Excerpt from The Art Forger
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GARDNER HEIST 21TH ANNIVERSARY
Largest Art Theft in History Remains Unsolved
Boston, MA—In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers bound and gagged two guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole thirteen pieces of art worth today over $500 million. The cache included priceless masterpieces such as Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee", Vermeer's "The Concert" and Degas' "After the Bath". Despite thousands of hours of police work, a lapsed statute of limitations and a $5 million reward, none of the artworks have been found.
Over the last two decades, the FBI investigated local ex-cons, known art thieves, organized crime, international terrorists and the Catholic Church. They followed leads across the United States, Europe and Asia, but were stymied in all attempts. Suspects included the son of a cop, the Irish Republican Army, Whitey Bulger and the Boston mob, an antiques dealer, a Scotland Yard informant and a New York City auction house employee. But not a single arrest.
The Gardner Museum will mark this anniversary with little fanfare beyond a plea for anyone who has any information on the whereabouts of the lost artworks to contact the Boston office of the FBI.
—The Boston Globe
I step back and scrutinize the paintings. There are eleven, although I have hundreds, maybe thousands. My plan is to show him only pieces from my window series. Or not. I pull my cell from my pocket, check the time. I can still change my mind. I remove Tower, a highly realistic painting of reflections off the glass Hancock building, and replace it with Sidewalk, an abstraction of Commonwealth Avenue through a parlor-level bay window. Then I switch them back.
I've been working on the window series for over two years, rummaging around the city with my sketchbook and Nikon. Church windows, reflective windows, Boston's characteristic bays. Large, small, old, broken, wood- and metal-framed. Windows from the outside in and the inside out. I especially like windows on late winter afternoons before anyone inside notices the darkening sky and snaps the blinds shut.
I hang Sidewalk next to Tower. Now there are a dozen, a nice round number. But is it right? Too many and he'll be overwhelmed. Too few and he'll miss my breadth, both in content and style. It's so difficult to choose. One of the many reasons studio visits make me so nervous.
And what's up with this visit anyway? I'm a pariah in the art world, dubbed "The Great Pretender". Have been for almost three years. And suddenly Aiden Markel, the owner of the world-renowned Markel G, is on his way to my loft. Aiden Markel, who just a few months ago barely acknowledged my presence when I stopped by the gallery to see a new installation. And now he's suddenly all friendly, complimentary, asking to see my latest work, leaving his tony Newbury Street gallery to slum it in SOWA in order to appreciate my paintings, as he said, "in situ."
I glance across the room at the two paintings sitting on easels. Woman Leaving Her Bath, a nude attended to by a clothed maid as she climbs out of a tub, 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 Pissarro's The Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom, Spring, Pontoise ala 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.
I turn back to my windows, pace, narrow my eyes, pace some more. They'll just have to do. I throw a worn Mexican blanket over the rumpled mattress in the corner, then gather the dirty dishes scattered around the studio and dump them in the sink. I consider washing them, decide not to. If Aiden Markel wants in situ, I'll give him in situ. But I do fill a bowl with cashews and pull out a bottle of white wine—never red at a studio visit—and a couple of glasses.
I wander to the front of the studio and look out the row of windows onto Harrison Ave. The same view as Loft. I spend a lot of time in this spot, pretending to work through my latest project, but mostly daydreaming, spying, procrastinating. It's four stories up, and each of the six windows in front of me stretches from two feet above the floor to two feet below the fifteen-foot ceiling.
This building was once a factory—handkerchiefs, some old-timer told me. But the old-timers aren't known for their veracity, so it could have been hats or suspenders or maybe not even a factory at all. Now it's a warren of artists' studios, some, as in my case, live-in studios. Illegal, of course, but cheap.
According to media hype, SOWA—South of Washington—is the new trendy district in the south end of Boston's South End; the north was the new trendy area about ten years ago. But to me, and to anyone who spends any time here, it's barely on the cusp. Warehouses, projects, a famous homeless shelter and abandoned basketball courts form the base of a neighborhood erratically pock-marked with expensive restaurants, art galleries and pristine residential buildings protected by security. The roar of I-93 is so constant it sounds like silence. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Below, Aiden Markel turns the corner from East Berkeley with his lanky, graceful stride. Even from half a block away, I can see he's wearing perfectly tailored pants—most likely linen—and what's probably a five-hundred-dollar shirt. It's eighty-five degrees on a late summer afternoon, and the guy looks as if he stepped out of his Back Bay condo on a cool September morning. He pulls out his cell, glances at my building and touches the screen. My phone rings.
