Provenance – Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Song of the Day: ‘Paradise Circus’ by Massive Attack

provenance_smallIf you are looking for the next exciting read, pick up Provenance by Salisbury and Sujo. It is the true story of one of the art world’s most brazen scams by one John Drewe.

The story stretches from London to Paris to New York, from small art galleries to the esteemed Giacometti and Dubuffet Associations to the archives at the Tate Gallery. Drewe’s elaborate scheme put more than 200 counterfeit works on the market, many of them considered genuine and still floating about in private houses, large galleries, and prestigious museums.

What is fascinating about his story is his inventiveness in faking the paintings’ provenances. Drewe ginned up receipts for prior purchases; he created catalogues 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 smoothly 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.

Of course, none of this could have been accomplished without a skilled forger. He found the perfect dupe in John Myatt, a working-class single father and a down-on-his luck artist living on a small run-down farmhouse. For at least £150 each, Myatt was turning out ‘genuine fakes’ — reproductions clearly sold as such — of works by Monet, Tumer and Mattisse. His world changed, however, when Dr. John Drewe phoned him. In a proper RP accent, Drewe told Myatt he was a lecturer in nuclear physics and a consultant to the Ministry of Defence. 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 this 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 realised 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.

The detailed account of his elaborate fraud is gripping right up to its inevitable conclusion by the Scotland Yard. It reads like a well-plotted thriller filled with unforgettable characters and told at a breakneck pace. It is definitely meticulously researched and a captivating account of one of the greatest cons in the history of art forgery.

Till Next Post!

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