Title: Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art
Author: Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo
Release Date: July 9, 2009
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Genre: Non-Fiction, Art
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4 out of 5
Provenance tells the story of John Drewe, a con man, and John Myatt, a desperate, single father who happened to have a great deal of talent at painting. Drewe rolled Myatt into his forgery schemes, taking advantage of him in order to run one of the largest art cons in history.
Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo tell an astonishing story in Provenance, one that almost doesn’t seem possible. One man, John Drewe, manipulated and conned the art world so thoroughly that most didn’t even see what was happening right in front of them. Only a few people actually suspected Drewe of anything, and it’s thanks to them (and his difficult relations with his wife) that his schemes finally came to light. The sheer amount of forged art Drewe dealt with and put on museum walls and sold to collectors is staggering, even moreso considering a good number of Myatt’s paintings are still considered to be the genuine articles.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical while reading Provenance at the beginning. After all, there are many techniques to determine a painting’s age – analyzing the paint contents, checking what kind of brush was used. How could Drewe so thoroughly fool people with Myatt’s paintings, especially considering Myatt didn’t try to use old paints, brushes, or techniques? Many of his paintings weren’t even that convincing. But then the authors explained the mad genius behind Drewe’s plan – he wasn’t faking paintings as much as he was faking provenance. If a painting has a clear trail, an unshakeable history, then people aren’t going to look very closely at its authenticity because they just assume. Even if a painting is bad, artists did have their bad days.
Provenance is a bit of a thrill ride; Salisbury and Sujo write at a quick pace. The book is never dry, ensuring the reader’s attention from the very first page. It’s also incredibly well researched. The authors did an amazing job following every lead and confirming each detail such that the reader is certain that the account is as accurate as possible. I was impressed that the authors balanced accuracy and research with such a well-written and engaging style.
If I had one complaint about Provenance, it would be the lack of pictures. I would have loved an insert in the middle, comparing forged pieces imitating an artist’s style to other, actual pieces from the artist, especially since Myatt was extremely cooperative with the authors and could have told them what paintings he looked at when researching artist. Even without that element, though, Provenance is an exciting and astonishing read, one that I recommend to anyone interested in fast-paced non-fiction.