Harry Donovan is an art forger who paints fake Rembrandt picture for five hundred thousand dollars. The girl he meets and gets into bed with, in Paris, Marieke, turns out to be an art expert, who Harry's clients are using to check the counterfeit picture he painted.
- Harry Donovan (Jason Patric) is a talented and enterprising painter who takes in large amounts of cash for his expert forgeries of old masters he produces for clients. Keeping a low profile he is disconnected with his own artistic capabilities and his drive to produce the fake work of old masters is in part an ignoring of his own inner purpose. His father (Rod Steiger), from the Ash Can school is aging and castigates Harry for not following his own artistic merits to follow through on his plan to have his own show with a respectable gallery. However, Harry is disappointed once again, and a gallery rejects to give an exhibition with his paintings. The father is sick with age, he also tried to become a painter, but is not famous.
Harry meets up with a group of gallery owners lead by Alastair Davis (Thomas Lockyer) who is seeking an old master to sell for a high price. With Turley (Ian Richardson), Tom Agachi (Togo Igawa) and Iain (Simon Chandler) to raise the funding they go to Harry and offer him $500,000 for a forgery of a Rembrandt. During his research for a lost master Harry discovers a Rembrandt from 350 years ago when it was being transported from Rotterdam to Spain and begins recreating in specific detail the lost painting down to using materials that have been out of use for centuries. During his activities in Paris, Harry meets a young and endearing woman Prof. Marieke van den Broeck (Irène Jacob) who initially introduces herself as a student but in fact is a professor and an authority on Rembrandt. She and Harry are taken with each other and sleep together before Harry leaves for Amsterdam to fabricate his masterpiece. Harry -who told her that he was an art professor- wanted to see her again on another date, but she refuses and remains elusive. The clerk of the hostel where Marieke is staying sees them making love. Marieke also leave a not on her pillow saying "You've been wonderful."
The process is tiresome: the pigments, the canvas, the frame... everything has to be perfect. After completing the canvas Harry brings it to Spain for Alastair and his retinue but the art dealers decline to pay Harry the money until they have established from art experts that the painting is real. The critics are attracted by being offered the information that it's a Díaz de la Peña painting which has just been found. Marieke is the most important critic, as she belongs to the board for Rembrandt authentifications, and she is the only one who says that she doesn't believe it's a true Rembrandt. It could have been done by one of his alumni. When Alastair decides to sell the painting at auction Harry disagrees and takes the painting with him. Obviously, the rest disagree with him, but Harry threatens them with Alistair's own gun.
Although Harry fires the gun, he doesn't kill anyone. However, when the police go after him, he is accused of killing Agachi. He kidnaps Marieke, who is outraged because Harry has lied to her. As a pursuit ensues across the French, and English borders Harry and Marieke handcuffed together learn many things about each other. Marieke is accused of being an accomplice of Harry, while Alastair tries to get his hands on the fake Rembrandt again. Marieke and Harry argue about what art is, the outrageous quantities of money paid for paintings of dead paintors who died in abject poverty.
Harry can't sell his fake Rembrandt. The murder frightens everybody. Two thugs finally accept to pay 100,000 in cash, but they are just Alastair's men trying to get it for free. Harry fights one of them. When Harry gets in touch with one of his contacts, the police is waiting there. Harry runs away, and throws the painting into a garden fire. However, the painting survives.
Harry is judged. He says that he painted the fake Rembrandt, but nobody believes him. Only Marieke says that it's a fake. However, she's discredited in front of the jury because of her love/sex relationship with Harry. From gaol, Harry tries to contact his own father, who doesn't want Harry to worry about him. Harrys' father knew about his illegal business, but he never judged him, although he tried to encourage Harry to paint his own works. Alastair visits Harry on jail, and tells him harsh and cruelly that his father has died of a weak heart.
Marieke tells Iain that he should be careful, as Alastair Davies may decide to get rid of him as he got rid of Tom Agachi. Eventually, Harry's barrister arranges the final proof: Harry will paint another copy in front of the jury. The judge accepts, although Harry finally is unable to do it - the eyes of his father - his inspiration for the blind eyes of Rembrandt's father - prevents him to go on living making cons.
Everything is going bad for Harry. Iain is the last witness. He confesses that Alastair Davies killed Tom Agachi. Alastair goes frantic and threatens to kill him. The judge holds Alastair in contempt, and sends him to jail without bail until a new judgement is set. Iain keeps the painting.
Harry is freed, but it's Iain who gets the fake Rembrandt. He sells it to a hotel chain in Hong Kong. However, Harry has not said his last word: he tells Juan del Campo (Ricardo Montez) that he's been cheated. The Spanish government considers the Rembrandt part of Spain's national patrimony, so they have the right to pay the money it was auctioned for and take it to Spain. Because of Juan's ownership, the money will go to him. His lawyer tells Iain this when he's celebrating the great success of selling the fake Rembrandt as a true painting, in his luxurious gallery. They can't do anything about it.
The del Campo family wants to share with Harry Donovan some of his rightfully-theirs money. After taxes, there are 600 million pesetas for the family, and they give a part to Harry Donovan.
He tries to locate Marieke. He also tries to paint his own materials. The first one is a portrait of Marieke. She finally arrives to look at the painting.
Harry Donovan and Marieke kiss passionately.