There's no elevator and no air-conditioning in the hallways and stairwells. As we hit the fourth floor, Markel's breathing is steady and his clothes are bandbox. Clearly, the man spends time in the gym. Not to mention that he hasn't stopped talking since I let him in the door. No one would guess we've barely spoken to each other in three years.
"I was around the corner from here just the other day," Markel says, continuing his running monologue of small talk. "Dedham and Harrison. Looked at Pat Hirsi's newest project. You know him, right?"
I shake my head no.
"He's working with cobblestones. Very ingenious."
I pull open the wide steel door with two hands.
Markel steps over the threshold, takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. "Nothing like the smell of an artist at work." He keeps his eyes closed, which isn't exactly what I want him to do; he's supposed to be here to look at my paintings, fall in love with them and set me up with a one-woman show at Markel G. Right. Like that's going to happen. Although, what is going to happen or why he's here is beyond me.
"How about a glass of wine?" I ask.
He finally opens his eyes and gives me a slow, warm smile. "Will you be joining me?"
I can't help but smile back. He's not classically handsome, his features are too large for that, but there's something in the way he carries himself, the wide deep-set eyes, the dimple in his chin, that tugs at me. Charisma, I guess. That and our shared history.
"Sure." I grab a pile of canvases I somehow forgot were on my beaten-up couch and lean them against an even more beaten-up coffee table. Sometimes I think I'm a living parody of myself: the starving artist, sleeping on a mattress in her studio to save on rent. Yet, there it is.
Markel doesn't move. He stares at me for long moment, then shifts his gaze over my shoulder, a wistful look on his face. I know he's thinking about Isaac. I probably should just say something, but I don't know what to say. That I'm sorry? That I'm still upset? That I lost a friend, too?
I pour wine into two juice glasses as he settles into the couch. Not an easy feat as it's lumpy and too deep for comfort. I should get a new one, or at least a new second-hand one, but the landlord just raised my rent, and I'm pretty much broke.
I sit in the rocking chair across from him and lean forward. "I heard your Jocelyn Gamp show went fabulously well."
He takes a sip of his wine. "It was her molten pieces. She sold everything she had. Plus three commissions. Amazing lady. Amazing artist. The Met's requested a studio visit."
I like how he doesn't take any of the credit. "She sold" rather than "I sold" or even "we sold". Extremely rare among the run-amok egos of most dealers and gallery owners.
"Not often a Boston show gets covered in the New York Times," I suck up.
"Yes, it was quite the coup," he admits. "I'm glad to see that you're still following the goings-on in the art world even though we haven't exactly been following yours."
I look up sharply. What the hell does that mean? But I see that his eyes hold compassion, maybe even a little guilt.
"Isaac's Orange Nude sold last week," he says.
Ah. As everyone knows, I was the model for Orange Nude. Even though it's an abstraction, there's no denying my long, unmanageable red hair or the paleness of my skin and brown eyes. If I hadn't thrown it out the door when we broke up, I'd probably be living in a condo in Back Bay instead of renting in an industrial building in SOWA. But then again, I'm not the Back Bay type. "Don't tell me how much you got for it."
"I'll spare you the pain. But the sale started me thinking about you, about the raw deal you got."
I struggle to keep the surprise off my face. In the last three years, no one outside of a few art buddies and my mother—who never really understood what it all meant—has looked at the situation from my point of view.
"So I decided to come down and see what you've been up to," he continues. "Maybe I can help."
My heart leaps at the offer, and I jump up. "I pulled out a few from my latest series." I wave at the paintings. "Obviously, windows."
Markel walks toward the pieces. "Windows," he repeats as he takes in the whole dozen from a distance, then approaches each individually.
