Reviews for Art Forger : A Novel

Booklist Reviews 2012 September #1
The catalyst for Shapiro's classy and pleasurably suspenseful debut is the legendary art heist of 1990, in which 13 masterpieces were stolen from Boston's strange and wonderful Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum. Claire, a superb but frustrated painter who, like art collector Gardner, has been the target of scandal, supports herself by creating high-quality reproductions of Degas paintings for an online art retailer. So when Boston's most prominent and sexiest gallery owner brings one of the missing Gardner paintings, a Degas, to her studio and offers her a veritable deal with the devil, Claire cannot resist. But she detects the painting's stunning secret and turns out to be as fine a sleuth as she is an artist. Shapiro dramatizes Claire's creation of a perfect forgery in fascinating detail and performs some elegant fabrications of her own in the form of risqu letters allegedly written by Gardner. The result is an entrancingly visual, historically rich, deliciously witty, sensuous, and smart tale of authenticity versus fakery in which Shapiro artfully turns a clever caper into a provocative meditation on what we value most. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 November
Unsolved heist inspires an artful thriller

Artist Claire Roth’s life is at a low ebb when a powerful, handsome gallery owner shows up unexpectedly at her Boston studio. Just emerging from a scandal that damaged her reputation, she’s eking out a living by copying great paintings for an online reproduction company.

The gallery owner, Aiden Markel, has a proposition for Claire: Copy a certain painting for me, he says, and I’ll make your career. The work in question is a Degas that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a (real-life) 1990 heist, and has been missing ever since.

Talk about tough choices. How does Markel know where this painting is? Isn’t there something a little odd about the painting that he shows her? And isn’t this all, well, illegal? Claire—talented, intelligent, not perfect—says yes, with considerable trepidation. Her decision sets in motion the intricate, intriguing plot of B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger, a compelling literary thriller. Mixing fact and fiction, Shapiro adeptly weaves together three stories: Claire’s present-day adventure, her disastrous love affair in the recent past with a prominent artist and the mysterious events in the 19th century that led to Isabella Gardner’s purchase of the book’s (invented) Degas painting, “After the Bath.” Along the way, the novel raises timeless questions about authenticity and the true value of art.

Shapiro is the author (as Barbara Shapiro) of five psychological suspense novels, but like Claire, she is emerging from a tough run. She wrote three books that she was unable to sell to publishers, and The Art Forger seemed destined for the same fate. “Nobody wanted it because they couldn’t pigeonhole it,” she says in an interview from her home in Boston’s South End, not far from where she places Claire’s studio.

Shapiro's exciting novel raises some timeless questions about authenticity and the true value of art.

Shapiro, married and the mother of two adult children, was on the verge of giving up as a writer—“I was actually thinking of being an artists’ representative”—when Algonquin Books stepped in. The result could well be Shapiro’s breakthrough to a wider audience, with a novel that takes her craft to a new level.

The book’s impressive range includes the contemporary art world, forgery techniques, museum politics, Gardner’s travels in Europe to acquire her famous collection, even life in the juvenile justice facility where Claire teaches. Educated as a sociologist and more recently an adjunct teacher of creative writing at Northeastern University, Shapiro has always loved art, but has no training as an artist. “I had no idea an oil painting was made with layers and layers of paint,” she remembers.

She did most of her research for The Art Forger through books and the Internet, but she also did about a dozen interviews with artists, gallery owners, museum experts and lawyers to get her facts straight. A niece in California who works in juvenile justice helped her with the subplot about Claire’s work, and Shapiro rewarded her by giving a character her name, Kimberly. 

Shapiro originally planned to center the book on Gardner, who was a passing character in her first novel. “I was fascinated by her as almost a modern woman at this time when women weren’t allowed to do much at all,” Shapiro says. The book eventually evolved into Claire’s story, but Gardner and Degas remain important, their relationship told through letters from Gardner to a (fictional) niece. Those letters were inspired by the real correspondence between Gardner and art historian/agent Bernard Berenson, but Shapiro had to make the style livelier for a modern readership. “Where she might have a sentence of 30 words and four of them would be 19th-century, my sentence would be 15 words and only one 19th-century word,” she says.

But Claire’s characterization is the heart of the book. “For every book I write, I have a different challenge. My challenge for this book was to create a character who does the wrong things, but is still likable,” Shapiro says. “I wanted her to be flawed because everybody is flawed. There aren’t good guys or bad guys. Everybody is both. . . . I really wanted her to be a complicated person who does the right things for the wrong reasons and the wrong things for the right reasons.” It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth draft of the novel, she says, that Claire “started to come together as a whole person.”

For Shapiro, a fifth draft is barely the beginning of the process. She is a meticulous plotter who charted each of the three stories in increasingly detailed outline before starting her first draft. As she wrote and rewrote, she showed her work-in-progress to her writers’ group. She sought input for later drafts from other writers, readers whose opinion she trusts, an artist and a lawyer. She estimates she went through 20 drafts over about three years.

