Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: "The Art Detective"

British art dealer Philip Mould's The Art Detective (Viking, 2010), published in the UK as Sleuth, offers a peek into the high-end art authentication game. In six chapters, each focusing around a particular painting or group of paintings, Mould energetically recounts the facts of the case at hand - of which several in the book feature the author himself as a major character.

With Mould we travel to Arlington, Vermont, where we encounter Earle Newton and his former church building filled to bursting with remarkable English and American portraits (the collection is now at the Savannah College of Art and Design). We share his tension as the hour of a West Coast auction with a potential early Gainsborough masterpiece draws near, and enjoy the ride as he seeks to unravel a Norman Rockwell mystery involving a forged painting and hidden walls. We delve deep into art restoration as Mould profiles master technician Martin Bijl, charged with removing centuries' worth of changes to a Rembrandt self-portrait. And we feel the thrill of discovery rapidly shift to the agony of disappointment when a family's fortunate (and potentially very lucrative) find is claimed just prior to its sale at Sotheby's by descendants of former owners.

Mould's got a good sense of narrative pacing, and does an excellent job in each chapter of providing necessary background, setting the stage, and baiting the hook, setting the mystery up for the reader quite nicely (and saving the juiciest little nugget for just the right moment).

I liked the "thrill of the hunt" aspect of this book quite a bit - while my own quarry is books and not (in fact is most decidedly not) the types of paintings which which Mould is concerned, the "rush" is the same, and the mysteries can captivate in similar ways.

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