The true story of one of the twentieth century's most audacious art frauds
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. Together they exploited the archives of British art institutions to irrevocably legitimize the hundreds of pieces they forged, many of which are still considered genuine and hang in prominent museums and private collections today.
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Laney Salisbury, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported from Africa, the Middle East, and New York. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Aly Sujo was an investigative reporter, part of a husband-and-wife team with Laney Salisbury. He covered arts and entertainment for Reuters, the Associated Press, and the New York Daily News. He died in 2008.
The grand moment in the reception finally arrived. Two white-gloved Tate conservators entered the room with a pair of paintings, each about five feet tall. There was a moment of respectful silence. Myatt was stunned.
“Ahh, the Bissières, how lovely,”someone in the room whispered.
Myatt cringed as the group praised the paintings and Drewe’s taste and generosity. The two works were carried around the room, and long before they reached Myatt, he recognized the faint but acrid smell of the varnish he had sprayed on them when he’d finished them a few weeks earlier.
Myatt gripped his chair. If they so much as touched the canvas with a fine brush, the paint would give way and the game would be up. A little further investigative work would reveal that the pieces—purportedly painted more than forty years earlier—had been made with modern, ordinary house paint.
The reception over, the Tate brass escorted Drewe and Myatt down the winding staircase. Stopping at a landing, one of the officials pointed at a place on the wall and said: “This is where we’ll hang these two wonderful pieces.”
Placing a work at the Tate was a remarkable achievement for any artist—forger or not—but Myatt could see only one possible end to what had transpired. He had survived many low points in his past, but none as low as this. Surely he would end up in prison.
Once in the taxi, Myatt, usually deferential toward Drewe, exploded. “You have to get them back.”
Drewe argued that if they were to ask for the paintings back, it would involve a terrible loss of credibility, putting at risk all the time he had put into cultivating the confidence of the Tate’s archivists. But he also saw that as long as the twoc arelessly done forgeries remained in the hands of museum curators, Myatt would remain paralyzed by the fear that they would be his undoing.
The following day Drewe was back at the Tate to withdraw the Bissières. There was a problem with their provenance, questions having to do with the previous owners. In place of the two works, he was prepared to offer a sizable cash donation to the Tate’s archives.
Within days the Tate received a check for twenty thousand pounds (forty thousand dollars) to help catalog the archives, along with a promise of half a million more to come. With this donation, Drewe established himself as a respected donor for whom the doors of the heavily guarded archival department would stand open. The historical records of one of the world’s great museums, and its cherished credibility, were about to become irreparably compromised.
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