I really enjoyed reading B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, though it is a book that’s crying out for illustrations. Shapiro tells the story of Claire Roth, a struggling artist with a scandal hanging over her head. Claire makes her living painting copies of famous paintings, watching as other less talented artists get shows and sales. Shapiro interweaves the story with letters purportedly from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece, describing the history of Edgar Degas‘ After the Bath V.
The two stories blend together when Claire is hired by an old friend to forge a copy of that painting. The friend convinces her to do it so that they can hang the real one in the gallery–since it was stolen 20 years previously–and sell the fake to a collector and thereby rescue the original from the black market. Though she is dubious (it is a dodgy plan), Claire consents and gets to work. But as she works, she begins to suspect that the painting she was given is also a fake.
I picked this book up because it kept popping up in recommendations lists for me, and I’m really glad I took a chance on it. What starts out as an already interesting story about a reluctant art forger turns into two different mysteries. First, Claire’s friend is arrested and charged with dealing in stolen art. In order to save him from a long jail term and to satisfy her own suspicions, Claire sets out to prove that she was copying a forgery. Meanwhile, Shapiro slowly reveals just what happened to cast a blight on Claire’s legitimate art career. There is an awful lot of book packed into The Art Forger, and it’s an amazing read. I was completely hooked.
It was funny that, the very day I finished reading this book, I saw this story, “FBI Offering $5 Million in Decades Old Art Heist,” on the local news website. I knew that Shapiro did a lot of research for this book. (It was tricky to spot a lot of the fictional elements, because they were so skillfully blended with actual history and art techniques.) But I didn’t realize that the art theft in the book had actually happened. I love this little coincidences.