Take a novel trip into the art world

Alberto Giacometti, whose sculpture is pictured here, was one of the artists whose work Myatt and Drewe copied. (credit: Courtesy of Jakwa) Alberto Giacometti, whose sculpture is pictured here, was one of the artists whose work Myatt and Drewe copied. (credit: Courtesy of Jakwa)

An eccentric con man commits the largest art fraud of the 20th century, fooling the biggest players in the art world as he sells over 200 counterfeit works. Although this is the plot of a recently published thriller, it isn’t fictitious. Provenance, a nonfiction book written by husband-and-wife journalists Aly Sujo and Laney Salisbury, tells the story of John Drewe, a British con man who eluded capture for nine years as he managed to sell counterfeit art.

The story begins in 1986 with John Myatt, an artist and single father struggling to make ends meet. After he begins to sell “genuine fakes” of famous paintings, he meets John Drewe, who claims to be a physicist and art collector. Impressed by Myatt’s abilities, Drewe begins to commission works from Myatt in the style of famous 20th-century artists and persuades Myatt to help Drewe market them as original works, promising the cash-strapped Myatt an economic opportunity he can’t refuse. Drewe begins to sell Myatt’s paintings, claiming them to be genuine works by artists like Alberto Giacometti and Ben Nicholson, and accumulating hundreds of thousands of pounds in the process.

Drewe knows, however, that art dealers will not be convinced of the paintings’ authenticity unless the paintings have provenance. Provenance is the documentation for an artwork, providing evidence of the artwork’s past ownership and authenticity. Drewe is later able to infiltrate the archives of esteemed British art institutions to create provenance for his forged artworks, forever tainting the legitimacy and accuracy of the archives.

Sujo and Salisbury’s journalistic backgrounds shine through in Provenance. They meticulously researched Drewe’s art fraud scheme, traveling around both the United States and Europe to interview nearly everyone with whom he had interacted or who had inadvertently been affected by his elaborate con.

The book, however, does not read like a news report. Rather, it reads like a crime-thriller novel, weaving together information that the authors gleaned from interviews to create a fascinating narrative. The tempo of the book increases as Drewe begins to get ensnared in his web of forgeries, while his more sinister and eccentric characteristics reveal themselves as Scotland Yard begins to close in on the con man.

The authors were able to paint vivid portraits of all the characters, from the lying Drewe to the greedy and misguided dealers who help perpetuate Drewe’s fraud, to the persistent Mary Lisa Palmer, director of the Giacometti Association, whose suspicions eventually help bring about Drewe’s downfall. Not only did they provide descriptions of the characters’ appearances and quirks, but they also speculated about the possible psychological reasons behind the motivations for the main characters, making the characters seem even more real.

In addition to the narrative surrounding Drewe’s actions, Provenance also provides the reader a fascinating glimpse into how the art world operates. It reveals the relationships between art dealers, collectors, galleries, and museums, detailing the actions of those eager to seal the deal on pieces of art worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Whether you’re interested in the art world or merely interested in the true story of an elaborate fraud, Provenance will have you hooked from the first page to the last.