In this mystery/thriller set in New York City, an art restoration consultant stumbles upon clues pointing to his grandfather’s possible association with World War II looting.
Once a Navy intelligence officer, 40ish Julian Peale finds a new job after recovering from shrapnel fire: he works at Medici Studios, a specialized laboratory for art restoration and research. As a restorer, Peale is still an apprentice, but his background in the Navy suits him for other tasks requiring more discretion, such as tracking down smugglers and forgeries. After a sting operation aimed at Russian smugglers goes awry, Peale follows clues to art fairs and auctions. But the trail becomes confusing, riddled with schemes from several fronts. John Saville runs an artists’ collective of young people happy to make some money through such shenanigans as forging works for the Russian market through their Russian landlord and art dealer, who is allied with London art world power couple Simon and Sonja Wilde. Their high-stakes plans rely on one of Saville’s mischief-makers, performance artist Dadaman, who takes his love for pranks a little too far, contributing to the knot Peale seeks to untangle. More important, Peale’s investigation uncovers information about his grandfather’s work as one of the Monuments Men in World War II, who were charged with restoring looted European art. In the process, Peale begins to find himself as a painter. The narrative offers reflections on anarchy, performance, appropriation, and creativity. Writer, editor, journalist, and artist Witham (Piero’s Light, 2014, etc.) provides a fast-paced mystery that’s bolstered by excellent characterizations, a deft back story, and insider knowledge of today’s art world: celebrities conceiving works while others make them; investors barely knowing what they’re buying; and the players hoping to make money or build reputations. Witham shows with admirable lucidity the Wild West nature of the art market, “home to the most unregulated flow of money on the planet after drugs and arms.” Readers also get a glimpse into Peale’s artistic process as he confronts the blank canvas and plays with colors, shapes, and ideas—an approach that provides an alluring contrast to the book’s joke’s-on-you prank artists. Underscored by Peale’s desire to redeem his grandfather’s memory, the narrative has some emotional urgency to go with its cleverness.
A thoughtful, well-written, and well-developed novel about the art world that’s an exuberant, satisfying read.