THE ART FORGER, by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 360 pp., $23.95.
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.
Now, one 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.
Claire Roth, the novel's narrator and title character, is struggling to get her painting career off the ground after a scandal 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' "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.
Although billed as a thriller, the novel succeeds best in its meditative stretches. 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 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. Reading "The Art Forger" sent me eagerly searching for the places where fiction bleeds into fact -- and there are plenty -- but it turns out that the author abandons fact almost from the start: Not only has Degas' "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 those 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 multilayered narration rich with a sense of moral consequence.