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

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

3.9 28
by Laney Salisbury

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A tautly paced investigation of one the 20th century's most audacious art frauds, which generated hundreds of forgeries-many of them still hanging in prominent museums and private collections today

Provenance is the extraordinary narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate deceptions in art history. Investigative reporters Laney


A tautly paced investigation of one the 20th century's most audacious art frauds, which generated hundreds of forgeries-many of them still hanging in prominent museums and private collections today

Provenance is the extraordinary narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate deceptions in art history. Investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo brilliantly recount the tale of a great con man and unforgettable villain, John Drewe, and his sometimes unwitting accomplices.

Chief among those was the struggling artist John Myatt, a vulnerable single father who was manipulated by Drewe into becoming a prolific art forger. Once Myatt had painted the pieces, the real fraud began. Drewe managed to infiltrate the archives of the upper echelons of the British art world in order to fake the provenance of Myatt's forged pieces, hoping to irrevocably legitimize the fakes while effectively rewriting art history.

The story stretches from London to Paris to New York, from tony Manhattan art galleries to the esteemed Giacometti and Dubuffet associations, to the archives at the Tate Gallery. This enormous swindle resulted in the introduction of at least two hundred forged paintings, some of them breathtakingly good and most of them selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of these fakes are still out in the world, considered genuine and hung prominently in private houses, large galleries, and prestigious museums. And the sacred archives, undermined by John Drewe, remain tainted to this day.

Provenance reads like a well-plotted thriller, filled with unforgettable characters and told at a breakneck pace. But this is most certainly not fiction; Provenance is the meticulously researched and captivating account of one of the greatest cons in the history of art forgery.

Editorial Reviews

Steven Levingston
If you've ever been had by a con man, as I once was at a cash machine in Salem, Mass., you know the odd aftermath of emotion. First, you're befuddled, then enraged and finally consumed by visions of revenge. But there's another sentiment that can sneak up on you. I was reminded of it while reading Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo's well-crafted tale of British con artist John Drewe. I'd expected to despise the psychopath at the center of what Scotland Yard called the biggest art fraud of the 20th century. But somehow, from the first page, he got me to drop my guard. Drewe, for all his odious ambitions, is ingenious, persuasive, even brilliant. As I was pulled deeper into his deceptions, I couldn't help admiring this creep.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

A decade-long art scam that sullied the integrity of museum archives and experts alike is elegantly recounted by husband-and-wife journalists Salisbury and Sujo. In 1986, when struggling painter and single father John Myatt advertised copies of famous paintings, he never imagined he'd become a key player in one of Britain's biggest art frauds. Myatt soon met John Drewe, who claimed to be a physicist and avid art collector. Soon Drewe, a silver-tongued con man, was passing off Myatt's work as genuine, including paintings in the style of artists like Giacometti and Ben Nicholson. When buyers expressed concern about the works' provenance, Drewe began the painstaking process of falsifying records of ownership. Posing as a benefactor, Drewe even planted false documents in the archives of London's Tate Gallery, but suspicious historians and archivists eventually assisted Scotland Yard in bringing him to justice. Salisbury and Sujo (who died in 2008) evoke with flair the plush art world and its penetration by the seductive Drewe as well as the other players in this fascinating art drama. (July 13)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Wall Street Journal
Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, once estimated that of the many thousands of artworks he had viewed in the course of his career, fully 40%, from all periods, were mis-attributed, restored beyond recognition or outright fakes. "Provenance" is the story of one of the more audacious and unusual art frauds of recent decades. Tautly written and -assiduously researched by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (who died last year after the manuscript was completed), it has the pace and suspense of a good thriller, and a colorful -international cast.
—By Ian Brunskill
Kirkus Reviews
Husband-and-wife writing team Sujo (recently deceased) and Salisbury (co-author: The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, 2005) present the story of what Scotland Yard called "the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century."In 1996, British con man John Drewe was convicted of forgery and theft, among other charges. Sujo and Salisbury carefully delineate how he wormed his way into some of the most tightly controlled art archives in the world. His scam-aided by the initially reluctant work of forger John Myatt-spanned ten years, hundreds of forged paintings and dozens of art galleries across the globe. The gripping narrative portrays Drewe as a master of creating pasts and telling people exactly what they want to hear, gathering and using even the tiniest pieces of information to gain the confidence of his marks. Though Myatt was a skilled forger who was able to produce convincing "originals" by modern painters such as Le Corbusier and Alberto Giacometti, it was Drewe's silver tongue-and pocketbook-that gained access to the materials from which he concocted convincing provenances of the artwork's originality. As a result, he not only committed fraud; he substantially undermined the system whereby works are authenticated, and thus art history itself. While the story of Drewe and his accomplices-many of them unwitting-is captivating, the narrative flow is occasionally interrupted by the insertion of seemingly irrelevant information. The authors don't always provide smooth transitions between the increasingly complex elements of the narrative, but the enthralling tale forces readers to rethink the question of what makes art valuable. A flawedbut ultimately mesmerizing portrait of the modern art market.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

The grand moment in the reception finally arrived. Two white-gloved Tate conservators entered the room with a pair of paintings, each about five feet tall. There was a moment of respectful silence. Myatt was stunned.

