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.
Starred Review. 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)
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July 08, 2009
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Excerpt from Provenance by Laney Salisbury
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 Bissi�res, 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 Bissi�res. 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.