The much hated Art World is a popular setting for crime-based TV shows because it provides the opportunity to introduce unlikeable villains and high-value collateral as the target for criminal activity.
Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) is bidding at auction on an Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript for the museum where she serves as a committee member. Also at auction is a stolen painting by Edgar Degas, “The Dancing Class,” valued at $15 to $20 million. In order to transfer its ownership undetected, the scammers have had it painted over by a lesser known artist, Angus Neville (Doug Hutchison) with a schlocky abstraction entitled “Arrangement in Gray and Red,” an obvious reference to representational painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
The plan is to auction off Angus’s painting to an accomplice who’s been clued in that the masterwork is concealed underneath. We are told that Degas was the only artist to secure his canvas stretchers with tulip-wood wedges (though I found no information to corroborate this claim) and this becomes important to investigators in identifying the modified canvas as his.
A grubby scumbag type with greasy hair, Angus wears sunglasses inside and smokes in almost every scene, even tossing a lit cigarette butt onto the gallery floor at one point. He has a side gig of producing art forgeries for the black market, but business must be slow. He doesn’t have “a pot to soak his brushes in” as his latest client puts it, a strange characterization for an artist whose work has already reached the secondary market. Based on what we’re shown of Angus, it’s hard to believe that anyone would trust him with the task of painting over a $20 million painting in such a way that it could later be removed (if that’s even possible).
Moving on to our next art world stereotype, we have art dealer Felix Wester (Craig Richard Nelson), a gangly, fussy man who carries a pet Chihuahua tucked under his arm at all times. He is frequently seen bickering and rolling his eyes, and after Angus is murdered, he brags that prices for his paintings are going to go “through the roof.”
Then there is Giles, the auctioneer (Martin Jarvis). It turns out he is the one responsible for murdering Angus, admittedly to steal back the twice stolen Degas painting, which Angus stole from the auction house. He says it’s the only thing he could think of to keep the auction house afloat, but that doesn’t do much to win our sympathies.
Lastly, there is Pete (Jeff Williams), the boyfriend of Jessica’s museum colleague and a stark contrast to these three obnoxious art world insiders. An aspiring photographer, Pete is timid about putting his work out there, although his girlfriend tried to show it to Felix, the catty art dealer. He’s the only likeable Art World character of the lot, and he hasn’t even been initiated into its ranks. The message is clear – one is better off staying out of it, lest he become corrupted, himself, or even… murdered!