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Provenance: how a con man and a forger…
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Provenance: how a con man and a forger rewrote the history of modern art (2009)

by Laney Salisbury, Aly Sujo

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For those that don’t know, a provenance is a document (or documents) that chronologies the ownership of a historical object. In the art world, the provenance serves almost like a certificate of authenticity as well as a historical document of the ownership, custodies or locations the piece has been displayed. The problem was, there was a time in art history where authenticating a provenance was all you needed to prove the art was genuine. This lead to all kinds of problems, in the world of computers and photocopiers it became very easier to make a document look authenticate than it was to forge a painting. This book explores this very problem; Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art tells the story of what was described as ‘the biggest art fraud in the 20th century’.

Provenance has one of the most extraordinary narratives I’ve ever read in a non-fiction book; it reads like an art thriller, full of suspense and mystery. It wasn’t what I expected from a true crime book on art history, I was hooked in this world and on the edge of my seat to find out what will happen next. The authors of this book, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo are both investigative reporters and spent the time to research and tell us the story of John Drewe, a villainous con man that set out to defraud the art world. Recruiting a struggling artist, John Myatt, to paint the forges, it is estimated that over 200 forgeries were made and only about 60 of them recovered. This means there is about 140 paintings still out there been accredited to artists like Giacometti, Dubuffet and so on.

If I may, I want to quickly touch on the problematic approach to authenticating a provenance rather than a painting. As I said before the use of computers and photocopiers made it easy to fake these documents, but John Drewe went further by sneaking forged documents of auctions, gallery displays and so on into the archives of museums and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. What was scary about the elaborate efforts Drewe went to to make this provenance real is the fact a test on the painting might have been so much quicker. If they took the effort to test the paint they would have found that Myatt used a combination of emulsion paint, K-Y Jelly and then vanish to make the paintings look like oil paintings.

All my knowledge on art forgery came from people like Neal Caffrey (White Collar) so I’m not nearly knowledgeable on the topic, as I’d like to be. Art history and art crimes can be fascinating topics and what I loved about Provenance is how it showed how crime seeps in and becomes part of the history. When John Myatt served his time he decided not to point out any paintings that he had done, and that raises an interesting question. Is it better to point out the 140 or so fakes still out there and have the owners lose all that money or not? If a fake is just going to be burnt is it better to own up to the forgery or let it remain a piece of art? The financial and artistic costs would be devastating but what about the moral code that Myatt wished to live by?

This is what made for a fascinating read, I learned a small part of art history, art crimes and it also raised some philosophical questions. I know I might have said a little too much but this is history, can you give spoilers on historic events? It is a great piece of narrative non-fiction and a great way to learn more about art crimes.

This review this review appeared on my blog; http://literary-exploration.com/2014/07/10/provenance-by-laney-salisbury-and-aly... ( )
  knowledge_lost | Dec 7, 2014 |
Really complicated tale of con man that convinced a poor artist to duplicate the art masters. The con mans genius was in forging the paperwork behind the art works to create the provenance for the forged works. Gives insight into the art world. Also shows how easily this 1990's swindler was able to accomplish the task. ( )
  Pmaurer | Aug 18, 2013 |
Okay, Timothy convinced me. This does look crazy interesting.
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
Crystal Carroll I love caper stories. So, it was interesting reading about a real "caper", where the characters are actual people. A little horrible. Not the book, the events. A lot less dashing than fictional capers.

There's a moment in the story, where the forger is staring in horror at paintings the con man gave as a donation to the Tate Museum, because they were horrible forgeries. He'd just slapped house paint on some fiber glass boards.

That's the impression I got reading this story. They got away with so very much. However, there were constantly little cut corners. Tells that they were creating fake art. Selling fakes. All buried on mounds of paperwork. The impression that if these people had just spent a little more effort, well that's a lot of lost potential for something real.

Also, interesting to read about a con man, who sounded terribly unlikeable, and yet successful all the same.

