A blog by Ms. Boe
Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo
A piece of journalistic nonfiction, Provenance follows the story of two who men conned the great dealers and museum curators of the art world with their fake paintings. Tasked with chronicling and understanding the mind of the pathological liar at the heart of the operation, John Drewe, Salisbury and Sujo make their best attempt at a true narrative. An art con that funneled fake paintings into galleries and corrupted provenances from museum archives for nearly ten years is a difficult thing to unwrap. The authors do a remarkable job, and while the pace is sometimes slow, the action is fascinating. The two men were so good at what they did–John Myatt in assuming the artist’s persona to execute a piece and Drewe in exploiting the art world’s system to secure his fakes’ authenticity–that you can’t help but admire their genius.
The book is obviously sympathetic to the art forger John Myatt, whom the authors portray as a well-meaning single father who gets in over his head by painting fakes. The villain is Drewe, who duped the great experts of the field and, the book suggests, committed murder to cover his tracks. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ the writers thank John Myatt for his “extraordinary degree of cooperation,” which explains the book’s sympathetic slant. That’s not to say that Drewe didn’t take Myatt in and exploit his weaknesses, but Myatt continued to forge paintings long after he realized the illegal nature of his partnership with Drewe. It’s interesting to note that Myatt did very well for himself after he was released from prison, going on to host shows on the BBC about replicating great paintings and sell his own paintings as “Genuine Fakes.” A comeback story is great, but this reward for criminal behavior was unsettling.
Beyond its focus on one great art con, Provenance offers interesting facts about the art world and art forgery in general. While sometimes digressive, I appreciated the sections on what a provenance is (the documents and receipts that track a painting’s ownership to prove its authenticity), who the great forgers of the past were, and the like.
An informative look into the aggressive, high stakes field of modern art dealing.