The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Novels set in the art world highlight our angst over authenticity

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It sure feels as if authenticity is of paramount importance lately, for everything from the monumental, such as updates on the war in Ukraine, to the minor, like the integrity of Wordle under the New York Times. Yet so many people seem hesitant to believe anything. This distrust is understandable, to a degree: Fantasy can be engineered with as much fidelity as reality; the dissemination of misinformation is ineradicable. And it is easier and easier to exist inside a bubble that bolsters rather than broadens whatever we already believe.

Such concerns have long been fodder for fiction, but three new literary thrillers explore authenticity through the lens, or rather the canvases, of the art world, looking at what constitutes an artist, what determines the value of art, who controls our access to it and, most importantly, perhaps, who should be making these decisions.

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Joe Mungo Reed’s “Hammer” has a lot to say about the role that art plays in the world at large. The auction house where Martin works is at the center of London’s opulent and ruthless high-end scene, a stark contrast to the hippie compound where he grew up. At an event, he bumps into Marina, a wealthy Russian beauty whom he hasn’t seen since their university days nine years earlier. Back then, she was dating Martin’s roommate; now she’s married to Oleg Gorelov, an ostentatious emigre oligarch and art collector. Martin uses his past with Marina to insinuate himself into Oleg’s orbit, gaining his confidence and a trip to the Geneva Freeport, where Oleg keeps his most valuable pieces, including a painting by the real-life Ukrainian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich that was thought to be lost.

Appearances are critical in this world, but they are not something that wealth can necessarily change. Oleg worries about how he acquired his fortune and what kind of legacy he will leave in Russia. Marina was disgusted by her parents’ wealth growing up, and her affair represents a way to reclaim some of those earlier feelings about riches. And Martin revels in the finer things his career has brought him but starts to wonder about the cost to the values he grew up believing.

The novel gains lamentable timeliness from a late plot twist involving Ukrainian independence and Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but Reed sensitively handles those issues while steadily raveling his characters’ increasingly disparate lives into an intricate look at politics, morality and coming to terms with one’s past.

‘Art & Crime’ looks at the forgeries, thefts and manipulations that plague the art world

Erica Katz’s “Fake” is less concerned with geopolitics, but the stakes are just as dire for 20-something New Yorker Emma Caan, who is trying to jump-start her life, professionally and socially. When she was an art major at Yale, Emma’s paintings were labeled “Technically superior. Emotionally detached.” So instead of becoming a famous artist, she lives paycheck to paycheck copying priceless works of art for a company retained by collectors and museums that need to display fakes for, generally, legitimate reasons.

Longtime client and Russian billionaire Leonard Sobetsky hires Emma to copy paintings for him privately — at $10,000 a pop — and gets her a job at a trendsetting gallery. He even sets her up in a SoHo loft 10 times bigger than her Washington Heights studio. Next thing she knows, Emma’s solo nights of scrolling Instagram while eating instant ramen are a thing of the past, as she is jetting to Hong Kong on Lenny’s private plane and partying with influencer @JustJules.

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Readers know things aren’t on the up and up because each chapter opens with FBI agents questioning Emma about Lenny. The signs are there for her as well, but she is too seduced by having it all, plus trying to manage her pyrophobia, which induces panicked blackouts and causes night terrors. The source of the trauma becomes evident early on, but Emma keeps grappling with it as if it were the Enigma code. Despite some melodramatics, “Fake” is great fun, offering a peek into a world of glitz that most of us will never glimpse firsthand.

María Gainza’s “Portrait of an Unknown Lady,” translated from Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, takes a more philosophical look at the art world by questioning what constitutes an artist. The titular portrait is figurative; our narrator, a disillusioned art critic in Buenos Aires using the nom de plume María Lydis, is investigating a mysterious figure. María urges caution with her tale, not because she is dishonest, but because memory and art are subjective and imperfect. “We do not recover the past, we re-create it.”

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The past that María is trying to re-create concerns Argentina’s most notorious forger, the “beautiful, enigmatic” Renée. In the 1960s, Renée was part of a boho crime ring based at a hotel in the north of the city who made their living by “cheating the rich.” By the 1990s, she was growing cactuses and producing only original art, but living alone in squalor. Then she simply disappeared. María first learns of Renée’s exploits from her boss, Enriqueta Macedo, a venerated art authenticator who for decades has been validating fakes, including those painted by Renée years ago. Now in her 70s, Enriqueta taps María to be her successor, and the younger woman embraces her life of crime, finding both adventure and security.

Enriqueta’s death makes María reconsider, however, and she launches her career as a critic, only to get pulled back into her disreputable past by the appearance of a collection of works by Mariette Lydis, a painter closely tied to Renée. Bunstead’s colorful translation reads at times as an adventure serial, at times as a hard-boiled noir, and throughout it all, María uses her wit, erudition and sass to suss out the true meaning of art.

Cory Oldweiler’s writing has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Boston Globe.

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