"It's urban windows, Boston windows. Hopper-esque thematically, but more multi-dimensional. Not just the public face of loneliness, but who we are in many dimensions. Unseen from the inside. Or unknowingly seen. On display from outside, posturing or forgetting. Separations. Reflections, refractions."
"Light," he murmurs. "Wonderful light."
"That, too. Without light nothing can be seen. And with it, still so much is unobserved." Studio visits make me talk like a pompous art critic.
"Your light is amazing. The subtle values. Almost Vermeer-like." He points to Loft. "I'm struck by the difference in value in the light from the far left window through to the right ones." He steps closer. "Each slightly different, and yet each such a luminous part of the whole."
I'm also pleased with that particular play, but Vermeer, the master of light...
"How many glazings are you doing?"
I'm reluctant to admit the truth. Not only are very few artists using classical oil techniques these days, but those who are aren't nearly as compulsive as I am about layering. I shrug. "Eight? Nine?" Which is actually low.
"It's reminiscent of the light falling on the black-and-white tile floor in The Concert." He walks closer to Loft. "The light bouncing off the building here. It's almost as if it's caressing the diamonds of the chain-link."
He steps back, examines the paintings closely, just as I had earlier. "I love how you're playing with classical style and contemporary subjects, with abstraction. But it's the realistic pieces that grab me." He waves dismissively at Sidewalk. "The abstracts aren't nearly as strong."
"Not too OTC?" I ask. OTC is "over the couch" in artist-speak, a derogatory term for paintings purchased by buyers who want their artwork to match their decor.
Markel laughs. "Not even close. I've been trying to tell people for years that realism isn't dead. That nothing can touch a great talent in classical oil."
A rush of warmth fills my body and races up to my face. It's been a long time since anyone said anything like that about me.
"I have lots more," I say, heading over to the three-tiered shelving I built to house my art books and canvases, although now it's all canvases and my books are in semi-organized piles on the floor. The shelves are a mess, of course. But a mess I know intimately.
I begin pulling paintings before he says he wants to see them. I grab the step ladder. I need it to reach the highest shelf, which is where I store most of my more realistic paintings. The ones I figured no one would be interested in.
"These some of your reproductions?" Markel calls from the other side of the room.
I look over my shoulder. "Yeah. I don't usually have any completed ones here. But the truck's tied up all week, so the Degas isn't getting picked up 'til Friday."
"Reproductions.com. Got to love the name. Saw the article in the Globe last month. Nice exposure for you." He hesitates. "I guess?"
"Not exactly the kind I'm looking for." Just what I need: publicity for pretending to paint someone else's masterpiece. "I tried to get out of the interview, but Repro wouldn't stand for it."
"Are they doing as well as their hype?"
"Probably better," I say, although I'm not really listening and not at all interested in Repro. I'm too focused on pulling my best paintings, but not too many. Light. Interesting value is what he wants, deep and translucent. I grab one. Not strong enough. Then another.
"Now this is OTC," he says, pointing to the Pissarro, which although incomplete is obviously filled with trees covered in masses of white blossoms.
I laugh. "For the pretentious."
"But poor," he adds.
I lumber down with three canvases under my arm. "Not all that poor. Those things go for thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands for the bigger ones. Unfortunately, I only get a fraction of that."
I quickly remove my more abstract paintings from the wall. Replace them with the ones I've chosen. I turn to him, but he's staring at the fake Degas.
"You're damn good at this."
"It beats waitressing."
His eyes don't leave my rendering. "I'll say."
"Degas' later work isn't all that hard to copy. Not like his early oils. They're a real bitch," I say, trying to be polite when every part of me wants to grab Markel and pull him to the other side of the studio. "What with all those layers. Painting and waiting. Painting and waiting. Could take months, maybe years."
"And Reproductions.com has you do that?"
"No. Never. A piece like that would have to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars." I come to stand by him. "Degas is my specialty, his oils in particular. I'm actually certified—whatever that means—by Repro, after I took the requisite classes." I wave to the piles of books in the corner. "I'm working on a book proposal about him. His relationship with other artists, dealers, collectors of his day. Cross-germination. That kind of stuff. But I'm not working on it as hard as I should be."
