Book Reviews

Provenance

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art
Laney Salisbury
Penguin Press
2009
352pp

You couldn’t write a better story line if you were dealing with fiction. John Drewe, a working-class chameleon of a racconteur passes himself off as a posh nuclear scientist with big world connections and infiltrates the British art world establishment, not only passing on fake masterpieces, but adulterating the provenance system in order to do so. He is able to do this for an entire decade, flooding the market with fake works, only a minority of which were identified when he was finally arrested.

Then there’s the supporting cast of characters. John Myatt, a down and out single father who at one time had tried to be a professional artist, copies a Raoul Dufy on a lark. He gets swept into Drewe’s con and by the time he figures out that his works are being shown at the Tate and sold at Sothebys it is too late. By now he relies too heavily on the steady income. Besides, he derives some satisfaction that his work is being admired; he relishes the challenge of replicating the intense style of an artist like Giacometti; and he feels just a touch of disdain for an establishment so blinded by money it can’t see what’s being put over on it.

There’s the American, Mary Lisa Palmer, who works tirelessly at the Giacometti Foundation to protect the reputation and legacy of the dead artist and won’t budge in her judgment that a series of works coming her way are fakes — despite their pristine provenances and pressure from dealers and collectors eager to snatch up or sell a “masterpiece.”

There’s Bat-Sheva Goudsmid, the con-man’s suffering common-law wife who ends up losing her house and children to him but gets ultimate satisfaction when a chance and encounter with Drewe gives here the evidence that eventually convicts him.

There’s the police, whose initial interest in Drewe is because of a homicide (a case of arson, which Drewe may have caused to cover his tracks). And a slew of others: the runners and middlemen who know nothing about art but are eager to make a buck; the auction house and gallery staff who care more about sales than scholarship; the lonely clerk at the archives where the provenances are first adulterated, who suspects Drewe is up to something but can’t convince her boss that the man who is promising to donate millions to the organization isn’t all he makes himself out to be; the New York collector, enchanted with the Giacometti he has found who can’t bring himself to believe that it wasn’t done by the Modernist master.

With the help of a repentant Myatt the police and prosecutor bring a conviction of fraud against Drewe, who claims throughout the trial and his two years served that he was the victim of a government conspiracy.

Salsibury does an excellent job of giving form to the various characters in this fascinating story, which reads like one of the spy novels Drewe based the story of his life on. Drewe and his witting and unwitting accomplices may not have, as the book’s subtitle suggests, rewritten the history of modern art, but they have certainly inserted alternate chapters, some of which have yet to be expunged from the official narrative.

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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