire agrees.

“We can only talk about the bad forgeries, the once that have been detected. The good onces are still hanging on museum walls.”

Interspersed with the main story are two side-plots. One is Isabella Gardner’s, told only through letters to her niece. I’m a big fan of historical fiction, so this story I really enjoyed. Isabella tells about her introduction to Degas, which eventually turn into lunches with Degas, trips to Degas’ house, visits to the racetrack with Degas, and ultimately Degas’ request that she pose for a painting. Not just any painting, but one in his Bath series.

The other story is one I also really enjoyed and would have loved to have seen a little more of: Claire’s backstory and What Really Happened. When Claire was in grad school she was involved in a relationship with one of her professors. He left his wife for her and, for a while at least, they were happy. Every so often, however, Isaac would go into terrible bouts of depression. Unfortunately, one of these episodes happened to coincide with a deadline and he had neither the motivation or the inspiration to paint. Claire stepped it and painted 4D. Neither of them expected it to receive the attention it did. Isaac’s career skyrocketed – there were trips to the Today show, shows in galleries, MoMA was even interested in 4D becoming part of their permanent collection. Everyone wanted to know more about Isaac Cullion.

At first Claire was thrilled for Isaac. After he broke up with her and returned to his wife, however, she decided the truth needed to be known. She was 4D‘s painter, not Isaac. Her accusation rocked the art world and split it in two, leaving only a tiny handful of people who believed Claire. It only gets worse when Claire discovers Isaac took his own life.

The main bulk of The Art Forger is equally fascinating! Claire eventually discovers the ‘original’ she had been copying from is itself a copy. Things swiftly move from bad to worse once the painting is sold – and discovered during an airport security check. The police and FBI step in and the trail leads back to Markel and Claire.

The only way to free themselves is to find out just what happened to Degas’ original and time is quickly running out.

A writer friend once told me that when she walks into a library anywhere in the world, the smell makes her feel instantly at home.

Guys, seriously, The Art Forger is phenomenal. What’s even more mind-blowing is that the author is not an artist! WHAT. Shapiro wasn’t messing around when it came to her research.

Despite The Art Forger being a novel, this book isn’t an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat nail biter. Even still, I devoured this book in just two sittings; it’s that good.

11 thoughts on “review; the art forger

  1. Agree with everything you say — I inhaled this book despite it not being a racer of a story — it was still compelling and fascinating. Shapiro totally conveyed the world of art so viscerally that un-artistic me felt swept up and ‘there’.

  2. […] The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro 4.5/5 This was the novel that started my art obsession. Taking the real life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist (read more about in it my History 101 post!) as the novel’s backbone, Shapiro weaves a flawless tale of betrayal, conspiracies, and not-entirely-legal activities. Claire was a promising artist before being blacklisted by the community. Since then she’s made a paltry living by painting reproductions for a website. One day an art dealer shows up at her door with a tempting proposition: paint a reproduction of a Degas piece, one that was stolen years earlier, and pass it off as the real deal. The Art Forger showed just how accessible the intimidating world of art can be. Even better: Shapiro isn’t an artist! She put a phenomenal amount of research into this book and a total newbie (like me!) could follow along with ease. […]

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