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The Collector's Apprentice


The Collector's Apprentice

Knowing a little history isn’t a prerequisite for reading B. A. Shapiro's THE COLLECTOR’S APPRENTICE, but it doesn’t hurt.

Years ago, I visited the Barnes Foundation in the tony suburb of Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, for the first time. For those of you not familiar with the Barnes, it was a massive, eclectic collection of art from the masters of every genre, type, era and nationality. Art was hung on walls not by category but by the dictation of Albert Barnes’ avant-garde sensibilities. For instance, a Renoir might feature prominently on a wall next to iron works of African art. For anyone interested in art, the Barnes was a marvel, an assemblage of some of the greatest paintings, sculptures and international work ever amassed by a single person. Adding to the mystique of the over 4,000 pieces was the fact that they were displayed in Barnes’ home, open for just a few hours a week to the public, by appointment only.

"Shapiro masterfully interlaces history with mystery in THE COLLECTOR’S APPRENTICE, making it ideal for fiction lovers and art enthusiasts alike."

Over the years, before and after Barnes’ death, the collection was the subject of several cases, attempts to move it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or force it open to the public. In his lifetime, Barnes was adamant about the visibility of the collection and that it should remain as he had placed it. In 2004, many years after his death, his wishes were disrupted by a court ruling that ultimately moved the impressive works to a museum, fashioned after his own display, in Philadelphia and opened more broadly to the public.

In THE COLLECTOR’S APPRENTICE, the history of the Barnes becomes fodder for a murder mystery. Shapiro morphs real-life Barnes into eccentric collector Edwin Bradley, a chemist by trade in a loveless marriage who has a passion for art. The parallels are uncanny and purposeful. Shapiro creates a gripping thriller with a backdrop of enticing reality. Bradley hires Vivienne Gregsby to assist him in his buying adventures. Unbeknownst to him, Vivienne is actually Paulien Mertens, the disgraced Belgian heiress who before becoming Paulien was the victim of a scam perpetrated by her fiancé, George Everard. Her interest in art was learned at the feet of her father, an avid collector himself. When he loses everything to Everard’s scheming, Vivienne is suspected of being part of the heist and is cast out of the house, moves to Paris, and by chance meets Bradley.

Vivienne is thrust into the art world of Paris and Philadelphia, traveling between the two cities as she helps Bradley build his unparalleled pool of work. Woven throughout the story are the artists of the day: Picasso, Fitzgerald and Matisse (with whom Vivienne has an affair), lending even more reality to this art history whodunit. Not surprisingly, Bradley falls in love with his young protégé, but it is unrequited. Ever in the background is Everard, the scam artist who stole Vivienne’s virtue and family wealth.

When Bradley dies, his wife suspects murder and accuses Vivienne, who stands to inherit the mass of the Bradley collection. Arrested and distraught, Vivienne stands against an angry widow and her suitor, who wants the collection for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Shapiro masterfully interlaces history with mystery in THE COLLECTOR’S APPRENTICE, making it ideal for fiction lovers and art enthusiasts alike.

Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on October 26, 2018

The Collector's Apprentice
by B. A. Shapiro