Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Oh, I love reading about art crimes and I really enjoyed this one. Provenance, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo is a tale of how in the art world the quality of paintings matters less than the accompanying paperwork.

The story is about a man who goes by the name John Drewe (as well as a few other names). Drewe is a great storyteller. Posing as a nuclear physicist with a rich benefactor, Drewe and his forger assistant, John Myatt, ingratiate themselves with the British art world through donations and well-documented paintings by artists such as Nicholson, Giacometti and Stephenson.

The catch, of course, is that Myatt painted all the paintings. Drewe, after making a substantial donation to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is given access to their archives. Drewe uses that access to steal documentation, duplicate and alter it, and then replace it with his own creations. So suddenly a picture that had never existed before Myatt painted it now appears as if it has been around since the original artist created it, has been sold at auction, exhibited at galleries, etc.

Myatt is a talented forger and now makes a living selling "legitimate fakes" but some of his paintings that Drewe sold to dealers were a little iffy in terms of reflecting the style of the original artist. Worse, Myatt, who struggled with finances as an unemployed single father of two (my heart goes out to him), couldn't afford oil paints and used house paint diluted with lubricating jelly as his paint of choice.

Drewe's documents of provenance, charm, and wiles (he targeted the low to mid range price ranges of paintings to avoid too much suspicion) enabled him to pass off Myatt's works as legitimate.

In the end, though, the vast number of paintings Drewe unleashes on the art world (at least 200) catches up with him and Scotland Yard builds a case against him with the aid of some folk in the art world.

This book was surprisingly exciting with excellent, entertaining writing. As always, I had some issues, some of which could have been helped, others which could not. Most notably is the lack of depth in describing Drewe's personality. This is Drewe's fault. A man who lies so much that he believes the lies himself makes it difficult to get a grasp on him. Drewe, even after being incarcerated, maintained that he was innocent of any wrong doing and that he was set up by the government. In addition, most everything he claimed about himself was untrue and as a result, Drewe is not much more than a human shell, lacking anything that can truly be called himself.

My other complaints involve a lack of clarity in the amount of time passing. The story unfolds over a decade yet the writing makes it seem like the story is encompassed in a much shorter time. Also, for a story about art forgeries involving artists that aren't familiar to the layperson, there were no illustrations. I had to hop on the internet to get an idea of what the works of some these artists looked like.

Ultimately, it's a great tale, well-researched and very entertaining. It also has a great bibliography with many titles on art forgeries of which I was not aware. Definitely a recommended title.


Mark's Ephemera said...

Nice review. Have you read Thomas Hoving's False Impressions? It is a look inside the world of art forgeries. Two of his other books, Making the Mummies Dance and King of Confessors are nice views into the world of museum quality art and curating.

Masterpiece, his work of fiction, was bland in my opinion. He should stick with what he knows best. Art in the real world.

Mad Guru said...

Mark, you are right on. Hoving's non-fiction is great but man, was Masterpiece awful.