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“Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art” By Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

September 13, 2010

Provenance weaves the complex tale of expert con man John Drewe and his talented accomplice, John Myatt, as they pulled off the most intricate fraud in the modern art world. Not only did they manage to convince curators and auction houses that the hundreds of fakes by countless different artists they manufactured were real,  they also managed to rewrite art history, to the point where we may never know what is  truly  authentic again.

John Drewe fashioned himself as a nuclear physics professor, Mossad agent, British Aerospace board member, MI5 spy, amateur art collector and son of the creator of the atom bomb. His story would change to suit the circumstance at hand and even his best childhood friend (whose name he used in his forged provenances) lost track of him and came to believe the web of stories that Drewe so effortlessly put forth.  Very little is known about Drewe and there is a 15 year period in his life where there are absolutely no tax, employment or records of any kind. Few of us could claim such talent! Though his whole life can be said to be a con story, the one he got caught for began in 1986, when Drewe called Myatt after seeing an ad for reproductions of famous paintings and requested a Matisse. It began innocently enough, as Myatt, who had a failed career as an artist and musician was desperate for money and talented at creating look-a-like paintings. With his wife gone and two young children to care for, Myatt was scraping by, selling portraits of people’s dogs and the occasional “Picasso”. Drewe was willing to pay him regularly for good quality copies and Myatt was impressed enough with his supposed credentials (not to mention that Drewe pulled up to Myatt’s farmhouse in a Bentley every time) that he went along with the game… until he caught on and realized Drewe was forging artist’s signatures on his canvases. By then it was too late, the cash coming in was just too compelling compared to his salary as elementary school art teacher. (Then again, Drewe made over a million pounds selling Myatt’s works while Myatt saw only a fraction of the proceeds.)

Not only did Drewe sell over 200 of Myatt’s fakes into the market via a complicated network of art runners, he also talked his way into the archives of the Tate and the Victoria & Albert, and inserted  photos of Myatt’s paintings into exhibition catalogs and gallery notes to add another layer of authenticity and create a provenance for works that did not exist. It must have been more than a full time job to not only gather authentic handwritten notes from the time period but to recreate histories for works of art over several decades that were fairly bullet proof.

The story of how they perpetuated this shady business for a decade and their eventual discovery by a dedicated team of detectives and art experts at Scotland Yard is enthralling. I hate to think that only 60 of the over 200 works purportedly by Chagall, Matisse, Giacometti, Le Corbusier and others were recovered. While this is a story of the complicated behind-the-scenes work of authentication that can consume art experts, it is equally a psychological portrait of one of the most intriguing characters in recent history. I’m not sure I can even imagine that John Drewe is a real person, he seems so much like a shape-changing fairy tale goblin. A better combination of detective story and well-researched portrayal of the modern art market would be hard to find. The authors pull together each thread of the story seamlessly and I finished it much too fast!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2010 3:29 pm

    i like both modern arts and classic arts because they both good “”

  2. December 2, 2010 2:45 pm

    you just have to get used to modern art to appreciate the beauty of it ‘~:

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