Monday, August 21, 2006


I read Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake and Wrong About Japan, and didn’t like either of them. I just couldn’t get hooked into the effusively praised My Life as a Fake, and Wrong About Japan, though it had a few clever insights, seemed too slight to be a book.

So I wasn’t planning to read any more Carey, but a review of Theft made me waver. I like books about fictional artists, and the subject of art crime and fraud has long interested me. The fine art trade is very lightly regulated, but places a high premium on authenticity. So many crimes are crimes of falsified authenticity—forgery being the best known, but deliberate misattribution, misdating, and so on are probably more common. Theft deals with forgery, misattribution, and misdating, and uses the authenticity endowing concept of droit morale as the mechanism.

Butcher Bones (actually Michael Boone) is an Australian painter who had his day in the sun in the early 70s, spent time in prison for trying to steal his own artwork from his recently divorced wife, and by 1981 is living with his retarded brother Hugh (“Slow Bones”) at the vacation house of a former patron. He is painting very high quality works when he meets Marlene Liebowitz, the daughter-in-law of a great cubist painter, Jacques Liebowitz. He husband has no interest in art, but does have droit morale—he can authenticate Liebowitz paintings. So her deal is to find questionable works (particularly ones that Liebowitz started, abandoned, and then were later finished by his scheming wife) and, usually working with a dealer of collector or some other partner, get Olivier, her husband, to officially authenticate them.

Butcher is somewhat appalled by this, but he sees all collectors and dealers as immoral scum anyway. He and Marlene start an affair, and Marlene uses him in her complex scheme to get a Liebowitz out of the country to Japan, then to New York. Part of her plan is to establish provenance—a key aspect of authentication. If you can track where the painting has been since the painter created it, then you have the real thing.

Her plan is so complex and worth so much money, that part of it is for a Japanese collector to buy Butcher’s entire new show for $200,000. In other words, the potential profit of the scam is so great that $200,000 is a small capital expense.

In New York, Butcher hatches his own plan to forge a Liebowitz—partly for the challenge of doing so. But Olivier is no longer cooperating with his faithless wife, and she murders him (or so it is implied). Suddenly the game of art crime, which Butcher played along with because it seemed a way to revenge himself on the art world, was too much.

One out of three is a start. What can I say—this was a thoroughly entertaining book. The characters were deeply unpleasant and yet fascinating. Carey has some fun with the idea of people who have the eye for great art and those who don’t—Butcher, Hugh, and Marlene all do. (When Butcher intentionally paints a bad painting, Hugh can’t understand why.) The point being made is that “the eye” has nothing to do with intelligence or morality. Perhaps the bigger point is that art itself has nothing to do with these qualities. I embraced this sort of belief when I was younger because I thought it was cool. I still believe this, but I don’t comfortably embrace the idea of the artist who is beyond morality. On the contrary, I wince with guilt when I learn that an artist whose work I love turns out to have been a rotten sort of fellow.



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