I was very skeptical when I picked up The Art Forger because I’ve read too many books about forgeries lately, and surely such a hot but small topic can only be exhausted quickly! But I’m glad I did.
The Art Forger is essentially a mystery, one of those in which you know who did it from the start but you wonder whether and how they will be found out. The heroine is an artist who needs to rebound from a bizarre forgery she created for her lover and who finds herself copying a famous Degas stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, using the techniques from a famous Dutch forger. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the present time, the time when the first forgery was created, and Isabella Gardner’s time. I loved the present time’s story. The chapters that describe the artist’s past I thought strangely stilted, and so different they seemed to have been written by someone else entirely. As for the Isabella Gardner letters to her niece, giving the back story of the painting that is being forged, I found them to be highly unbelievable, not so much because they have no historical backing (the rest of the story does not, after all, and it is highly enjoyable nevertheless) but because the whole notion of a proper lady of that time confiding intimate details to her niece in writing seems completely outlandish — and the letters don’t add much to the overall story. Too bad you can’t skip the bad chapters: the main story is told very well.
Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger is a memoir in the style of Catch Me if you Can, of a crook who specializes in art forgery, but without the lightness and fun, if I dare say so, of the latter. The author shares the technical details of his fraud, reminding me of The Forger’s Spell, and takes great pride in how he deceived the so-called experts, cleverly starting with fakes of not-so-famous painters so as not to attract the scrutiny that would be lavished on a first-rate painter’s newly unearthed work.
The tale could be a book-length adventure, but it never pauses to consider that perhaps, all this lying and deception may be reprehensible, and the author seems ready to resume his trade at any time. Not too appealing…
Great museums can be overwhelming and I recall fondly a visual treasure hunt I once hastily put together at the British Museum for my daughters that had us tramping through its many galleries in search of just ten objects, trying to move from ancient Egypt to modern in less than one hour (mission accomplished). A History of the World in 100 Objects is much more ambitious, as the director of the museum has chosen many more objects (I was glad to see most of my ten in the lot!) with exquisite care to represent a cross-section of geographies and historical periods and moreover has organized them in an ambitious historical context. Suffice it to say that you will need more than an hour to get through the 650+ pages! But you can also take it in small increments, or skip the boring bits.
The author has a good knack for describing the objects as if you were there, actually better since, unlike us, he has been able to touch and hold them, and he has a nice sense of dry humor to enliven the proceedings, including stories of how the objects were discovered and what effect that had on the discoverers. He has one archeologist tearing off his clothes for joy, that must have been a sight! Still, there’s more than a whiff of a staid PBS program (and indeed, this is a companion to a BBC program!) in the book, and the more difficult issues are brushed by, especially the tricky problem of why the British Museum should be home to so many artifacts that were found outside Britain.
That aside, it’s a considerable achievement to bring all the artifacts together and interestingly it makes me want to go back to the museum, to see more than just ten objects this time!
Perhaps if I had not read The Gardner Heist or The Forger’s Spell I would have enjoyed Stealing Rembrandts more, but I thought that the analysis of a variety of art heists (some involving Rembrandts, such as the Gardner heist, but others not) was not very illuminating. It turns out that paintings, Rembrandts or not, can be stolen by amateurs or professionals and, no surprise, the professionals’ success rates are much higher than the amateurs’. (For me, the best part of the book were the stories of the professional art theft world, with its cold and efficient market analysis and impeccable execution.) No surprise again, larger museums are much better defended than smaller ones. And, who knew, lesser-known works are easier to sell.
One last rant: why would a book that talks lovingly about works of art not display them all as illustrations right in the text, rather than offer a meager selection in black and white, isolated in the middle of the book?
In August 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre museum in Paris. Vanished Smile recalls the theft, police investigation, and eventual recovery of the painting from the Italian thief who thought he would become a national hero by returning the painting to Da Vinci’s homeland. (He miscalculated!)
