Book Review: 'Provenance' by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

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By Steven Levingston
Sunday, July 26, 2009

PROVENANCE

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

By Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Penguin Press. 327 pp. $26.95

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. Likewise, I understood how I came away from that cash machine years ago envious of a guy who could put together a wildly complicated fiction that was credible enough to squeeze $20 out of me.

In "Provenance," Salisbury and Sujo untangle Drewe's elaborate scheme that put more than 200 counterfeit works on the market between 1986 and 1995. What's fascinating about his story is his inventiveness in faking the paintings' provenances. Drewe ginned up receipts for prior purchases; he created catalogs for exhibitions that never took place; he even fabricated records for restoration work that the supposedly decades-old paintings had required over the years. In a master stroke, he smooth-talked his way into the archives of the Tate Gallery, where he inserted some of his phony documents into the files. Experts rummaging about in the archives to certify a work's authenticity would find much to lead them astray.

Drewe could have accomplished none of this without a skilled forger. He found the perfect dupe in John Myatt, a down-on-his-luck artist living alone with his two small kids in a rundown farmhouse in England. For at least £150 each, Myatt was turning out "genuine fakes" -- reproductions clearly sold as such -- of works by Monet, Turner and Matisse. His world changed when Dr. John Drewe phoned him. In an upper-class accent, Drewe told Myatt he was a lecturer in nuclear physics and a consultant to the ministry of defense. He would also claim to others to be a descendant of the earl of York, a historian of the Nazi era, an army lieutenant, a weapons expert and a hang glider. None of it was true. Yet blessed with a prodigious memory, Drewe was able to pose convincingly.

Myatt began by painting several pieces for Drewe. One day, Drewe informed Myatt that a friend who worked for Christie's mistook as real a painting Myatt had done in the style of cubist Albert Gleizes. The Christie's expert predicted it could sell for at least £25,000 at auction. Then Drewe held up an envelope stuffed with bills, and Myatt realized the sale had already taken place. Drewe said Myatt's take would be half the auction price, a staggering amount of money that would cover shoes for his kids and end his worries about the rent. Desperate, Myatt crossed the line: He reached out and took the money.

For nearly a decade, the pair faked work by artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Ben Nicholson, Georges Braque and Nicolas de Staël. The fraud was perpetuated by eager salesmen, greedy -- or misguided -- dealers, inattentive auction houses, unwitting art lovers and gullible archivists. It finally unraveled thanks in part to the keen eye and persistence of Mary Lisa Palmer, director of the Giacometti Association. Scotland Yard detectives went to work and brought Drewe and Myatt to trial. In court, Drewe sat impeccably dressed, popping chocolate bonbons into his mouth.

For all its virtues, this book does contain a con of its own -- a kind perpetuated with avid persistence by the publishing industry. "Provenance" makes a strong case for the havoc wreaked by John Drewe and his shenanigans. But it falls far short of the sweeping promise of its subtitle: "How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art." Enough with the fraudulent subtitles, please.

Steven Levingston is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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