Provenance : how a con man and a forger rewrote the history of modern art

by Laney Salisbury

Other authorsAly Sujo (Author)
Hardcover, 2009




New York : Penguin Press, 2009.


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.

Media reviews

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. . . .

User reviews

LibraryThing member teezee65
Very good read. The only thing I think it lacked was visuals of the real and forged works of art.The reader must rely solely on the authors to paint the pictures with their words. I think they did a good job, but it's not quite the same as seeing images on the page.
LibraryThing member SamanthaMarie
A narrative nonfiction account of a scheme to make and sell fake paintings, which included faking provenance in some of the most important art archives. The provenance is what really makes this story unusual and particularly harmful to the art world as that is the main method of determining between fake and genuine paintings.
A very engrossing story. Easy to follow, even if you don't know much about art. Sadly, there were no pictures.… (more)
LibraryThing member iubookgirl
Provenance is the true story of an elaborate scam that plagued the unsuspecting art world for nearly a decade. The mastermind of the scam, John Drewe, was the quintessential con man leaving a trail of marks from London to Paris to New York. Drewe not only managed the creation of hundreds of fakes but also infiltrated the records of some of the most prestigious art institutions to create documented proof of their "legitimacy." It is unknown how many of his fraudulent paintings and documents still lurk in homes, museums and archives.

Provenance is just the sort of non-fiction I enjoy. Salisbury and Sujo achieve a fiction-like narrative that draws the reader into the exploits of John Drewe while still providing a detailed recounting of the facts as well as some limited background on art and the history of art frauds. You don't have to be an art historian or even be an art buff to appreciate the tale Provenance tells. You don't even need to know what provenance means. All you need is an appreciation for crime stories and the unraveling of a good mystery.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Although I know next to nothing about the art world, I found this book pretty interesting. Sometimes I think the magnitude of what John Drewe did escapes me, but the overall impression of a manipulative scumbag was pretty clear. It isn’t the actual forged painting that did the most damage, but the provenance and thus the title of the book. I don’t know if he and the painter really did rewrite the history of art, but they certainly did bilk people out of a lot of money and ruin reputations.

In some ways, I’m sympathetic to Drewe. These people were asking for it. Valuing art for its circumstances and pedigree rather than its merits makes it really easy to be taken. Greed blinds us all and Drewe knew it. Pretty much everyone who was taken was a willing victim, ignored contradictory evidence and just wanted to be the next star in their particular firmament. It makes it hard to have sympathy for them; too much ego and too much money. Myatt’s musing about how that money could have been better spent is spot on. The grandiose waste is appalling and it’s delicious irony to know that many of his forgeries are still on display, cherished for their provenance rather than their aesthetic. It’s easy to believe these people got what they deserved.

My sympathy is directed at the archivists and the artists who were lied to, betrayed and taken advantage of. At the beginning of the book the author states that archivists are the lowest rung on the art world ladder; the least appreciated, but the most important in terms of preserving provenance and thus proving a work’s credibility. That credibility is what drives up the perceived value of a work and thus the price at which it can be sold. Drewe knew this, too and found a way infiltrate and corrupt a totally legitimate archive.

Even though he’s a lying asshole, Drewe is a talented lying asshole. A plot this intricate and far-reaching is impressive no matter how damaging. His ability to set up events far, far in advance is mind-boggling. Attention to detail, imagination, foresight and a deep understanding of human nature are only part of it. The kind of confidence Drewe displays is his biggest key to success. People want to believe him. They’re dying to be led, shepherded and mentored by such a luminous figure. His looks, accent, clothes, supposed contacts, job and bits of spouted science are enough to convince people he is what he says he is. Daring. I’d never even dream of pulling off that kind of farce. In some ways I have to admire the bravado, but that kind of soulless existence also gives me pause. Crossing with art at its most essential, as human expression, is the most extreme contradiction I can think of. A soulless human cannot create art, but it can exploit it and even art at its most corrupt is susceptible to its charms. You’d think an already morally bankrupt system would recognize one of its own. As I said, greed blinds people and that’s what this is ultimately a story of. The power of greed.
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LibraryThing member crystalcarroll
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.
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LibraryThing member OliviainNJ
Why is a Leonardo a Leonardo? Because the provenance - the history of ownership of a work of art and the records authenticating that ownership - say that it is. A great forger can create a work of art, but without provenance for that work, passing it off is still a problem. But what happens when a master art forger and a master documents forger team up? The art world is thrown into chaos.

Salisbury and Sujo's riveting book documents that chaos as it follows John Drewe, a chameleon of a man who remains as mysterious to the reader at the end of the book as he does at the beginning. Drewe finds John Myatt, an artist with a remarkable talent for mimicry, and convinces him to create new works "in the style" of modern masters. Drewe then forges provenance and passes the art off as newly discovered work. Watching the scheme develop and ultimately unravel - thanks to some good police work, a woman scorned, and some knowledgeable archivists - is what the book is all about.