The story recalls The Gardner Heist for its description of museum thefts. The Louvre at the beginning of the 20th century was almost unbelievably unprotected, even given the technological gap between now and then: the paintings were simply hung on the walls and anyone with an opportunity could simply walk up to them and carry them off, and the tracking processes were so lax that the painting went missing for many hours without anyone questioning the blank wall! And like at the Gardner a human breakdown allowed the robber to simply walk out of the museum.
There are also shades of The Forger’s Spell in this book since the authentication of the work was partly based on the craquelure of the paint and a crack in the wood it was painted on (and since there’s a background story about art fakes.)
Warning: rant coming. One would think that a book centered on Paris and Italy would benefit from reviewers that speak either language and who are familiar with the local cultures. One would be right. An appropriate reviewer would spot that the Prefecture de Paris is a not police force (the police of the Prefecture is a police force, but not the Prefecture itself), or that an Italian saying about Napoleon is a funny double-entendre. [end of rant]
The Gardner Heist recalls a famous, almost 20-year old and still unsolved theft of a gorgeous Vermeer (and a terrible, in my opinion, Rembrandt, and other assorted masterpieces) from the Gardner Museum in Boston. The theft exposes the weak link of any security system: the people, although to be fair the technology was not quite were it should have been. It also introduces a wonderful art detective (now dead, unfortunately) who spent years tracking down the paintings through the Boston underworld and beyond, and who taught the author many tricks of the trade. The author clearly wanted to be the one who solved the case but had to wrap up the book to meet the publisher’s deadline, I imagine, so we are treated to a tedious and lengthy description of various Boston mobsters, description that leads nowhere, but the first half of the book is enjoyable and instructive. Pay your security staff a little more and coach them to trust no one!
For amateurs of stories about art see The Forger’s Spell or Loot.
If you enjoyed The Forger’s Spell and The Billionaire’s Vinegar, you’ll like Loot, a captivating, if unhinging look at trafficking in art and antiquities. The author starts with well-known dilemmas: should the Parthenon marble frieze (the Elgin marbles) be returned to Athens, to the museum built especially to shelter them? Should the Luxor pyramid be removed from the place de la Concorde in Paris and reunited with its twin? She then delves into more troubling issues, including uncomfortable financial links between the (past) curator of the Getty Museum and art dealers, the Met’s disregard of dubious provenance, as well as how artifacts that were returned to their countries of origin have been lost, stolen, or have become inaccessible for most visitors by being placed in out-of-the-way museums.
It’s clear that the coutnries with money and power have always stolen, bought, and otherwise removed artifacts from countries rich in history. Since the advent of stricter codes of conduct for public institutions in recent years it seems that the flow has simply been redirected towards private collectors who are not bound to the same rules and sometimes choose openly not to respect them.
Museum visits won’t be quite the same for me since I read this book
Who knew that a book about art forgery could read like a mystery? The Forger’s Spell tells the story of a second-rate Dutch painter who faked a number of Vermeers and other paintings that were stolen by the Nazis and who got caught as a result of the Allies’ subsequent accounting for the various stolen objects. The book includes pictures of the forgeries, which makes one wonder how the supposed experts could have been caught by the ugliest (non-)Vermeers I’ve ever seen, and makes a very effective point of showing how the forger exploited the needs and weaknesses of the experts at the time to his best advantage. There’s also a wonderful set of chapters on the techniques of the forger. I will never look at my oven in the same way now that I know how he baked the craquelure into the paintings.
An entertaining and instructive look into the world of art with an enticing mytery-writer style that makes you want to keep turning the pages.
The Music Lesson’s main character is an Irish-American art historian who falls for an IRA member who is also a distant cousin of hers and, inspired by a romantic love of Ireland (which she has never visited before the story begins) helps orchestrate a theft and at least one murder without realizing she’s been played. How can a forty-year old woman, even if unmoored by a dead daughter and a departed husband, be so naive to think that a young, gorgeous young lad could truly be attarcted to her? And how can she then be so passively accepting of the very real “troubles” she herself unleashed? I don’t know, so cannot care for her or for the book.
[I realize this is the third tepid-to-bad review in a row -- and I can only hope that my luck and yours will change soon.]