July 2009

Inside an art history mystery

By Laney Salisbury
Review by
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If the summer fiction offerings aren’t tempting enough to tote to the seaside, pick up Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by husband-and-wife journalists Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. This is the incredible, gripping story of British con man John Drewe and his partner in deception, art forger John Myatt. It is nonfiction, but its hair-raising investigative reporting reads like a thriller that just might knock you right out of your beach chair.

Provenance is a masterpiece of research fashioned into a well-written, tautly paced tale of a strange scandal in the art world. For nearly 10 years, “Professor” John Drewe, a truly self-invented man who laid claim to many names and occupations (including physicist), pulled off a complex, twisted art fraud that involved forgery—not only of paintings, but also of their provenance. Provenance, in the art world, is the record of ownership—aka the “paper trail”—of an artwork from the minute it leaves the artist’s hands.

The cast of characters in this drama is broad: the book begins with a list of the dramatis personae, which includes Drewe and Myatt (the main perpetrators) and extends to museum archivists, art dealers, Scotland Yard art and antiques squad detectives, and a host of innocent bystanders.

John Drewe was brilliant. He also was a charismatic (and dangerous) psychopathic liar with an uncanny ability to pick up downtrodden individuals, like struggling artist John Myatt, and bend them to do his bidding. He conned Myatt into creating fake paintings in the style of modern masters, such as Giacometti and Ben Nicholson. Often, these paintings were truly poor imitations—a sad fact that led Drewe to do a little forging of his own: he made individual pieces of provenance to authenticate the fakes. Charming his way into the higher echelons of the international and British art worlds, Drewe gained access to prominent museum archives, like the Tate, both stealing from and altering their formerly sacrosanct records. The results were chaotic, cataclysmic and downright murderous—not your typical day at the beach.

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.

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By Laney Salisbury
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594202209

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