Although nonfiction, the book reads like a good novel. It's well-paced and exciting and provides fascinating insight into the world of art and archives. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member suzysunshine
What a book! A definite page-turner. The book depicts, in tantalizing detail, the story of one of the biggest modern art forgery scams of the postwar era. The writing is clear and the research is thorough and well presented. The main villain is John Drewe, an unbelievably clever con man who draws many members of the art community into his deceptive web. Some of them unwittingly and some of them not. I highly recommend this non-fiction thriller.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pmaurer
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.
LibraryThing member MikeRhode
Quick read, and a nice overview of the ease in which modern art is forged.
LibraryThing member cjordan916
Filled with extraordinary characters and told at breakneck speed, Provenance reads like a well-plotted thriller. But this is most certainly not fiction. It is the astonishing narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate cons in the history of art forgery. Stretching from London to Paris to New York, investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo recount the tale of infamous con man and unforgettable villain John Drewe and his accomplice, the affable artist John Myatt. Together they exploited the archives of British art institutions to irrevocably legitimize the hundreds of pieces they forged, many of which are still considered genuine and hang in prominent museums and private collections today.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChristineEllei
From the book cover: “Filled with extraordinary characters and told at breakneck speed, Provenance reads like a well-plotted thriller. But this is most certainly not fiction. It is the astonishing narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate cons in the history of art forgery. Stretching from London to Paris to New York, investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo recount the tale of infamous con man and unforgettable villain John Drewe and his accomplice, the affable artist John Myatt.”

One always expects the cover description to be complimentary to the book. All too often, however, it is similar to a movie trailer that highlights the only the very best part of the whole story. Not the case with Provenance. This book truly does read like a thriller. It is indeed fast paced. The authors certainly did their research and managed to wrangle the very, very convoluted escapades of John Drewe into a readable (and quite exciting) look into the world of art and art forgery. I have been reading a fair bit of non-fiction lately and Provenance is the most “current” of the books I have read. It certainly makes for interesting reading when the authors were able to interview the people involved (because they were still alive) and know that the information was reasonably fresh in their recollections.

“Frequently there is a tender complicity between faker and victim: I want you to believe that such and such is the case, says the faker; if you want to believe it, too, and in order to cement that belief, you, for your part, will give me a great deal of money, and I, for my part, will laugh behind your back. The deal is done.” – from a letter by Julian Barnes, June 11, 1990.

The above quote pretty much sums up how cons like the one perpetuated by John Drewe can go on as long as it did. Yes, the talent of the “con man” makes it happen but the complicity of the those wanting to believe in his story allow it to go on for such a very long time. While reading this book the “what if” question was constantly in the back of my mind …

What if …. John Drewe had turned his considerable talents to a legitimate enterprise? What if … John Myatt used his considerable talents not for forgery but for original art? What if … John Drewe’s marriage had not hit the rocks and his wife not become angry enough to go to the police with her suspicions?

Definitely the art world would have been turned inside out even more, but we also would have been left without a wonderful telling of the caper. I enjoyed this book a great deal.
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LibraryThing member devilish2
A great story averagely told. A small thing - this is written by American authors about things set in Britain, so the usage of 'fall' for autumn and 'gas' for petrol, etc., struck me as completely out of place.
LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
I don't read very much non-fiction in book format; though I do read a bunch of magazines. I read something about this book (an excerpt?) in one of said magazines, and it intrigued me enough to get the book.
Having worked in a museum archive, I was fascinated by this true story of how this art-forgery-fraud duo used falsification of archives in order to pass off their fakes as the genuine article - complete with historical documentation, to be found in multiple, respected repositories. The truly amazing part was how truly crappy some of their work was, and how long no one noticed it for. It really makes you wonder - if someone bothered to do a less shoddy job; would they ever be caught? Have people done so? The estimates some interviewees give on what percentage of the art market is false or misattributed merchandise is shocking.
So - interesting book, mainly because of the content. Like so much non-fiction, though, the prose is unexceptional. It simply gets the job done.
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LibraryThing member charlesmathes
An art dealer acquaintance of mine likes to say (in all seriousness) that the most successful members of his profession are basically international Machiavellian criminals. The hero of this book (or villain, or whatever you want to call him) fits perfectly well into this world; in fact he has a distinct advantage over real art dealers who presumably have some sense of conscience or morality, or at least fear of getting caught. Not so with John Drewe, the brilliant sociopath who, circumventing the security designed to prevent people from stealing items from the hallowed Tate art library, smuggled in forged catalogs and records, then used these to document forged paintings. I'm an art dealer myself and can testify that in our world, where brand names trump connoisseurship, too many people look only at the name of the artist, not the painting. What makes a Picasso these days is not the brush strokes, or the concept, or its beauty (or lack of it) -- it is the paperwork.

This story reads like a novel and, even if you're not interested in art, is a very good read. If you like it, then you will probably also like THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR by Benjamin Wallace, which is another well-written and very similar true story, that one set in the world of rare wine.
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