Using the backdrop of searching for a lost Modigliani painting, which was painted while the artist was under the influence of hashish, Ken Follett exposes the cynicism of the world of professional art in England.
Everyone wants the painting! Delia [Dee] Sleign wants to study it for her doctoral thesis on the relationship between drugs and art. Delia's uncle, Charles Lampeth, wants it for his well-established art gallery in London. Julian Black wants it to bring prestige to the new gallery he is starting, and because his father-in-law, Lord Cardwell, he will pay for it. Dunsford Lipsey wants to find it because Charles Lampeth has hired his detective agency to do just that.
In The Modigliani Scandal, [ISBN 0-451-13640-3], Ken Follet describes the antics of a less-than-scrupulous group of artists, actors, and gallery owners, who are, more or less, cheating each other, and the rest of the London art world, while they are looking for an early work of Amedeo Modigliani. It is said that the work was painted while he was under the influence of hashish. While “Dedo”, as he is called, destroyed most of his drug-influenced paintings, one survived. The question is, where is it now?
The search for Dedo's painting serves as the backdrop for a discussion of the lack of integrity in the community of high-priced art. Many artists feel that their needs are not considered, and that the placement of works of art and the prices they draw, are based upon snobbery, rather than on the value of the works themselves.
We meet Dee Sleign just as she receives her grades in her art history course – a first -- that means she can progress to doctoral work. She tells her boyfriend, Mike, of her plans. He suggests that she contact an old man in Paris, a man who knows all about the Modigliani painting. He starts her on her quest. She is so excited, both by her grades and by the prospect of finding the painting, that she sends a postcard to her Uncle Charles, a move that turns out to be impetuous and irresponsible. Sadly, it is not her last.
We also meet Peter Usher, an artist who shows his work in Uncle Charles's gallery. However, Uncle Charles decides that Peter's work is no longer “fashionable” or profitable and declines to give him the one man show he had promised. When Peter goes to other gallery owners, including Julian Black, who is a friend from school, he receives the same answers. Peter has a wife, Anne, a one-year old child, and a house he just bought. He is grateful for his teaching job which is just about keeping his family afloat, but he needs additional income.
One evening, after a particularly discouraging day, Peter goes home to his house in Clapham where he finds that his old artist friend, Arthur Mitchell, “Mad Mitch”, is visiting. The two men have a “paint a masterpiece” contest, discovering that they have prodigious talents as forgers. They hatch a scheme, financed by Dee's boyfriend Mike, to mortify the old, stuffy art world and, at the same time, bring in money for poor artists. They go to ten galleries, determining which artists are represented, which are not, and what works could be used. They each paint a picture that could have been painted by a specific artist, obtain phony documents showing provenance, and develop a complicated scheme to sell the works to the galleries. After the galleries pay, they call the press, telling what they have done, and that they will say why they have done it when the press verifies it has happened. In total, the paintings sell for a half million pounds. Peter and Mad Mitch say that they will return the money when the galleries say they will provide 10% of the total to pay for the building of studio space for poor artists and, of course, will withdraw any criminal complaints.
Meanwhile, Dee and Mike are in Italy where they are looking for Modigliani's painting. Julian and Dunsford Lipsey are there, too, and the four stumble over each other as they try to find the painting.
At the end, there are three copies of the painting, because Mike “convinces” Peter and Mad Mitch to each make a forged copy. The stuffy art world is embarrassed once again, by the two forgeries. The only happy people are Dee and Mike, who bought the original for the equivalent of 100 pounds and are not selling it. Neither is Dee proceeding with her doctoral studies because, she says, “After all this it, seems so unreal.”
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked this story because it was an honest representation of the snobbery and lack of values in the world of professional art.
Best scene in story:
In my favorite scene Peter, Anne and Mad Mitch sell forged art works to the managers of supposedly prestigious galleries.
Opinion about the main character:
I like the fact that Dee Sleign is smart and hard-working. I dislike the fact that she is, sometimes, so ambitious that she is unethical.