Markel's eyes remain glued to the Degas reproduction. "This seems like a better use of your time. Do they appreciate you?"
"Sometimes I get a bonus when people order a Degas with the stipulation that I'm the artist," I shrug. "Although you can hardly call a person who copies a masterpiece an artist."
He doesn't contradict me, and I gesture him back to my real work. He steals a last glance at Woman Leaving Her Bath before he follows.
We stand in silence, staring at my windows. I force myself to remain silent, to allow the work to speak for itself.
After two minutes that feel like twenty, Markel touches my arm. "Let's sit down."
We walk over to the couch and sit on opposite ends. He finishes off his wine and pours himself another. I decline his offer of a refill, wanting the wine, but fearing I'm too jittery to hold onto it.
Markel clears his throat, takes another sip. "Claire, I've just been given the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to do good, real good for lots of people. And I hope you'll feel the same way about the one I'm about to give you." He pauses. "Although I suppose yours is really more like making a deal with the devil."
I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about, but I catch the word "opportunity". "And you're the devil?"
He shakes his head vigorously. "The devil's the one who gave me this opportunity. Although I've no idea who he is. He's levels away from me."
Although I meant it as a joke, he ponders the question, a professor attempting to answer a precocious student. "No. I guess that's wrong. Pawns are the better analogy. But clever pawns. Who can capture the queen. Either way, I'm mixing my metaphors."
"I've got no problem with the devil. I'm one of those people who thinks heaven would be boring. But being a pawn has never suited me."
This time he does laugh, but I can tell it's forced. "Then we'll stick with the devil."
Enough of this. "Okay," I say. "What are we talking about here?"
He locks his eyes on mine. "Something not quite on the up-and-up."
I don't break the stare. "I thought you said it was an opportunity to do good?"
"The end is good. It's just the means that are a bit iffy."
"There's illegal and there's illegal."
"And which one is this?"
Markel looks across the room at the Degas and Pissarro.
And now it all makes sense. "Oh," is all I can say.
He takes a sip of wine, relaxes into the lumpy couch. The most uncomfortable part of this conversation is clearly over for him.
I cross my arms over my chest. "I can't believe that after everything that's happened, you, of all people, would even consider asking me to forge a painting."
"How much does Reproductions.com pay you?"
"They pay me to copy, not to forge."
"So you said a fraction. A few thousand a picture? A little more?"
Often it's less, but I nod.
"I'll pay you fifty-thousand dollars. Plus expenses, of course. A third up front, a third on completion to my satisfaction, and the final third on authentication."
"Is this because of what happened with Isaac?"
"It's despite what happened with Isaac."
I'm stupefied by this answer, and it must have showed on my face, because he says, "You're the best for the project."
"Out of all the thousands of artists you know?"
Again, he looks across the room at the Degas reproduction. "You're the only one I'd trust with it."
"How do you know I won't talk? "It's not your style," he says, which is true. People who have been on the wrong side of rumor know when to keep their mouths shut.
"What about turning you in? I could always go to the police."
"Not when you understand what's at stake," he adds.
"So tell me."
"I meant what I said about your paintings, Claire. You have a unique talent. You always did. Just because you've been blackballed doesn't mean you can't paint." He pauses. "I'd also like to give you a one-woman show at the gallery."
I barely conceal a gasp.
"In six, nine months," he says. "After you've finished this project. Do you think you could have twenty paintings ready by then? Of the realistic highly glazed?"
I turn away to hide my longing. My own show at Markel G. An impossible dream.
"I'm pretty sure I can get the same Times reporter who covered Jocelyn Gamp to cover you," he says.
The New York Times. Sales. Commissions. Studio visits from the Met. My heart actually hurts.
"Claire, please look at me." When I do, he says, "I'll protect you. Like I said, I'm levels away from anyone with any knowledge, and you'll be a level away from me."
"What's the part where we get to do something good?"
"I'll tell you all the details when you're on board."
"There's no way I can agree to something this mysterious."
Markel stands. "Just give it some thought." He touches my shoulder. "I'll check in with you next week."
"You really are the devil, aren't you?"
"If you believe in the devil."
Which, of course, I don't.