It was just a bit after midnight on March 18, 1990, and the city of Boston hadn't even begun to recover from a raucous St. Patrick's Day celebration, when two men, dressed as police officers, bound and gagged two guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They spent 81 minutes ripping paintings from their frames, then threw them into their rusty Datsun hatchback and drove away with 13 pieces of art today worth over $500 million. The heist remains the largest art theft in history.
The cache included priceless masterpieces such as Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Manet's Chez Tortoni and Vermeer's The Concert. Despite thousands of hours of police work, a lapsed statute of limitations, and a $5 million reward, none of the art has ever been recovered.
As a longtime Boston resident, the heist always fascinated me, and I wondered how I might write a novel about it. So I began spinning "what ifs." What if one of those priceless paintings wasn't priceless at all? What if Rembrandt didn't paint Storm of Galilee? What if some unknown artist did instead? Would the painting be any less beautiful? Would it no longer be admired? Would it suddenly be worthless? What is it that gives an object or a person value anyway? These are the questions that form the premise of The Art Forger.
The New York Times estimates that 40 percent of all artwork put up for sale in any given year are forgeries. Theodore Rousseau, an art expert from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, once said, "We can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on museum walls."
It didn't seem possible. But a quick Google search, which I did immediately after reading Rousseau's statement — and is exactly what Claire Roth, the protagonist of The Art Forger, does in a similar situation — provided me with more forgery examples than I could ever have imagined.
There was a story about a dealer named Gianfranco Becchina who, in 1985, convinced the J. Paul Getty Museum to pay him almost $10 million for a forged Greek statue he claimed was from the sixth century BC. Before they did, the Getty hired antiquities experts, geologists, lawyers, and authenticators who used every high-tech technique — from electron microprobe to mass spectrometry — to verify Becchina's claim. Every expert was fooled, and the museum purchased the fake.
Then there was John Myatt, who pulled off what is considered the greatest art con of the 20th century by painting and selling over 200 "undiscovered" works by well-known dead artists, all his own original creations. But the con isn't the best part. It turns out that after a short stint in jail, Myatt established a successful business selling his forgeries as forgeries at between $1,000 and $10,000 a pop.
I was hooked and spent the next few weeks reading everything I could get my hands on about forgery. It seemed the perfect metaphor for my questions, but thematic questions only drive the heart of the novel; it's the plot twists and characterizations that make it a story worth telling. And something told me the key to this lay within the life of an art forger. I just needed to find him or her.
The day I discovered Han van Meegeren was the day I knew I had the makings of a novel. Van Meegeren was a frustrated Dutch painter who spent years formulating the chemical and technical processes needed to construct the perfect forgery. His intention was to hoodwink the art dealers and critics who refused to recognize his own artistic genius. He became a great, if unacknowledged, success.
An unappreciated artist, struggling for recognition, using his ingenuity and talent while sacrificing his ethics to exact revenge along with money and fame. What more could a novelist ask for?
Van Meegeren used toaster parts to build an oven to bake his canvases. He came up with chemical concoctions that dried the paint between layers so carbon dating couldn't detect its freshness. He devised a method of scraping an old painting down to its lowermost layer, using the old sizing, canvas, and stretchers as a base to make the forgery appear to be hundreds of years old. Though Claire is not exactly based on van Meegeren, she uses his techniques and shares many of his same personal problems.
As The Art Forger opens, Claire is a pariah in the art world because of a scandal — perhaps of her own making, but then again, perhaps not — involving the provenance of a celebrated modern painting. She spends her days working for a legitimate company called Reproductions.com, for whom she produces copies of the great masters to be sold online. She spends her nights painting her own works, but no gallery or museum will consider them. Nothing she creates is deemed to be of any value. Then in walks the most prominent gallery owner in Boston, offering her everything she has ever desired — money, fame, and revenge — for a small price...
There's an old saw that goes: A strange man approaches a woman and asks, "If I give you five dollars, will you have sex with me?" The woman is horrified. "How dare you ask me such a thing?" she cries. "I absolutely will not." The man then asks, "How about for a million dollars?" and the woman hesitates.
We all have our price. There's a point at which sacrifices will be made and ethics thrown to the wind if the prize is great enough. It might be money. It might be fame. It might be revenge. Or perhaps it's something nobler: to give up your own life to save a child or some other greater good.
To me, though, magnanimous choices don't make for an intriguing story. I prefer to explore the darker side of human nature. It's a character's unprincipled decisions that make us wonder what we might do under similar circumstances, what we might be willing to compromise to get what we want most. And the answers aren't usually pretty.
So I went back to my original question about authenticity, about how someone or something acquires value, and flipped it on its head. What if the tables were turned and Claire was taken into the fold, her paintings acclaimed? What if the critics were in awe, the collectors clamoring for these very same canvases that had hung, unsellable, in her studio? What if suddenly her work was being snapped up for six figures and Claire was heralded as a major talent? Are the paintings any better than they were before? Is Claire a more gifted artist because art critics, the powers-that-be, have deemed her work to be fine art?
I used to teach a sociology course at Tufts University called "Deviant Behavior," and there was one important idea I wanted my students to take away from the class: what is considered deviant is defined by a society for a particular situation at a particular moment in time. An executioner at a federal prison isn't a murderer. Slavery was once legal in the United States.
So who's to say what's right or wrong, what's valuable and what isn't? It's a fluid judgment, compounded by the fact that the human animal is a messy species. There are rarely purely good guys and purely bad guys. More often, there are just good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things — and most of the time it's difficult to tell which is which. Claire is no different from any of us.
The Art Forger may or may not answer my original questions, but it sure raises them.