The Circuitous Road to Crime (Fiction)
By Jonathan SantloferAugust 17, 2021
I wasn’t always an art forger. I went to art school (an old-style academy), studied painting, drawing, color, even perspective and anatomy, and learned how to draw and paint just about anything. After school, I pursued an art career and was surprised by my success, even started to take it for granted—never a good idea. That proved to be the case when I had a ten-year retrospective show, which included paintings borrowed from museums and private collectors, plus the latest six paintings (still wet) from my studio. The exhibition opened on a Friday and burned down on Saturday. Ten years of artwork up in smoke. Literally.
I won’t bore you with my ensuing depression or my rise from the ashes (a terrible pun). Enough to say, I ran away to Rome (a really good place to be depressed) where I tried reimagining my artwork and started writing what became my first novel, The Death Artist, about a serial killer loose in the Manhattan art world. I wrote it as a kind of satire (easy, as the art world is already a parody), but most people took it seriously. People called it one of the scariest books of the year, a surprise, but a good one, as the book was a hit.
After that, I wrote more novels, my favorite among them, Anatomy of Fear, which won the Nero award for best crime novel of 2009. In it, I created a forensic artist, Nate Rodriguez, whose life changes dramatically when he assists on a case where the killer pins sketches of his victims to their dead bodies. I got to replicate both the killer’s sketches and Nate’s forensic ones. You could say, it was the beginning of my life as a forger. I also got to know several police sketch artists, the kind who used computer programs and the kind who drew with charcoal or pencil. I could only relate to the latter, which is what Nate does in the book. I did a swap with one of the cops: drawing lessons in exchange for his insight into what it takes to be a forensic artist. We became friends and he later tested my skills (a complete surprise) in front of a live audience of about forty cops at the NYC Police Museum, where I was obliged to make a sketch from a policeman’s description, and I did pretty well.
I went deeper into the forensic art world and read books by face-reading expert Paul Ekman, Ph.D. (Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions), and later corresponded with him (he wrote to me after reading Anatomy of Fear, in which I mention him as Nate’s mentor). After reading Ekman I was constantly studying friends’ faces to see if they leaked what Ekman calls “micro expressions,” which might suggest they were lying, a “gift” that did not make me popular.
I always do a lot of research, even if I use very little in a book. I need to know my subject. So it made sense that my real-life research and expertise would lead me into writing, The Last Mona Lisa. For years I have been making replications of known paintings for wealthy art collectors. I know the copyright rules and stick to them. I’m an art forger, but a legal one. I’ve made copies of work by Picasso and Gauguin, Matisse and Mondrian, some Dutch masters, and have a specialty for duplicating abstract expressionists like Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline down to the smallest stroke, splash, or drip. Recently, I made a replica of a 1905 American Impressionist, a fifteen-foot-long mural that was painstaking and difficult, though, in the end, beautiful and gratifying.
When I read about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, I did a little more digging and discovered that during its two-year absence, it was believed that copies were made and sold as the original. I also discovered the presumed art forger’s name, Yves Chaudron, along with the (supposed) South American art dealer, the Marquis de Valfiero, who sold them. By then, I was researching and reading everything about the theft, the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, the forger, all the various theories about the crime, and the next thing I knew, I was writing a novel, mixing the true crime in the past with a fictional story in the present. I added a long-lost diary written by the thief, and invented a great-grandson, Luke Perrone, obsessed with the crime and his infamous relative. Luke, a struggling artist who teaches art history, sacrifices much more than he bargained for in pursuit of the diary, his quest to learn the truth about his great-grandfather, and if the Mona Lisa in the Louvre today is Leonardo’s masterpiece or a forgery.
My research took me to Italy and France, to private art viewings and some risky interviews, to Le Murate prison in Florence, where the thief, Peruggia, was interned, now half monument, half art space, where I walked through the narrow stone corridors and sat alone in a six-by-nine-foot cell, all of which brought the story more alive to me than I’d ever imagined, and hopefully for my readers as well.
I tend to get as obsessed as my characters (or perhaps I am obsessed so I create obsessive characters) and started making sketches and watercolor versions of the Mona Lisa, and replicated a Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait, all to feel closer to the artist, the painting, and the crime.
Nowadays, it appears the public is as obsessed with art crime as I am. A quick scroll through current streaming services will produce Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, an amazing story of art forgery at one of New York’s oldest and most revered art galleries (now closed, forever), This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, a four-part documentary about the still infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art theft, and The Painter and Thief, a documentary that traces the bizarre relationship between an artist and the man who stole her paintings, and many others.
As for me, I continue to write novels (another mix of fact and fiction about art forgery and espionage is already in progress), paint my legal forgeries for people who could afford the originals if they were available, and wonder if The Last Mona Lisa will make people feel differently when they next see Leonardo da Vinci’s small masterpiece of a young woman with an enigmatic smile.
*Author Photo Credit Clarke Tolton.
About The Last Mona Lisa by Jonathan Santlofer:
August, 1911: The Mona Lisa is stolen by Vincent Peruggia. Exactly what happens in the two years before its recovery is a mystery. Many replicas of the Mona Lisa exist, and more than one historian has wondered if the painting now returned to the Louvre is a fake, switched in 1911.
Present day: Art professor Luke Perrone digs for the truth behind his most famous ancestor: Peruggia. His search attracts an Interpol detective with something to prove and an unfamiliar but curiously helpful woman. Soon, Luke tumbles deep into the world of art and forgery, a land of obsession and danger.