Lance Charnes's Reviews > The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World

The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore
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bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: true-crime buffs who like con men rather than serial killers

The day after humans invented money, someone came up with a con to take it away from the greedy and the gullible. The day after art came off cave walls and became portable, someone figured out how to fake it, steal it, or otherwise convert it into ready cash.

Which continues to this day. Anthony Amore, former security director of the ill-starred Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, became familiar with this subject while trying to figure out the fates of the thirteen artworks stolen from the museum on his predecessor's watch. His initial homework became Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists , which I liked well enough. Not one to let his time in the limelight lapse, he moved on from art theft to frauds and forgeries, the result being this true-crime book.

This is well-plowed ground, so the author wisely concentrates on recent major scams. While some of the familiar names get checked briefly (van Meegeren, Beltracchi, Myatt), each chapter profiles one chief fraudster such as Tatiana Khan, who made a ton of money selling fake art she claimed she got from the Malcolm Forbes estate, and Leon Amiel, who mass-produced supposedly original lithographs and serigraphs from famous Modern artists such as Marc Chagall.

Unless you're a specialist or an obsessive, you won't have heard of many of these people. That's the great strength of this book: you're not reading the same well-worn stories again. Also, because they're all recent (none older than the 1990s), you get an idea of how modern con people (some are female) turn art or "art" into an ATM. Internet-based frauds take up the last chapter -- some people use eBay to move forgeries, shock horror -- and some of the featured bad actors use methods not unlike those used to sell sub-prime mortgages, overpriced timeshares or penny stocks worth less than a penny. In some cases, the audacity is so over-the-top that you may come to appreciate the sheer balls behind the scam.

Amore isn't a writer. He's a reporter, and each chapter reads like an extended feature article in a newspaper. "Straightforward" and "unadorned" are the key adjectives here; this is the Jack Webb school of crime writing. Each chapter is a self-contained account of the roots of the crime, its trajectory, and the eventual unraveling, arrests, and convictions. This is a book that invites snacking. It's easy to read one chapter, set down the book for a day or a week, do something else, then come back to it later and not lose the throughline, because there isn't one.

Unfortunately, as with Stealing Rembrandts, "straightforward" and "unadorned" don't always translate to satisfying. There's no personality in this (either the author's or the crooks'), no sense of character, plot, pacing, tension or drama. Because the subjects of each chapter are just names on a page, you may lose track of which one kept a stable of illegal Chinese immigrant artists and which one made unauthorized copies of Jasper John castings. That's a shame; I'll bet some of these people would be really interesting characters in other hands.

Rating this book becomes of question of which is more important, content or delivery. On the one hand, I could probably pull the plots for the next three or four installments of my art-crime series from The Art of the Con, so it gets four stars for usefulness (to me, at least). On the other hand, the bloodlessness of the prose is a prime reason it took me almost three months to finish this off -- it wasn't a compelling-enough read to make me hurry back. I'll settle on three stars and hope Amore's next co-author injects some life into what should be fascinating material.
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Started Reading
February 3, 2015 – Finished Reading
September 26, 2015 – Shelved

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