Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Review, 11/19/2010

Laney Salisbury, Aly Suju - Provenance

The best book on art forgery I've read in a while. Ok, that's not fair - it's not like I read a lot of books on art forgery. This was a good book. The background - in the late '80s and early '90s, a con man in London, with the help of a gifted artist, sold a large (possibly in the hundreds) number of fake pictures. The artists whose work was faked tended to be modern - cubists, expressionists, and abstracticists (is that a word?). These pieces of art were veted by serious art experts at major galleries and auction houses - people who should have been able to catch them as frauds - but the con man (John Drewe) went beyond acquiring fake pictures. Drewe's con was brilliant, because he also faked the provenance of the paintings - the paper trail which showed who owned the painting, when it was sold, and where it was displayed. Drewe inserted fake pedigrees for his fake paintings into the archives of prominent museums in England, like the Tate Gallery. Many experts, although sceptical about the painting in particular (elements were off, the artist usually used such and such a brush stroke, which was missing from the fake, etc), were convinced of the authenticity of the works because the paper looked good. A very small group of experts overrode the strength of the paper, and showed that the paintings were too new - the paper was wrong, the paint was wrong, the colours were wrong, etc.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting was the underlying sense that the forger - John Myatt - and Drewe saw that they were addressing weaknesses in the way that we percieve modern art. Myatt, after serving his term in jail, has gone on to be a popular and successful artist by paitining "genuine fakes" - carefully registered paintings in the style of the masters. Someone comes to him and asks for a portrait in the style of Picasso, for instances, and Myatt paints it. He tags it as a Genuine Fake, and everyone is happy. In the afterword, Myatt suggests that this allows people to judge the painting on its own merits - they don't feel compelled to like it because it was painted by Picasso, they can like it because of how it was painted, or how it makes them feel. The sense here - and the authors do nothing to diminish it - is one of deliberate anti-elitism. Art experts are snobs, and Drewe and Myatt took the air out of them.

The format of the book was part history, part police procedural, part caper novel. Salisbury and Sujo use moderately extensive footnotes (for a piece of popular writing, anyway), and have conducted considerable research into not just the specific case of Drewe and Myatt, but into counterfeiting in general, and there are numerous digressions into broader discussions of art, art forgery, and the psychology of con men. I found those fascinating. Salisbury and Sujo have made it easy to feel sympathy for Myatt, and for the ordinary people that Drewe's con took in, while maintaining a sense that, on some level, the art experts had it coming. Drewe comes off as a bit of a jerk, although there is some sympathy there too - of all the people he conned, perhaps he conned himself first.

In the end, an enjoyable read which uses a specific case to delve a little way into a fascinating subject. 

John Sandford - Storm Prey

So, another Sandford. He twists the police procedural a bit here - under normal circumstances, in a procedural, the reader is as much in the dark as the protagonist. Sandford, in this book, lets his readers see the criminals - this makes it harder to twist the plot; to suddenly reveal that the criminal is someone that you never expected. In that regard, Sandford is setting himself up in a situation where it is difficult for him to cheat.

Sandford novels, while well written, tend not to have a great deal of depth. I've said this before, and this book is no different. Lucas Davenport is still God's gift to police investigators, there's a crime, his family is threatened, he and the rest of the cops track down the bad guys, and the real villains end up dead. I was a little bothered by the inclusion of a pair of Middle Eastern characters, one of whom is really bad and one who is not. There's a fair bit of stereotype there. Sandford plays with it - these men are not Arabs, and they are not terrorists - but they both end up dead, and neither are really all that well developed as characters. Mind you, none of the characters are that well developed - and on some level, you shouldn't pick up a John Sandford novel expecting a group of highly developed characters. It was quick, it was a fun romp, and that's what I was looking for. Hard to complain when you get what you were looking for.

Mark Keating - The Pirate Devlin

This is Mr. Keating's first novel, and it's a good start. It's an historical novel, and Keating includes a nice author's note - something that I look for in an historical novel. Keating is writing about the "golden age" of piracy, in the late 18th century, just before the American Revolution. His pirates are true to the historical record - Keating has clearly done his research. The author's note clearly deliniates - and justifies -  the places where Keating has deviated from the historical record. Additionally, the book is packed with swashbuckling action and naval battles - all good stuff. Keating is clearly a writer to watch for, as he continues this series.

Some things I didn't like all that much. Devlin - the titular character - is fairly brutal in his outlook on the world - quick to violence as a solution to problems. Keating gives us a few snippets of Devlin's backstory which would seem to provide motivation for this violent outlook, but I'd like a little bit more depth. Second, Keating makes use of a lot of sentence fragments.  I suspect this is to project a sense of breathless action, and it works fairly well in the context of actual action scenes.  It's a little distracting in a passage of general description, and I found it tripping me up a little. I should stress, I'm not a huge grammar maven or anything of that nature, but, in this instance, it was quite noticable and it bugged me.