Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Scientist and the Forger by Jehane Ragai (Book Review)

The Scientist and the Forger - 6/10

If you've been reading this blog for a long time (and I hope you have!) you may remember that one of the things I enjoy reading about the most is art forgery. I love art in general (late 19th century realism and post-impressionism), and I love forgery (Catch Me If You Can is one of my favorite movies, and I have a great personal forgery story from middle school for some other time too). So putting those two things together means art forgery is one of my favorite topics. I love the technical skill, I love the intrigue, I love the ultimate detective work that uncovers the truth, I love the psychology of the forgers. It's the complete package. So when I heard about this book, The Scientist and the Forger, about the intersection of modern analysis techniques with art forgery, I was super excited.

However, in practice, the book doesn't quite achieve what I had hoped. Published in 2015, it's a still pretty current look at state of the art scientific analysis of paintings. Each chapter is devoted to a particular analytic technique and some of the works it's been used on to confirm (or not) their legitimacy. The author tries to strike a balance between a rigorous explanation of the science behind each technique and the increasingly complex machinery needed for that analysis, and descriptions of the stories surrounding the forgeries, or the uncovering of previously unknown masterpieces.

And that's where it falls down. The balance. It doesn't get either part just right. The science is both more advanced than casual readers of art history will likely digest, but also not nearly technical enough to qualify as a journal article. Each chapter is fairly well cited and that's great. But when I thought about whether it would be useful to someone in the field, or even someone studying at the graduate level, there just wasn't enough rigor in the scientific explanations.

But by that same token, there was so much scientific detail that I actually skimmed some of those sections because it became redundant, chapter after chapter, to read about how the techniques more or less worked. I would have loved those sections to be slimmer to make it less technical or I could have appreciated if they were even more technical because at least then someone (other than me) would get more benefit. At best, maybe this level of science would be enough to spark some undergraduate student's interest in one of the techniques for further graduate study.

Then with the analysis of the actual art and descriptions of their circumstances and investigations, the book suffered the same fate. They were very basic, sometimes only a few sentences, but I wanted more! I wanted to know the full investigation of provenance, I wanted to know the players involved, I wanted more of the art history and more of the science specific to each piece. Parts that felt like they should have taken up an entire episode of Fake or Fortune took just a paragraph. Often chapters used several art examples to talk about the science, and I would have wanted a book on each one!

So for people who wanted a romping art-detective read, there wasn't much psychological study at all (see my past posts for great examples of how to write those books). For people who wanted an art historical understanding, there was only cursory information, and for people who wanted to really dive into how the science unfolded for each work, there was only the most cursory explanation of how the science from that chapter uncovered details about the work.

Now, that's a lot of kvetching. The truth is that although the book didn't find the balance I would have liked, didn't have the depth on the art history or the people involved that I love, it was a fast and still informative read. There were many cases I was familiar with and I had already read full books on them. But there were many more I wasn't familiar with that has me hunting for books to read. Maybe most interesting, there were some I was familiar with but where there are not yet full books available. It has me thinking that maybe I need to write some books on art fraud that haven't had the full treatment yet. There are so many cases out there and if nothing else, this book highlighted that and just how many tools are now at scientists' disposal in the investigation.

Basically, I enjoyed reading it because just about anything on the topic would have been interesting to me, and I did learn a bunch. I just was hungry for a bit less science and more art and people as well as more of how the science actually worked on the actual work - more technical on that and less on how the machine's themselves functioned.

At the same time though, I can appreciate that certain other readers might only care about the science and they too will be disappointed because it doesn't go far enough to be really technically useful. In many ways, the science was like that in Discover magazine. Good for a lay person with a strong science inclination, but hardly a citable journal article that pushes the knowledge base further. If anything, this book reads like a text for an undergraduate survey class in forensic art investigation. Coupled with some other, more romantic books on individual art crimes, it could make for a great undergrad class. But those wishing for depth out of this volume, either in science or in the stories, will be left wanting.

(update 5/7/2020 10:35 am)
Here's a list of some of my favorite books about art forgery (and art crime):
Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi
Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo
The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez
Priceless by Robert K. Wittman (about the Isabella Stuart Gardener art theft)


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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