This was a book I’ve had on my bookshelf for at least a couple of years. A spur-of-the-moment purchase, it has languished on my “historical fiction” shelf next to that last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre saga for quite a while. But it turns out, it isn’t historical fiction at all.
The Art Forger takes place in Boston, and it has its roots in the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. The narrator, Claire Roth, is an artist hoping to make it in the big leagues. She’s living in a studio apartment in Southie and has a former colleague and gallery owner coming over to see her latest series of oils. But what Aiden Markel actually brings is better and also worse than the shot at a solo show at his gallery.
Claire supplements her income (such as it is) by painting legitimate forgeries for online sales.
I glance across the room at the two paintings sitting on easels. Woman Leaving Her Bath, a nude climbing out of a tub and attended to by a clothed maid, was painted by Edgar Degas in the late nineteenth century; this version was painted by Claire Roth in the early twenty-first. The other painting is only half-finished; Camille Pissaro’s The Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom, Spring, Pontoise à la Roth. Reproductions.com pays me to paint them, then sells the paintings online as “perfect replicas” whose “provenance only an art historian could discern” for ten times my price. These are my latest work. [p. 4]
Aiden gives Claire what the back of the paperback calls “a Faustian bargain” – paint a forgery, much in the same way she does for Reproductions.com, tell no one, and when the job is done, he’ll give her a solo show at his gallery.
After giving it a bit of thought, Claire agrees. And she’s both surprised but also not when she learns that the painting she needs to forge is one by Degas, last seen in 1990 the night of the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist. And it doesn’t appear to be a forgery.
So look. This book was great. I can’t wait to forget about it and read it again in like, five years (like I’m probably going to do with Jitterbug Perfume or Gilligan’s Wake again in the next few months). The characters were great, including those of Boston and also Southie. And I really liked the way the relationship between Claire and Markel develops over the course of the book. This book was so great, I’m not even going to tell you more about the plot and stuff, and I’ll just wait for y’all to discover its greatness on your own.
But what I am going to talk about, because I feel it made the book even greater, for me, was its connection to one of my top five favorite movies of all time that, let’s be real, I totally and completely made up. The connection between the movie and the book, I mean. I didn’t make up the movie. Or the book. Or – y’know what? you get it.
How To Steal a Million is a fantastic movie. I almost waxed poetic about it a couple of book reviews ago, but I refrained. BECAUSE I CAN DESCRIBE IT IN DETAIL HERE!
When people name Audrey Hepburn movies they love, usually My Fair Lady, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes first. But for me, it’s this one, about an art heist gone wrong.
Audrey plays Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of an art forger. Papa’s specialty is Van Gogh, but as it turns out, forgery is a trait passed down from his father. Grandpapa carved a forgery of the Cellini Venus. And in the beginning of the movie, Papa has just allowed a prestigious Parisian museum to display the Cellini Venus – their Cellini Venus – in a short exhibition.
(Fun fact!: Benvenuto Cellini was a real sculptor, too!)
The fun begins in the movie when Audrey stays home from the museum gala, reading a magazine full of Hitchcock stories –
– when she hears a squeak coming from downstairs. She sneaks down in her nightie, grabs one of her dad’s antique pistols from the hallway, and surprises Peter O’Toole, who appears to be stealing a painting!
She decides to not call the police when she realizes that the Van Gogh painting Peter O’Toole was going to steal is a forgery because she doesn’t want an investigation to reveal her father’s … hobby. But then the antique pistol accidentally goes off and she has to take care of Peter O’Toole’s flesh wound (“Happens to be my flesh,” he grouses) and drive him back to his hotel (“I can’t drive a stolen car!” “Same principle – four gears forward, one reverse.”) and if anyone wants to know where I learned to love banter between romantic leads, IT IS THIS MOVIE
(There are no good video clips online, otherwise I’d link you to all of them. And unfortunately, it’s no longer available to stream on Netflix or Hulu. You can rent the movie on Amazon for $3.99. OR, you could come to my house and I’ll make you watch it with me.)
So Audrey takes Peter back to his hotel, drops him off, and then goes home. WHAT AUDREY DOESN’T KNOW is that Peter is not an art thief, but an ART DETECTIVE (no, I’m not sure that’s a real thing, but we’re gonna go with it anyway), looking for evidence that her father is a forger! That’s why he chose that particular painting!
About a week later, when the museum insurance guy visits Audrey and Papa and asks Papa to sign the insurance papers, which he does, but THEN, Insurance Guy wants to know if Papa is going to be present at the technical examination.
Y’know. When they test the statue to make sure it’s not … a fake?
So now Audrey and Papa are in BIG TROUBLE. When the insurance guys test the Cellini, they’re going to find out that it’s a forgery. So Audrey does the only thing she can think of –
She calls her art burglar pal Peter O’Toole and arranges to meet him in his hotel bar, while wearing the perfect subtle outfit that one should wear when arranging a heist.
HER EYESHADOW IS DIAMONDS
HER ENTIRE OUTFIT IS BLACK LACE
NICOLE BONNET, MY ORIGINAL QUEEN
So anyway, she asks Peter to help her steal her own statue from the museum, and of course he agrees, because diamond eyeshadow and black lace cat burglar mask. And hijinks ensue. And it’s an adorable movie.
And as a bonus look into Alaina’s Messed-Up Psyche, the movie is also probably the first instance of Alaina’s Sexual Kryptonite – a.k.a., a man wearing a white Oxford button-down shirt, with the collar and top couple of buttons undone, and no tie. I always blamed that on the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, but now that I think about it, my first viewing of How to Steal a Million probably predates me watching Gilligan.
Okay, but seriously, look at this –
Goddammit. Such a beautiful man.
ANYWAY. Here’s why I ranted so much about a relatively obscure romantic comedy from the 1960s – I found references to the movie (or made up references to please my crazy little head) within The Art Forger.
When Claire is narrating about different forgers, she mentions Han van Meegeren –
Probably the most brilliant […] was Han van Meegeren, a frustrated Dutch painter who spent six years in the 1930s formulating the chemical and technical processes needed to create a forgery that would hoodwink the dealers and critics who refused to recognize his genius. He used toaster parts to create an oven to bake his canvases and was a stunning success. He made a fortune until one of his “Vermeers” was found among postwar Nazi loot, and he had to prove he’d forged it to avoid charges of treason for selling a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. [p. 30-31]
Papa, during one of his speeches about his calling, name-drops van Meegeren! And I had no idea he wasn’t a fake person until I read this book!
Then there’s this, where Claire and Markel are discussing the buyer of the forged Degas she’s painting:
“But if he can’t sell it or show it to anyone, if it’s not a status symbol, and if he’s not going to use it on the black market, what’s in it for him?”
Markel leans back into the couch and sips his champagne. “It’s the rush of knowing you have it, that it’s yours and no one else but you can ever see it.” […] “It’s like an addiction. No, it is an addiction, one serious collectors can’t and probably don’t want to control.” [p. 166]
Another character in the movie is Davis Leland, an American tycoon who happens to be a rabid art collector. He gets close to Audrey/Nicole in hopes of purchasing one of her father’s collection. In the end, he gets a piece of art, but he understands that he can never display it.
So there you have it. More of a review for How to Steal a Million, and I’m only partly sorry about it, but if I discuss more of the book I think I’ll give too much away. I really liked it, and read it very quickly. I liked the details of the art forgery and, as I said above, I really liked the relationship between Claire and Markel. Give it a shot, I think you’ll like it too.
Grade for The Art Forger: 4 stars