July 24 2013 12:00 AM

Art heist thriller is no paint-by-numbers affair


In her new novel, “The Art Forger,” author B.A. Shapiro crafts a fictionalized account of the extraordinary $500 million art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Without a single bullet being fired, car chase or ticking bomb, Shapiro has written a cerebral thriller with a beautiful, believable heroine whose outcome isn’t known until the very end.

In the book, as in real life, two thieves posing as policemen snatch 13 paintings from the museum, including art by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet and Degas. Shapiro builds on that theft; it’s now 20 years later and young artist Claire Roth, who makes a living copying paintings for an online company, is approached by one of Boston’s most successful gallery owners. He offers her $50,000 to copy a Degas painting that was stolen in the heist and promises her, with a wink, that it is only a copy of the stolen painting. So she is not really creating a forgery, but only making a copy of a copy — how could that go wrong?

Suffice it to say that things get complicated after that. The novel’s multilayered plot goes all the way back to the end of the 19th Century, when art patron and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner was collecting art from the most famous artists of the time.

Shapiro’s book is not only an outstanding thriller; it is an excellent primer about art, artists, complex painting techniques and the art of forgery. The author’s execution is so on target that readers believe that Shapiro must be an artist, museum curator or art historian. Not so. She’s simply a good researcher and a quick learner. She also has a Ph.D. in sociology and held a number of jobs before becoming a full-time author in 1986.

“I’m the great imposter,” she said in a recent phone interview. Shapiro, 61, said she got most of her information about how art forgery is done online and from the book “The Art Forger’s Handbook,” which she called the “cookbook for art forgery.” One technique the author used in writing her sixth novel is akin to method acting.

“When I write, I like to act out the part,” Shapiro said. After the book was published, she heard from members of the art community who wanted to know how she got this so right. 

“I interviewed painters, and they taught me how to look at the world differently,” she said. Since she started her writing career, Shapiro said her previous five psychological thrillers had only sold so-so and she was considering her options.

“This book was my last hurrah,” she said. “(It’s) the book I always wanted to write.”

The germ of the idea for the book began two decades ago when Shapiro, who was fascinated by Gardner, was exploring how to write a fictional book about the art collector’s life and times. During her heyday, Gardner, who died in 1924, collected more than 2,500 works of art. She was also an eccentric socialite who, in 1912, was reported to have "almost caused a panic" by wearing a white headband emblazoned with "Oh, you Red Sox" to the extremely formal Boston Symphony. Shapiro said she was always fascinated by Gardner because, at the time, wealthy women had less freedom than middle-class women. 

“There were not many outlets for (upper-class women), and it was acceptable for them to go out in the world and buy art,” she said. 

Shapiro said the book didn’t come together until she worked out a way to tie Gardner into a contemporary setting through the art heist and subsequent forgery. In order to save her career and her boyfriend, Claire must solve the mystery behind the theft. The book switches between a historical sequence that provides clues to the provenance of the Degas piece and one set in the modern day that has Claire tracking down Gardner’s history while also ferreting out whether the painting she copied was stolen or, indeed, a copy. 

The author makes the case that many of the large art heists are done by organized crime, drug or arms dealers or nationalistic organizations, which use the art as collateral or to fund their operations. (Her personal belief is that the Gardner Museum theft was undertaken by the Irish Republican Army.) The day Shapiro and I talked, there was an article in The New York Times about Ken Perenyi, who made a very lucrative living selling forgeries, as her character Claire does. As the FBI was closing in on him, Perenyi began to sell his forgeries as acknowledged copies to decorators and executives. It is alleged that his copy of a Martin Johnson Heade sold for $717,500 in 1994.

Also on the front page of the Times that day was an article about the massive 2012 Kunsthal Museum art heist in Rotterdam and how seven of the paintings stolen from the museum were likely burned to destroy evidence. Shapiro uses a similar and as unusual scheme in her book. 

Shapiro is working on a second fictional art thriller that involves the abstract expressionists during the Works Progress Administration. It is set in Greenwich Village in the 1930s. 

There is still a $5 million reward for the recovery of the Gardner paintings.