Let's dive into the world of art.
On March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Among the stolen works were pieces by Degas, Vermeer and Rembrandt that have never been recovered. In her novel "The Art Forger," author B.A. Shapiro uses this true crime cleverly to create an intriguing scenario.
The forger is artist Claire Roth, who makes a living in present-day Boston by painting "perfect replicas" of works by the masters. Because of this, she's snubbed by the art world.
But in walks an important gallery owner who will pay her to secretly create a reproduction of a Degas, one of the paintings stolen from the Gardner, and he intends to sell her copy as an original. Selling a copy as a copy is fine; selling a copy as an original is a crime. But the extravagant offer is too tempting for Claire to refuse.
To make her painting as perfect a reproduction as possible, Claire studies the work of the artist and investigates his technique and materials. She also searches for the truth behind the great painting. But maybe she isn't the only one creating reproductions.
The possibilities offer an interesting back-and-forth, is-it-real-or-isn't-it, will-they-believe-or-won't-they plot. What is "real" art? For that matter, what is art?
Claire says she'll never know "whether I'm a great artist or just a great forger." But then, she says, "There's a long history of art experts seeing what they want to see. What they expect to see." Only the bad forgeries have been discovered, she says, because the good ones are hanging in museums. Oooh.
Intrigue, tension, a bit of a thriller and even a love story -- it's a good read.
Adult situations and language.
An Old Master painting stolen by the Nazis during World War II is the McGuffin in John Pearce's novel "Treasure of Saint-Lazare."
A woman brings a letter from her recently murdered father to her former lover's father, because the two patriarchs worked together during the war, tracking down looted artwork.
So the man and woman travel from Florida to Paris, looking for the painting. Oh, and there's gold -- Nazi gold.
The book is a little slow in getting to the point, but then it's filled with thriller-type action that takes place in both the present and the past.
"Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino reveals how museums became "multimillion-dollar showcases for stolen property."
The authors write that "Trafficking in looted art ... is probably the world's second-oldest profession."
In 1970 an international treaty for the protection of cultural property was brokered to stop "the illicit flow of artifacts," following which artwork returned from U.S. museums to governments of Italy and Greece was estimated at more than half a billion dollars' worth. "The returns followed an international scandal that exposed an ugly truth, something art insiders had long known but publicly denied. For decades, museums in America, Europe, and elsewhere had been buying recently looted objects from a criminal underworld of smugglers and fences, in violation of U.S. and foreign law."
But after the treaty, museums still bought illegally smuggled artworks, sometimes participating in obscuring their ownership histories.
One of the worst perpetrators was the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "The Getty built an enviable collection of antiquities by turning a blind eye to their origins." The museum used subterfuge such as "Overpaying for art. Unauthorized acquisitions. Inflated and forged appraisals. None-too-subtle bribes." They were even involved in tax fraud and the purchase of known forgeries. "The Getty was embroiled in a painful public scandal as its secrets spilled into public view."
The authors present character sketches of Getty as well as the investigators and curators. They give a bit of ancient history and a dab of Classical mythology along with this peek into "the notoriously shady world of collecting antiquities." It's an engrossing read.
In "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss," author Edmund de Waal relates the story of his own family in regard to its collection of netsuke. These tiny Japanese pieces of art are usually made of ivory or wood, and some have inlaid eyes of amber or horn.
The author traces his ancestors from Russia to France. Perhaps the most flamboyant of his relatives was Charles Ephrusssi, who, in Paris in the 1870s, was a friend of Renoir, Degas, Manet and Whistler, as well as author Marcel Proust. (Charles was one of two men on whom Proust based his character Charles Swann.)
The "ridiculously affluent" Charles began buying art at a time when Japanese artwork was all the rage. "Japanese things -- lacquers, netsuke, prints -- conjure a picture of a place where sensations are always new, where art pours out of daily life, where everything exists in a dream of endless beautiful flow."
In all, Charles bought 264 netsuke pieces. "There are many different subtle variations of colours in netsuke, all the colours of the ivory, the horn and the boxwood: cream, wax, nut-brown, gold. They are not just art; they're playful. … They are for touching. Above all, they make you laugh in many different ways. They are witty and ribald and slyly comic."
Then Japanese art fell out of favor, as did anyone Jewish -- like Charles. The netsuke moved on with the family to Austria.
When the Nazis began looting and destroying Jewish homes, they took over the Ephrussi house. The family was dispersed, and some were killed. But the little Japanese figurines were hidden by the family's Gentile maid, who later restored them to the family.
This appealing story reminds us that art is made by people and is only "stuff" until it is admired and valued.
The book has some black and white photos, but, disappointingly, no photos of the netsuke. It would have been nice to have a close-up of the title image. So I suggest you get the new illustrated edition, which purports to have plenty of images of the tiny figures.
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Louise Ruehr.