“Ahh, the Bissières, how lovely,”someone in the room whispered.

Myatt cringed as the group praised the paintings and Drewe’s taste and generosity. The two works were carried around the room, and long before they reached Myatt, he recognized the faint but acrid smell of the varnish he had sprayed on them when he’d finished them a few weeks earlier.

Myatt gripped his chair. If they so much as touched the canvas with a fine brush, the paint would give way and the game would be up. A little further investigative work would reveal that the pieces—purportedly painted more than forty years earlier—had been made with modern, ordinary house paint.

The reception over, the Tate brass escorted Drewe and Myatt down the winding staircase. Stopping at a landing, one of the officials pointed at a place on the wall and said: “This is where we’ll hang these two wonderful pieces.”

Placing a work at the Tate was a remarkable achievement for any artist—forger or not—but Myatt could see only one possible end to what had transpired. He had survived many low points in his past, but none as low as this. Surely he would end up in prison.

Once in the taxi, Myatt, usually deferential toward Drewe, exploded. “You have to get them back.”

Drewe argued that if they were to ask for the paintings back, it would involve a terrible loss of credibility, putting at risk all the time he had put into cultivating the confidence of the Tate’s archivists. But he also saw that as long as the twoc arelessly done forgeries remained in the hands of museum curators, Myatt would remain paralyzed by the fear that they would be his undoing.

The following day Drewe was back at the Tate to withdraw the Bissières. There was a problem with their provenance, questions having to do with the previous owners. In place of the two works, he was prepared to offer a sizable cash donation to the Tate’s archives.

Within days the Tate received a check for twenty thousand pounds (forty thousand dollars) to help catalog the archives, along with a promise of half a million more to come. With this donation, Drewe established himself as a respected donor for whom the doors of the heavily guarded archival department would stand open. The historical records of one of the world’s great museums, and its cherished credibility, were about to become irreparably compromised.

Meet the Author

Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo are a husband-and- wife team of investigative reporters. Salisbury is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and has worked for Reuters and the Associated Press. She is the coauthor of the critically acclaimed The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, which was translated into eleven languages. Sujo grew up in the art world and has been a journalist for the past twenty years, covering arts and entertainment for Reuters, the Associated Press, and The New York Daily News.

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Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
dixiebrit More than 1 year ago
Provenance seems like a straightforward art forgery story until you get into the convoluted mind of John Drewe. A man so warped he would deep-six the only friends he had, including his common law wife, Drewe takes the art world unawares, breaches the sanctity of the proof of authenticity, provenance, and nearly gets away with it. Salisbury and Sujo create a very readable narrative of this true crime story, the victims (the forger, friends, museums, etc.), the villain, and the heroes of the Art and Antiques squad at New Scotland Yard. I highly recommend it.
irishlass77 More than 1 year ago
This book was suggested for my book club. I haven't finished it yet - I'm about 1/2 way through but I can't put it down. I keep telling myself this is a true story but I keep thinking it's a nove. You don't have to be a big art fan to appreciate the scam and all the details that go into it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time putting this book down. I know nothing whatsoever about the art world, but am starting to get interested in antique paintings, so I picked this book up, not having any expectations. It was a fascinating read about the way the art world works, how paintings are authenticated, etc. It was clearly meticulously researched and the efforts show. It was a great intro to the world of paintings and has prompted me to read more widely on this subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lance_Charnes More than 1 year ago
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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TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
This is a mind-bending walk through The Art of the Con as practiced by con-master John Drewe, simultaneously and serially known as John Cockett, a different Mr. Cockett, Mr. Sussman, Mr. Green, Mr. Atwood, Mr. Martin, Mr. Bayard, and Mr. Coverdale. John Drewe and the skilled painter John Myatt together perpetrated one of the longest-running and most extensive art frauds of the late 20th century, extending from London to America and the continent, and from there around the world. Breathtaking high-wire stunts of impersonation and art forgery, archive-diving and modification, provenance creation and solicitation all came to a halt nearly a decade after it had begun when a few of the more than two hundred paintings Myatt had forged and sold came to the attention of New Scotland Yard's chief of The Art and Antiques Squad, Dick Ellis. The discussion of the fraud holds one kind of fascination; the gathering of evidence and the actual trial holds different thrills. John Drewe was undoubtedly one of the finest liar-performers ever uncovered, and in fact, the con has become known as John Drewe's "performance piece" by insiders and investigators. Drewe kept such an enormous cache of personae in the air at the same time and convinced so many of his rectitude that one would simply love to see him act, as long as his mental acuity was not aimed at one's life savings, nor one's unprotected heart. While all of this completely absorbing story holds interest for the reader, I especially loved the graceful way it ended. We learn of the take-down, the trial, the sentencing, and the after-trial outcomes. This is a marvelously-told story with lessons for us all. I can heartily recommend the audiobook narrated by Marty Peterson, though I did listen to it on slow speed. At normal speed I was getting so much info I couldn't keep track of names and places.
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