The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro

Claire Roth's life isn't going well. Although she's a talented painter, she hasn't been a good judge of character in affairs of either business or romance. A few years back, she had helped her lover, a successful but blocked artist, to meet a deadline by painting what was to become a masterpiece in his name. When their relationship soured, she attempted to expose him only to find herself shunned by the art world. Forced to support herself as a painter of OTC (over the couch) reproductions, she agrees to forge a Degas for an influential agent in return for much needed cash and the opportunity to mount a show in his gallery. When their scheme unravels, she exchanges her brushes for a detective kit, in order to locate the original painting which no one had ever suspected was missing. Although it may sound complicated, Shapiro succeeds in making it seem both plausible and compelling. 

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With her doctorate in sociology, she does an excellent job of presenting the contemporary world of art. Her characters, especially Claire, seem authentic without being stereotypic. She is less successful at conjuring the voice of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose art collection constitutes the museum named for her. We meet her through a series of imaginary letters to a favorite niece. The letters serve to substantiate the plot, but anyone who's read novels by Edith Wharton or Henry James might find fault with their style and form. Shapiro also does a tremendous job of instructing us in the craft of forgery, but her greatest accomplishment is in demonstrating the extent to which artifice drives our assumptions about the value of creativity and talent. She shrewdly links the attributes of forgers - ambition, greed, talent and hubris - to the high stakes world of art collecting, drawing parallels between the famous and the infamous. Consider this sobering thought: experts estimate that as much half the art sold on the international market is fake. Maybe I'll invest in a professional basketball team instead