Book World: Drawing on reality

In March 1990, two men disguised as police officers stole 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — works collectively valued as high as $500 million, the largest art heist in history. More than two decades later, authorities have still failed to produce any solid leads in the case, but pop culture has had fun locating the loot in a number of unlikely places. In May, Stephen Colbert confessed that he’d stolen Vermeer’s “The Concert,” the most valuable of the missing paintings. And two years ago on “The Simpsons,” Springfield police came across the same painting in the basement of Mr. Burns’s mansion. “Is it a crime to want nice things?” Burns asked.

Now another of the stolen masterworks seems to have turned up in B.A. Shapiro’s first novel, “The Art Forger” — but that word “seems” functions on a number of levels here.

(Algonquin) - “The Art Forger” by B. A. Shapiro.

(Chris Simpson) - Author B.A. Shapiro.

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Claire Roth, the novel’s narrator and title character, is struggling to get her painting career off the ground after a scandal three years earlier left her on the shadier edges of the art world. She’s also struggling to pay the bills — and barely keeps her creditors at bay by crafting “perfect replicas” of classic paintings for an online art dealer. So when one of the city’s leading gallery owners offers her $50,000 and her own one-woman show in exchange for secretly creating a fake, she’s quickly starry-eyed: “The New York Times. Sales. Commissions. Studio visits from the Met. My heart actually hurts.”

But she also recognizes the potentially Faustian nature of the bargain, and the stakes are quickly raised when Degas’s “After the Bath” is delivered to her door — a painting whose frame stands empty at the Gardner Museum just across town. “I am awed. I am thrilled. I am horrified,” she confesses. Then those stakes are raised even further when she begins to suspect that the Degas isn’t a Degas at all, that she’s forging a forgery. In this way, “The Art Forger” becomes both a crime story — the reader following the progress of Claire’s meticulous reproduction — and a detective story, as she hunts desperately for the truth about the painting that she is copying.

Although billed as a thriller, the novel succeeds best in its more meditative stretches (and falters most in the final scenes when it tries to shift suddenly into high gear with a couple of frantic plot twists). Shapiro delves successfully into the moral and emotional dimensions of forgery, both through Claire’s self-recriminations about the task at hand and through her reflections on an earlier scandal that scuttled her career. Shapiro’s depiction of the politics and personal rivalries of the art world adds considerable depth here, and her accounts of the history of forging and of the technical processes that fool authenticators prove precise and exciting.

However, those doses of real-life history also call attention to a central weakness. With speculative fiction of this type, one of the great joys is seeing how a skilled author navigates the boundaries between what was and what might have been — never venturing far from the truth, but at the same time opening up whole worlds of possibility within the small gaps and gray areas of the official account. Reading “The Art Forger” sent me eagerly searching for the places where fiction bleeds into fact — and there are plenty of them — but it turns out that the author abandons fact almost from the start: Not only has Degas’s “After the Bath” not been stolen from the Gardner, but the painting here — a composite of four Degas paintings by that title — is fabricated by the author. So to what degree is the Gardner Museum an integral part of this story or just a marketing hook?

Readers looking for insight into the Gardner heist will have to go elsewhere. But readers seeking an engaging novel about artists and art scandals will find “The Art Forger” rewarding for its skillful balance of brisk plotting, significant emotional depth and a multi-layered narration rich with a sense of moral consequence.

Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Washington Post.

THE ART FORGER

By B.A. Shapiro

Algonquin. 360 pp. $23.95

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