The Collector's Apprentice: A tale of art theft, fraud, and assumed identities

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In "The Collector's Apprentice," B.A. Shapiro returns once more to the murky world of art theft, forgery and fraud. The novel is loosely based — and Shapiro emphasizes very loosely in her note at the end of the book — on the lives of the Pennsylvania art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia, and Shapiro dedicates her book to Albert and Violette. In the novel, these historical figures become Edwin Bradley and Vivienne Gregsby.

Paulien Mertens is just 19 years old when she is swept off her feet by the handsome and wealthy George Everard, the owner of a hugely successful investment company. Paulien is not the only one taken in by George's charms; soon her whole family has invested with George, who promptly disappears with all the assets. Her father is obliged to sell his beloved art collection to cover some of the family's losses. Paulien is ostracized by her family and flees her home in Belgium, going into hiding in Paris, where she creates the identity of Vivienne Gregsby and ekes out a living as a seamstress.

In Paris, Paulien, now Vivienne, meets Edwin Bradley, a rich American art collector visiting France to seek out new works by Matisse, Picasso and other artists whose work has not yet received the recognition Bradley believes it deserves. Bradley is impressed with Vivienne's knowledge of art and takes her on as his assistant while he tours Europe looking for art works for his collection. When Bradley returns to Philadelphia, he offers Vivienne a position in his Bradley Foundation to help document and manage his works of art.

But George resurfaces, this time posing as Ashton King, a wealthy Australian art collector. He has his eyes on the Bradley Foundation's collection. Vivienne finds herself once more tangled in George's schemes. But Vivienne is older now, and has schemes of her own .

This is a wonderfully rich and colorful book. There are side trips into Gertrude Stein's Paris parlor, meetings with Picasso, a love affair with Matisse, and a cameo appearance by Ernest Hemingway. These ingredients are skillfully woven into an intricate thriller that is just perfect for a fireside read on these cold winter evenings.

B.A. Shapiro's earlier books include the bestsellers "The Art Forger" and "The Muralist." She lives in Boston.

Phil Lewis is co-owner of The Bennington Bookshop. The Collector's Apprentice is available at The Bennington Bookshop, or can be purchased online here: https://www.benningtonbookshop.com/book/9781616203580


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