Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art - Laney Salisbury, Aly Sujo 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.