Art and Intrigue in The Art Forger

One of our upcoming reviews will be for The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro. The book follows down-and-out artist Claire who makes her living doing reproductions and gets involved in a forgery scheme involving one of the world’s most notorious art heists. A book for art lovers and mystery lovers alike, The Art Forger is a unique novel that’s full of information about painting and forgery.

It’s currently a New York Times Bestseller and is a November IndieNext pick, so there’s definite buzz building around this book. (Also, I can’t get over that gorgeous cover. Swoon.)

I got a chance to sit down with Shapiro and ask her some questions about her book. She’s written several previous novels, mostly suspense novels, that cover a wide variety of subjects. The Safe Room touches on the Civil War and the supernatural and Blind Spots main character is a forensic psychologist who evaluates the sanity of murderers.  So I wasn’t surprised that her mantra isn’t “Write what you know,” but “Write what you want to learn about.”

Readers may be surprised to learn that Shapiro isn’t an artist. She’s a lover of art and museums but has no background in it. Instead, she conducted copious research on paint and forgery techniques to create the lifelike scenes in her book.

So how did this book come about? As an empty nester, she moved back to Boston and found herself surrounded by galleries and museums. The museum founded by Isabella Stewart Gardner stands out as a unique space, designed with input from Gardner, where works are displayed through a maze of rooms without any identifying cards. “I’d always wanted to write about Isabella Stewart Gardner,” she says, but wasn’t sure how to tell a story about the early-20th-century patron of the arts and larger-than-life Boston figure that could tie in to the intrigue of the modern Gardner heist.

The unassuming exterior of the Gardner Museum.

That crime, committed in 1990, has fascinated and baffled for over 20 years. The thieves gained entry by dressing as policemen, overpowered the guards on duty and stole a hodgepodge of paintings, drawings and other items. The thieves didn’t appear to be experienced with art, they even cut two Rembrandts out of their frames. And unlike most other major art heists, the paintings have never been recovered. In fact, there’s been hardly a whisper of what might have become of them.

As for Gardner, she’s known not only for her museum (in her will she declared that nothing can be moved, so it’s always exactly the same) but for her rebellious eccentricities, refusing to fit into the mold of the proper society woman. She was regularly the subject of gossip and there are stories of her walking a lion on a leash like a pet. It’s only surprising that we haven’t seen more of Gardner in fiction. (Perhaps we will? In our previous interview with author William Kuhn, he revealed he’s currently considering a novel on Gardner and one of her favorite artists–and mine–John Singer Sargent.)

Protagonist Claire serves as the gateway to the story, inspired by the author’s experiences meeting struggling gallery owners and struggling artists in the South End of Boston. While learning more about Boston’s artists, Shapiro fell in love with a piece of sculpture by conceptual artist Joyce McDaniel. (And later bought it after she sold the book!)

To put together all the threads of her plot, which includes Claire’s adventure in the present as well as the adventures of Gardner in the past, Shapiro used multi-color note cards. She drew inspiration from Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. And, of course, the city of Boston itself shines throughout the novel, from the bars of SoWa to the bright windows of Newbury Street.

The Art Forger is published by Algonquin Books.

Watch the book trailer here:

Many thanks to B. A. Shapiro for sitting down with me (and tolerating the fussy baby I was toting) and for the delightful conversation.

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