An absolutely fascinating read for just pure detail on the breadth and scope of art crime. ( )
  crystalcarroll | Aug 29, 2012 |
An Archival Case Study

A successful con artist does not break the system. He exploits an inherent weakness in the system which many may not know is at risk. This is exactly what con man John Drewe did to the British art world for nearly a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. In this case, Drewe exploits the heavy reliance on provenance, the documented “life” of a work of art from studio to current owner. Provenances take the forms of sales receipts, correspondence, photographs of works, shipping labels, auction catalogs--anything that can provide evidence that a work is what it claims to be. To do this, Drewe visited and planted false documents in gallery archives throughout London, such as the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

The text reads more like a thriller than a case study. There is a con and a mark. It is evident early on that Sujo and Salisbury’s main source of information was forger John Myatt himself, a hard-working artist who was "set-up." While the opportunity to have a first-hand source is probably titillating, I think these two didn’t take the trouble to offer an unbiased view of the story. I noticed that not once are the works called “forgeries” while they are in Myatt‘s possession. Salisbury and Sujo refer to Myatt’s works by the artists whose styles Myatt forges. He delivers “Bisseres” on time, but never the fakes. In fact, the title is the only place in which Myatt is called a “forger” within the text. So even when Myatt delivers his reproductions in the full knowledge that Drewe is selling them off to dealers and auction houses as the artists’ genuine works, he is still the victim of this tale. When Myatt becomes disgusted with the blatant refusal of art dealers, gallery owners, and auction houses to perform due diligence by examining suspect works rather than hurrying them through sales, he is practically doing the industry some sort of service by diluting the art world with fakes. So if John Myatt is the victim, the mark, the unsung hero of this tale, why does his web site (www.johnmyatt.com) say “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century” in bold, golden letters across the top of the page? While the work was certainly entertaining, the depiction of Myatt as the courageous, industrious, single-father unwittingly drawn into the seedy world of shady art dealings seems highly stylized.

Much time and text was spent defending Myatt when it should have been spent examining the weaknesses in this system. Weaknesses such as how stolen and forged art sales run the same routes that drugs and illegal arms run; the desperation for funds that allows dealers and auction houses to rush works of questionable authenticity to the auction block; reliance on provenance from archivists who, although may have some knowledge of the art world from the content of their collections, are not subject specialists. A better look at the case from the archival perspective is Rodney G. S. Carter's article "Tainted Archives: Art, Archives and Authenticity" from the journal Archivaria (vol. 63).

Provenance is a core principle of archival science. Despite differing opinions and approaches to the archivist’s role in protecting documents for cultural, evidential, and sustaining value, each archivist has a duty to protect the documents entrusted to his or her institution. This seems to be at odds with another archival value: access. For what is the purpose of protecting and preserving documents if no one can utilize the information held within? This is only one of the many seemingly contradictory duties that the archivist undertakes with each acquisition. In this case, protection meant preventing Drewe (and his cohorts) from removing documents AND inserting false documents. Unlike a library whose holdings include individual works, archives hold collections -- series of items that are related by creation. By planting false documents, the integrity of the entire collection has been compromised. The extent of the corruption of these archival holdings may never fully be known. ( )
2 vote Jan.Coco.Day | Feb 19, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
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. . . .

 

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Laney Salisburyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sujo, Alymain authorall editionsconfirmed
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It's called a confidence games. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine. David Mamet House of Games
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For Aly Sujo, with love. Aug. 26-1949-Oct. 4, 2008
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One sunny April afternoon in 1990 two Englishmen strode up the steps of London's Tate Gallery, passed beneath the imposing statues atop the pedimenta - Brittania, the lion, and the unicorn - and made their way through the grand portico into one of the world's greatest museums.
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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.
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Recounts the activities of John Drewe, who manipulated struggling artist John Myatt and other unwitting accomplices to become prolific art forgers whose works Drewe successfully passed off as legitimate pieces.

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