As a graduate student, I volunteered in the conservation laboratory at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. I wanted to gain some experience in what painting and artifact conservation was all about and decide whether I wanted to go in that direction. My biggest impediment: lack of a detailed knowledge of chemistry. To become adept at any kind of art conservation, I’d need to know a lot about solvents (how to use them and which ones are dangerous to human health), paint pigments and their properties, and the science of materials. You have to know what something is made of before you can restore it to its original condition.
I didn’t go into conservation for my career, but I developed a lifelong interest in restoration and conservation of artifacts and its related field: the detection of art forgeries. Hence the evolution of Burnt Siena, my new mystery set in Italy (Five Star, June 2015). Flora Garibaldi, an Italian-American conservator, takes her first job with a respected firm of painting conservators in Siena. Thinking she’ll get to use her advanced training, she is dismayed to find herself mixing gesso and applying gold leaf to picture frames (the very tasks I did during my apprenticeship in Cincinnati). Then Flora discovers her bosses, the Lorenzettis, are supplementing their incomes by smuggling antiquities and forging paintings.
At the heart of the story is a kouros, a Greek statue of a young man, that Marco Lorenzetti is sculpting. Is it based upon a stolen ancient statue, and if so, where is the original now? Will the copy receive a fake patina and be sold as an antiquity for millions of dollars? No matter what happens to the statue, someone stands to make a lot of money.
Flora collides head on with a well-known art historical dilemma: when is a copy just a copy and when is it a fake? It all depends on what happens at the point of sale. If a replica of a famous painting (or a statue) is offered and purchased as a museum-quality replica, a reasonable sum changes hands and everyone knows where he stands. If the same painting is passed off as the work of an Old Master, then everyone loses: the museum or collector pays too much, the viewers are hoodwinked, and art history as a discipline is compromised. How can you understand the development of a famous artist when some of the paintings on museum walls may not have been created by that artist?
Then there is the problem of antiquities smuggling, an ongoing problem in many countries from Central America to Italy. As long as clients pay ridiculous sums for original art (for example, the J. Paul Getty Museum paid nine million dollars for a kouros that many experts believe is a forgery), unscrupulous men will rob tombs and loot archaeological sites for financial gain.
In the sequel to Burnt Siena (under construction), Flora joins an international team of experts to hunt under the city of Rome for art stolen during World War II by the Nazis.