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Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

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  • Posted August 22, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Provenance is the story of a very long con: John Drewe (only one

    Provenance is the story of a very long con: John Drewe (only one of his names), a pathological liar with a phenomenal memory for trivia, gleefully trashed the modern history of European art through the 1990s while moving hundreds – perhaps thousands – of forged paintings through major galleries and auction houses, all the while being feted by the art establishment. And it’s all true.

    Drewe didn’t forge the paintings himself. He outsourced that job to John Myatt, an amateur painter and general sad sack who whipped up new works by Modernist artists using house paint and scrap lumber. Drewe wasn’t even the first to devise fake provenances (collection histories) for fake paintings. His innovation was to hack the archives of major museums (such as London’s Tate Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum) to insert the fakes into the very fabric of art history. The lengths he went to in order to pass off the phonies as realies are almost as amazing as the fact that so many reputed art experts and galley owners swallowed the scam whole. This will not be comfortable reading for art insiders.

    Authors Salisbury and Sujo tell the tale in almost novelistic form. The players aren’t just names but full-fledged characters, with their thoughts and dialog recreated convincingly. The authors dole out background information as needed, avoiding the lengthy infodumps that often plague even popular histories. The outline of the story itself is almost cinematic; you can find all the major beats of a crime film in the plot, and the same momentum. The only things missing are the car chases and the climactic shootout.

    There are a few stumbles along the way. There’s a certain amount of repetition, especially in the final quarter of the book when the police are on the case and are discovering the same facts from different sources. The close focus on the major players loosens during the trial scenes, which become reportage rather than storytelling. A glossary would be helpful for non-specialist readers. And if there was ever a true-crime book that screamed out for pictures, this is it: unless you’re familiar with the works of Giacometti, Nicholson or Dubuffet, you won’t have any idea what the real (or fake) paintings look like.

    If con artists are your cuppa, Provenance is for you. The same goes if you enjoy seeing privilege with egg on its face. Even if you know nothing about Modern art, you’ll be able to connect with the characters and go along on their long, strange ride. You can’t hope to find a fictional character as outlandish as the real-life John Drewe. And at the end, you’ll never look at a painting in a museum the same way again.

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