Woman uses canvas, lies to climb to the top of the Boston art world

By Walt Braun

Claire Roth, the protagonist in “The Art Forger,” is a talented painter. She’s also something of an outcast in Boston’s art society, the combined result of a love affair gone bad, a work heralded as a masterpiece that she allowed her lover to claim as his own, her subsequent efforts to right that wrong and his suicide, for which she was blamed.

Three years later, she’s behind in her rent, runs a tab with her art supply store and her local bar, and is fortunate to have a couple truly loyal friends to help her cope. She still pursues her craft and paints reproductions of famous artworks to make ends meet. She also volunteers at a local juvenile detention center, teaching art and helping errant adolescents spent at least a little of their time in a constructive activity. 

Into her life comes Aiden Markel, an influential art gallery owner who had helped make her late lover famous and who now has a tempting proposition for her. He offers her enough money to pay her bills and get some decent furniture for her apartment/studio, if she’ll do something that isn’t altogether wholesome but that he insists will do no harm and make a great number of people happy. He also promises her a show of her own paintings in his gallery, something that could not only help patrons forget her past but launch her career.

Her part of the bargain is to copy a Degas painting, “After the Bath,” that was one of a handful of great works stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Claire, a meticulous researcher as well as an accomplished artist, comes to realize something about the Degas that Aiden isn’t aware of. While wondering about him and his motives, she also begins to fall for him; happily, he reciprocates. Yet she knows she has made a Faustian bargain. She tells herself she’s not involved with forgery; that involves misrepresenting and selling a copy as the real thing. She’s only making a copy, which is what she’s already been doing legally for the reproduction company.

Things go about as well as they can — personally and professionally for Claire and Aiden — until they go dreadfully wrong.

The individual to whom Aiden has sold the Degas copy is detained on the West Coast trying to return to India. Scandal erupts and widens when experts examine Claire’s work and determine that it’s the original painting that was stolen from the museum in 1990.

Claire knows that’s impossible, because though she didn’t share her knowledge with Aiden, she knows without a doubt that the painting she copied was itself a copy, and there’s no way that a phony Degas had hung for years long in such a distinguished museum. Or was there? And if it had, where was the real one?

In “The Art Forger,” B.A. Shapiro has written a wonderful mystery that succeeds on several levels. It’s an engaging story with multi-dimensional characters, enriched by Shapiro’s research into Isabella Stewart Gardener, an art collector and philanthropist who mingled with famous artists and writers. Through Claire, the author also gives readers a fascinating tutorial about Degas, the art of oil pointing, the “art” of forgery and the business side of the art world.

The book is long on intrigue but short on violence, and is entertaining from start to finish.

Walt Braun is the Manhattan Mercury’s editorial editor.

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