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.”