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Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art Hardcover – July 9, 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
Salisbury and Sujo have meticulously researched their subject and the book is like a fast paced thriller as we watch John Drewe manipulate and draw into the hoax, a struggling artist and parent to become a master forger. And then we follow Drewe as he cons galleries into accepting the works as genuine with an authentic provenance. One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is how Drewe faked the provenances from fabricating restoration records and receipts to manufacturing fake catalogues for art shows that never took place!
This intricate story is truly an interesting look at the world of art and forgery and provenance!
The action begins with a museum reception for Dr. John Drewe, professor of nuclear physics and art connoisseur, who has just donated two 'valuable decades-old' paintings to the museum. Dr. Drewe is accompanied by his 'research assistant' John Myatt, who is shocked to realize that he had just finished painting the valuable donated paintings. Myatt strongly protests to Drewe that the subterfuge will certainly be discovered by the museum's curators, and gets Drewe to withdraw the donation on the grounds that he'd just learned of potential problems with their documentation. Dr. Drewe instead substitutes a $20,000 donation, with promises of another $500,000 later for the museum's provenance work. The point of Dr. Drewe's generosity was to gain access to the museum's records.
Dr. Drewe and Myatt had met four years prior when Drewe responded to Myatt's ad for reproductions. Myatt had just been abandoned by his wife, along with with two babies in diapers, and was short of money. Dr. Drewe commissioned a copy, and their relationship grew over time. Meanwhile, world art prices began soaring. Myatt, in turn, switched from making copies to creating original paintings in the style of the more valued artists he was mimicking; doing so, he carefully researched the style and peculiarities of the artists he was emulating. At first he was unaware that Drewe was selling his reproductions and creations as authentic.
Buyers became increasingly demanding of proof of authenticity as prices increased. Fortunately for the con artists, Drewe was now well-positioned to comply - both creating fake entries within the museum records (loose-leaf binders were used) for Myatt's heretofore non-existent paintings, and also using the records to compile credible-looking receipts and other records - again, from both real and invented collectors. Dr. Drewe used computers, old typewriters, and a scanner to revise old photographic records. (Museum security focused on people taking things out; it was especially lax regarding donors.)
Dr. Drewe's cons, however, are not limited to art - he also attempts to con his common-law wife (Batsheva Goudsmit) out of her real estate holdings, has her declared insane (she loses her job as a pediatric eye specialist), and takes custody of the two children. Myatt, on the other hand, eventually concluded that Dr. Drewe was insane (outlandish stories, dealing with guns) and cheating him, and Myatt then refuses to have anything more to do with Drewe.
In the middle of all this a strange fire and death occurs at an apartment owned by Drewe's common-law wife. Investigators meet with Batsheva and she tells them the dead person was probably blackmailing Dr. Drewe - 'something to do with art forgeries,' and later gives investigators Drewe's briefcase, loaded with strange receipts, clippings, art books, etc. Eventually Dr. Drewe is arrested for art fraud and exposed as never having gone past high school. Between Drewe's faking illnesses and fleeing, it took 18 months before he was brought to trial. The trial took another 6 months, he was found guilty in 5 hours, and sentenced to 6 years. Myatt received a one year sentence, served 4 months, and resolved to never paint again. His arresting officer, however, persuaded Myatt that 'he had a gift' and commissioned him to create a painting of the officer's family. Myatt returned to painting, and has done well since - making explicitly clear that his works are not authentic.
My main complaint about "Provenance" is that the suspicious fire and death issues were never resolved - the topic is just left hanging. I'm also at a loss to understand how 'Dr. Drewe' sustained himself prior to meeting Myatt (the book and other sources say that almost no records exist - still, his Batsheva and Drewe's parents provide potential sources), and why his financial situation deteriorated prior to being arrested.