The outcome is a novel that is by turns informative, sexy and exciting, with key plot twists that are genuinely unexpected. Even an art buff will have trouble figuring out what in the story is real and what is imagined. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that they spend a lot of time looking for the [Degas] painting online,” Shapiro says with a laugh. The particular Degas in the book is Shapiro’s invention, but the 1990 Gardner robbery is very real. Thirteen works, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer and five Degas drawings, were taken, and they’ve never been seen in public since.

Does Shapiro have any theory about the crime? She suspects, based on the relative crudeness of the crime and the complete absence of the works from the art market, that they were used as collateral for illegal purchases. Shapiro notes speculation that the IRA might have taken them to help buy guns. “I just hope that whoever has them is taking care of them,” she says. “I hope it’s solved in my lifetime.”

Shapiro’s next project is a novel about the early years of the abstract expressionists, when many worked for the Works Progress Administration. Eleanor Roosevelt is a character. “I like to research. I have to make myself stop,” Shapiro says. “I keep reading even when it’s something I know I’m not going to need for the book.”

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 September #2
A cleverly plotted art-world thriller/romance with a murky moral core. That nobody knows anything seems to be Shapiro's (The Safe Room, 2002, etc., as Barbara Shapiro) assessment of art authentication, given the number of misdetected paintings strewn through her engrossing if unlikely story. In Boston, painter Claire Roth has spent three years dealing with the guilt and scandal of her involvement with Isaac Cullion, whose breakthrough work, 4D, she painted for him when he was blocked. After the picture became a success, Cullion refused to acknowledge Claire's involvement, and her objections plus the attendant rumors led to his suicide and her vilification. Since then, she has survived financially by painting reproductions, so when influential gallery owner Aiden Markel arrives with a bizarre proposal--her own show if she will forge a copy of a Degas, one of the pictures stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum--she says yes. As she works, Claire and Aiden become lovers, but she doesn't tell him about her discovery that the stolen Degas is itself a copy. This knowledge is Claire's lifeline when the finished forgery is discovered, Aiden and then Claire are both arrested, and only she can save them. Despite a shaky premise, this is convincingly researched, engaging storytelling. Intelligent entertainment. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 June #2

This absorbing debut is grounded in the real-life theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston that would today be worth $500 million. Eager young artist Claire Roth supports herself by making reproductions of classic paintings. Promised a one-woman show, she agrees to forge a painting that turns out to be one of the stolen Gardner works.

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Library Journal Reviews 2012 August #1

By page two of this novel, the reader is fully engrossed into the world of struggling artist Claire Roth, nicknamed "The Great Pretender" who copies famous paintings for a website called When Aidan Markel, the handsome owner of a prestigious gallery, offers her a show of her own work in exchange for forging a painting, she reluctantly agrees. He brings two paintings to her studio, a supposedly original Degas called After the Bath and a work by an obscure painter of the same size and age. A Degas expert, Claire determines that the Degas in her studio is itself a forgery, and she's the only who knows. Stripping the paint off of the lesser-known work, she creates another forgery, doing such a good job that art authenticators think it is the original Degas, missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum since 1990. (Thirteen works worth over $500 million were actually stolen from the museum at that time.) Aidan lands in jail when the copy is seized by the FBI, and Claire will be too unless she finds the original Degas. In this enthralling intrigue, the yearning to own an original work of art is thoughtfully explored, and the text is interspersed with letters from Gardner herself, describing her relationships with the artists whose work she collected. VERDICT This well-researched work combines real elements (though After the Bath never existed) with the understanding that the art world is as fragile and precarious as the art itself, particularly for young hopefuls. A highly recommended debut that would be great for book discussion groups.--Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 August #2

Shapiro's new novel (after The Safe Room) is filled with delightful twists, turns, and ruminations on what constitutes truth in art. Broke and painting copies of famous artists' work for a reproduction site, artist Claire Roth is enticed by gallery owner Aidan Markel's request to forge a painting by Degas that was stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990 (in the largest unsolved art heist in history). As Claire works, she wonders if the painting she's forging is legitimate. Meanwhile, Claire steps in when her blocked artist lover can't finish his work for a deadline, essentially painting what becomes something of an art world sensation. Her lover slips into denial about her contribution and Clair weighs the repercussions of going public, knowing that it will damage her reputation even more badly than her heart. An intricate shell game exploring the permutations of the craft and ethics of art, Shapiro's novel is a lively ride, melding Claire's discoveries with fictionalized 19th-century letters from Gardner that hint at even deeper complexities. The wit, Claire's passion for her work, what it takes to create a piece that can pass modern scrutiny, and the behind-the-scenes look at the lives of working artists and the machinations of the art world overcome an ending that ties things up too neatly. The choice of present tense for much of the book keeps the reader at a remove from the action, but Shapiro's research, well-integrated into a strong premise, captivates. Agent: Ann Collette, Rees Literary. (Oct. 23)

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