Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Provenance is a ridiculous true-crime art caper at its best (Book Review)

Laney Salisbury Aly Sujo
Provenance (Penguin Books) - 8.5/10

I love paintings, and I love art forgery! There is something magical about learning to copy another artist's style and creating something new like theirs. Now, I'd never condone swindling someone by passing a forgery off as the real deal. It's more that I love the idea of getting into the artist's head enough to really learn their techniques - to see through their eyes while mastering their technical gifts.

So in addition to viewing the paintings and reading about the artists I love, I also spend a fair amount of time reading about famous art forgers and forgery circles. But never, in a million years would I have conceived of the scope of forgery and the intricate nature of the crime contained in "Provenance" a true-crime non-fiction book by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (Penguin Books).

"Provenance" is a detailed, but fluidly told account of one of the largest and most complex forgery cases in world history. It is also the story of one supremely strange and intriguing man, John Drewe, the screw-loose mastermind of this elaborate scheme. The authors bring a reporters eye and a storytellers heart to this true crime book. Even if art history and art forgery aren't interesting to you, their writing style and research have created a fast-paced, engaging, and fascinating book.

John Drewe claims to be a physicist consulting with the British government, including some of its covert branches and foreign governments. He also has claimed to be just about everything else imaginable. But he is also strange, boastful, manic, convoluted, rampantly creative with his narratives, and seemingly has convinced himself of each of his lies. What he isn't however, is a painter.

Instead, in the midst of whatever other lies Drewe is currently engaged in, he stumbles onto the once-and-failed painter John Myatt. Myatt is now divorced, raising his two children, and working as a part time art teacher struggling to make ends meet. Drewe convinces Myatt of Drewe's self-proclaimed awesomeness, Myatt feels as though Drewe is taking him under his wing and looks up to Drewe as a mentor of sorts. Recognizing Myatt's talent, Drewe commissions him to make some paintings "in the style of..." Drewe is able to sell these and splits the funds with Myatt who desperately needs the money.

Over time, and despite a growing awareness of what is really going on, Myatt finds himself falling in love with his new success as a painter, even if it isn't his own original vision being sold. When Drewe invites him to the unveiling of two works in a major museum, Myatt finally has to come to grips with the fact Drewe has been passing of his works as the real deals. There in the museum, are two Myatt fakes being received as if they were the originals.

But this is only the very beginning of Drewe and Myatt's deceptions. Myatt would remain the painter throughout, challenging and pushing himself to ever greater heights of artistry culminating in about 240 fakes. Drewe would push to ever greater depths of deceit to sell these fakes. The story spans continents, multiple museums, galleries, artists foundations, appraisers, libraries and investigators all told with stunning clarity and empathy.

What was most upsetting to me about this crime, and was consequently Drewe's biggest innovation, is from where the book draws its title. There are few ways to sell a major artist's unknown work (as the forgeries were trying to present themselves) without a proper provenance. Provenance is the history that records the paintings creation through its chain of ownership up to the present. Along with scientific analysis and a trained eye, provenance is the third leg of the art appraisal world. It is essential to have good provenance to sell an unknown painting by a major artist at auction.

Where Drewe was succeeding with minor (and some major) art galleries relying on their eyes alone, it was the major works - whether with the large auction houses, major collectors, or museums - that required impeccable provenance. Something no fake could ever have. But Drewe found a way.

Like Myattt would forge paintings, Drewe would forge provenance. By using his growing renown as an art dealer to worm his way unfettered into various museum libraries and archives, Drewe would actually insert forged documents into the archives then request copies of them which would then bear the stamps from the institutions, thus validating the fake documents as if they were the real things. He would insert photos into gallery logs from the '60s stored in these archives, he would make faked exhibition catalogs from 100 year old exhibitions inserting Myatt's paintings into these exhibitions despite their having been painted only weeks before. He wrote letters in peoples names, he made his own stamps bearing a monastery's logo, and he edited log books amongst many tricks.

This was both brilliant, and supremely evil, and really riled me up. Fake paintings are one thing (and the stupid people who didn't do the scientific analysis that would have easily spotted them as fakes). But Drewe, by corrupting the archives, was actually rewriting history. Now Myatt's fake paintings looked as though they genuinely existed. The very places art historians and researchers trust as having unimpeachable evidence - the museum libraries and archives - were now filled with Drewe's lies, forever altering "objective" history. That is what made me so mad. Even after the enter charade was exposed, and museums did their best to clean the archives, there are still countless forged documents yet to be found (along with dozens of Myatt's paintings still in circulation).

By the third act, our criminal investigators are hot on the trail, Drewe might be involved in a murder, and Myatt is doing everything he can to get out and away from Drewe and back into an honorable life. The scenes of the police finally arriving at Myatt's home are heartbreaking. He is allowed to get his children on to their school bus before being arrested. He helps them uncover all he has done, ultimately turning star witness against Drewe. Myatt proves sympathetic as a struggling father with previously unrealized talent who got caught up by a master manipulator, a manipulator who rarely even paid Myatt his fair share of their earnings.

The book does a brilliant job tying all the stories, interviews, and lose ends together into a highly readable narrative. It blends direct quotes with pieced together journalism. It is told from each major character's point of view, at least as much as one can get into Drewe's head. It is incredible how many people in the art world were willing to speak to the authors to flesh out the full story.

Ultimately Drewe, Myatt, and others would face justice for their acts, but the damage done to history, the purchasers who still own fakes that have yet to be unmasked, and the undermining of the sacred processes of art-vetting (or the exposure of that process as a fraud in and of itself) leave us with an unsettling feeling that there was no true resolution to this decade long scam.

Provenance is crime caper of epic proportions, beautifully told, true to life, and thoroughly researched. It is well written and a fascinating, emotional read. I highly recommend this book regardless of whether you have a thing for art forgery or not. It is a strong 8.5/10.


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