Plot summary: Drei Frauen und die Kunst - Three Women and Art

Facts:

In January of 1991, the FBI, in cooperation with the security forces of the United States Postal Service, arrested the owner of a printing business and his family members in conjunction with the forgery of prints by artists from modern classicism. The family’s gallery was in Manhattan, and the printer’s workshop in which entire palettes of prints by Picasso, Miró, Chagall and other artists were located, was in New York State. If the thousands of confiscated forgeries had actually been sold, they would have brought in market revenue of some eighteen billion dollars.
(Sources: New York Times, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, etc.)

Two days later in Manhattan, a press conference was held at which the forgeries were presented to the public. After the trial, they were destroyed in accordance with U.S. law except for those examples that had served as evidence in the trial.

The art market for modern classic prints collapsed at the news. Even today, owners of prints who want to sell them at auction through international art houses must provide an assessment for each print from an expert of graphic art attesting that the signature on the print is that of the artist and not the work of a forger.

The author spent months doing research on this case in the Berlin State Library and the Art Library of Berlin. The facts and figures in the novel that related to art forgery are based on events that actually transpired.

Fiction:

Fifteen years after the breakup of the original ring of art forgers, forged graphics by Picasso, Miró, Chagall and other artists begin to surface again. In the outstanding quality of their work, they resemble the forgeries that were confiscated and destroyed in New York. All the most recent forgeries were shipped to their new owners by postal mail from a post office in downtown Berlin, as the postmark makes clear.

The widowed art historian and German-born Elisabeth Gardener is sent by her employer, a New York art insurer, back to her hometown Berlin to do some digging on the case. But Elisabeth has spent the past twenty years in the United States, and the post-iron-curtain Berlin that she finds when she returns is a very different one from the late cold-war Berlin she left behind when she emigrated to U.S. – and she has had no contact with either her family or the city since she left.

Elisabeth resumes her maiden name to disguise her connection with her employer, and becomes Lisa Wolf, a freelance art journalist commissioned by a New York newspaper to do a background story on the collectors who were defrauded during the forgery scandal of 1991. She encounters a city where the scars of the past are much fresher than the average traveler observes, a city that remains mentally far more divided than its building boom and new cityscape lets on.

The first to welcome Lisa is her aunt Marlene, her father’s sister. Next is her elderly father himself – an artist who fell into disrepute in East Germany years ago for refusing to ingratiate himself with the East German regime. Because Lisa’s mother and her father separated when she was in school, her father remaining in Berlin while her mother fled with Lisa to the West, she doesn’t know her father well at all. By the early 21st century, fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, he’s become notorious for the art “happenings" he engineers to draw attention to social problems. When her new apartment is burgled shortly after her arrival in Berlin, Lisa meets the third protagonist in the trio of detectives – Edeltraut von Werth, a commissioner with the state criminal investigation department, responsible for art crime.

One of Lisa’s first investigative steps is to meet an artist who enjoyed a privileged status in the former East Germany – Bodo Scheusslich. He introduces Lisa to art circles of whose existence she was unaware. When he is murdered shortly thereafter, Lisa realizes the danger of investigating so close to the machinations of the former state security forces. Further light on the dubious measures of the East German government to acquire hard currency is shed by a man whose disguise as a homeless beggar is designed to keep him from arousing suspicion while he investigates the murder of his son, who was also peripherally involved in the art circles Lisa is investigating. But despite the growing danger, Lisa and Marlene, supported by Edeltraut von Werth, persevere and uncover the background to the forgeries.

Paper manufacture is an industry in which the former East Germany specialized. Leipzig once boasted the headquarters of all German publishers of any significance and the renown of its book fair is today only eclipsed by Frankfurt. The city was also home to paper mills and paper-testing laboratories, and during the final decades of East Germany’s existence, its many printing presses and its well-known technical college for printing undertook numerous foreign commissions that were paid in western currencies. And here in Leipzig many years ago, the paper was manufactured that was used in the forgeries confiscated in New York.

But not all those forged prints were found and destroyed. Now, fifteen years later, the European members of that criminal organization have judged it safe for a gradual placement on the international art market of the remaining exemplars of their work, which they have kept carefully hidden all these years. Yet the forgeries come to light when their new owners ask Lisa’s employer to insure them. And even though coincidence results in the discovery of the Leipzig storage depot where the forged prints are kept and the arrest of an engineer who specialized in paper manufacture, the head of the criminal organization cannot be found.

The only one who can identify this man – who is an officer of the former East German Stasi – is Lisa’s father, who has his own painful memories of an encounter with the man at the East German Ministry of Culture years ago. During the night, as the police close in, the culprit attempts to escape through the sewers and subway lines of Berlin, taking Lisa with him as a hostage. After he is apprehended, his American partner, an employee of Lisa’s insurance company, is identified and arrested.

Atmosphere:

The novel offers an insider’s view of today’s Berlin, with all the problems it faces as the result of 28 years of division by the Berlin wall – including old loyalties, political convictions and economic interests on both sides that survived the mere geographical reunion of East and West Germany. A particular focus is the fate of those artists who were unable to adapt either to the demands of a socialist regime, or, after its end, to the modern art world of West Germany. Lisa’s personal history – the effect of a divided regime on her parents’ marriage and her own youth – is also treated briefly. And the reader gets to know a small group of people who participated in the Monday demonstrations at Leipzig’s St. Thomas’s Church, and who use their knowledge and their network to help Lisa in her efforts to solve the mystery of the forged prints.

The book is humorous and entertaining in addition to being politically thoughtful. Comic elements include Lisa’s new apartment, which features a past – and a telephone number! – as a bordello whose clients are reluctant to give it up. A true “Berliner” is also included in the form of the building’s super, Rudi. The novel is characterized by a profound sympathy for human weakness and an often ironic narrative distance on the part of Lisa, the first-person narrator. The sheer likeability of this amateur detective means that the reader is happy to accompany her on a fascinating look at Berlin’s present, its divided past, and the billion-dollar international market in art forgery.

© Jutta Motz

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