Ever since I read Kay’s fascinating post about Tim’s Vermeer, I’ve been thinking about art and artists, and what a rich source of inspiration they are for story-tellers.
Works of art are fabulous story fuel. It’s one of the few subjects where you could stretch your writer’s imagination to breaking point without ever threatening suspension of disbelief. Artworks can be distinctive and visual, enriching the plot as well as helping to move it along. They’re subject to the whims of fashion, passion, politics and expert opinion. They could be worth a fortune today and a pocketful of loose change tomorrow, or vice versa. They’re highly portable (for which read steal-able), and can disappear for years and reappear just as mysteriously. They’re susceptible to forgery, offering a wealth of opportunity for foul play and double-dealing.
Here are three very recent true stories. You’d struggle to make up something half this good.
According to media reports at the end of last year, a collection of 1,500 artworks confiscated by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s, including pieces by Matisse, Picasso and Chagall, was discovered in Munich. The estimated value of the haul was supposedly around one billion euros (more than $1.3 billion). The story goes that the art was found by chance in 2011, when the tax authorities investigated the elderly, reclusive son of a Munich art dealer and obtained a search warrant for his apartment. The paintings had been kept in a darkened room and the man sold one occasionally when he ran short of funds. A second haul of a further 238 artworks including pieces by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Corot, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec was found in February this year at the man’s dilapidated Salzburg home.
Italian Fine Art police this week displayed two paintings – a Gauguin and a Bonnard – that were stolen in the 1970s from the London home of the widower of the daughter of one of the founders of the Marks & Spencer department store. They were left on a train in Italy and sold at an unclaimed lost property auction by Italian railways. A Fiat factory worker liked the look of them, bought them for 45,000 lira (a little over £30), and hung them in his kitchen, where they remained for more than 40 years until the man’s son saw a Gauguin in an art book and noticed the similarity to the painting in his father’s kitchen. Estimated value of the two paintings: something in excess of 30 milion euros.
A British art lover, Martin Lang, bought a painting attributed to Chagall for £100k in 1992 on the advice of a Russian art dealer who worked for one of the major auction houses. The painting appeared in a book by a Soviet art expert who was also a friend of Chagall. Last year Mr Lang volunteered his painting for scrutiny by the art experts of the BBC programme Fake or Fortune? After investigation, the BBC team suggested that the paint pigments were too modern for the painting to be genuine, so the work was submitted to the Chagall committe in Paris for authentication. The committee is headed by Chagall’s two grand-daughters and is committed to defending his legacy, and apparently under French law they are entitled to destroy the painting. Mr Lang asked for it to be officially marked a fake and returned to him, but the Chagall committee refused, and according to reports this week it seems that the painting is likely to be burned in front of a magistrate.
My favorite piece of art-related romantic fiction is Jenny Crusie’s Faking It. I like the fakes in Jenny’s story even more having read the news reports above, and I note that they would have passed the test that tripped up Mr Lang’s ‘Chagall’.
For romantic suspense, there’s Elizabeth Lowell’s Die In Plain Sight, in which a young painter submits for authentication a painting from a collection she inherited from her grandfather, and finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery.
My husband, the mystery lover, recommends Lawrence Block’s clever and fun The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.
And of course artists make fascinating characters – I’m sure there must be many more than the obvious Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Ear-Ring.
Do you have a favorite art-y story or movie?