Books: The Art Forger

I checked The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro out of the library without taking much time to see what it was about, but it was a great choice. I really enjoyed the story, and learning about art along the way.

I probably would not have picked up a book to read about Degas – I’ve never been much of a fan of his paintings. And I had no reason to be interested in the history or methodology of art forgery. I knew that painting styles had changed over time, but I had thought of it primarily in terms of the kind of image created, not the way the brushstrokes are applied.

But I enjoy mysteries, and a mystery involving paintings seemed like a nice change after reading one involving human trafficking. And I’m always interested in learning something new, especially if I learn it in the course of listening to an entertaining story. (This was an audiobook, as a fair number of my book choices are these days.)

I don’t know how plausible the premise is, that a well-known painting by Degas (a fictional fifth painting in his After the Bath series) could turn out to be a forgery, but Shapiro makes a convincing case for it (as well as providing a plausible back story explaining how it came to be).

Unlike me, Claire Roth is a great admirer of Degas. An artist shunned by most of the art world due to something that happened when she was a graduate student, she has made herself something of an expert in his work, making high quality reproductions of works by Degas and other great artists.

When the owner of a prominent art gallery offers her the opportunity to make a forged copy of the Degas in exchange for some much-needed cash and the promise of a show of her own work in his gallery, Claire agrees. She is thrilled to have “After the Bath” in her studio to copy, even if she is uncomfortable with the dubious morality/legality of the arrangement.

As she creates a copy, the reader learns all about both art forgery and art theft. Stories of famous forgers, techniques they developed, and how and why works of art are traded on the black market. Claire also finds she can use the new techniques she is learning to improve her own original paintings, a series called “Windows.”

I’m not sure the romance at the center of the story is quite as convincing, but then Claire starts out by providing evidence of how poorly she has chosen in the past when it comes to men. And unlike some novels, this one does not spend a lot of time on the sexual aspects of the relationship, for which I am glad.

What I do like is the mix of action, moderate suspense, a look into aspects of art I had known little or nothing about, and underlying theme throughout the book about appearances versus reality. I will definitely want to check out more books by B.A. Shapiro.

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