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

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  5,210 Ratings  ·  439 Reviews
A tautly paced investigation of one the 20th century's most audacious art frauds, which generated hundreds of forgeries-many of them still hanging in prominent museums and private collections today.

Provenance is the extraordinary narrative of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate deceptions in art history. Investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo brilliant
Hardcover, 327 pages
Published July 9th 2009 by The Penguin Press (first published 2009)
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Dec 27, 2011 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: archivists, curators, art historians
Recommended to Janday by: a professor of archival science
An Archival Case Study

A successful con artist does not break the system. He exploits an inherent weakness in the system which many may not know is at risk. This is exactly what con man John Drewe did to the British art world for nearly a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. In this case, Drewe exploits the heavy reliance on provenance, the documented “life” of a work of art from studio to current owner. Provenances take the forms of sales receipts, correspondence, photographs of works, shipping labels
For those that don’t know, a provenance is a document (or documents) that chronologies the ownership of a historical object. In the art world, the provenance serves almost like a certificate of authenticity as well as a historical document of the ownership, custodies or locations the piece has been displayed. The problem was, there was a time in art history where authenticating a provenance was all you needed to prove the art was genuine. This lead to all kinds of problems, in the world of compu ...more
Lance Charnes
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of the long con
Provenance is the story of a very long con: John Drewe (only one of his names), a pathological liar with a phenomenal memory for trivia, gleefully trashed the modern history of European art through the 1990s while moving hundreds – perhaps thousands – of forged paintings through major galleries and auction houses, all the while being feted by the art establishment. And it’s all true.

Drewe didn’t forge the paintings himself. He outsourced that job to John Myatt, an amateur painter and general sad
May 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is a mind-bending walk through The Art of the Con as practiced by con-master John Drewe, simultaneously and serially known as John Cockett, a different Mr. Cockett, Mr. Sussman, Mr. Green, Mr. Atwood, Mr. Martin, Mr. Bayard, and Mr. Coverdale.

John Drewe and the skilled painter John Myatt together perpetrated one of the longest-running and most extensive art frauds of the late 20th century, extending from London to America and the continent, and from there around the world. Breathtaking high
Apr 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: art

In the 1980s-90s, a smooth-talking sociopath and self-proclaimed physicist (he had actually dropped out of high school) named John Drewe hired an impoverished single father, John Myatt, to paint fake 20th century artworks and foist them off on unsuspecting buyers and galleries. Drewe's success depended not only on Myatt's skill, but on creating fake provenances for many of the works. He forged letters and signatures, forged the stamps of museums and a priory library, and gained access to the arc
Oct 22, 2011 rated it liked it
Oh yeah, the White Collar writers totally read this and went “yeah, let’s do that! Only sexier and without the mental illness.”

It’s a compelling story of con artistry and, glancingly, of the art world where “real” doesn’t mean nearly as much as everyone says it does. But mostly I was too distracted by the style. This is what happens when a particular breed of reporters write nonfiction, every single time, I swear. They are so focused on hiding the ball, on digesting all of their research into ap
Sep 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Katherine by: Grayson
I heartily and thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is not a scholarly examination of the subject, but it covers the importance of why this particular forgery con was more damaging than others. And now I know the reasons why, when I go to the National Archives in the US, they make sure you're not bringing anything in as well as not leaving with anything.

You do get a false impression from movies like "Catch me if you Can" and shows like "White Collar" that con-men aren't such bad guys, but this book
Jun 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014-reads
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 ...more
Althea Ann
Sep 13, 2012 rated it liked it
I don't read very much non-fiction in book format; though I do read a bunch of magazines. I read something about this book (an excerpt?) in one of said magazines, and it intrigued me enough to get the book.
Having worked in a museum archive, I was fascinated by this true story of how this art-forgery-fraud duo used falsification of archives in order to pass off their fakes as the genuine article - complete with historical documentation, to be found in multiple, respected repositories. The truly a
Leta Blake
Apr 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Very helpful for research. I learned a lot about forgeries and art archives, etc.
Jan 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-museum
"It occurred to [Myatt] that Drewe was addicted to the con, that every sale was like a junkie's rush to him. The money wasn't the object, it was the scam itself. Drewe had begun to believe in his imaginary status as a collector and to speak about the paintings as if they were authentic. Like every bad drug run, this would all come to a dreadful end. The market could not absorb the number of fakes they were producing. If they continued as usual, they would almost certainly get pinched."

Brian DiMattia
Jun 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A terrific history of a crime, Salisbury and Sujo cover all the bases cleanly and entertainingly. They follow the fraud of John Drewe, the artist he worked with, some of the art world figures who weren't taken in and several more who were, and eventually the painstakingly crafted police investigation.

Drewe took paintings made by an English artist named John Myatt in the style of various 20th century artists (like Giacometti and Ben Nicholson), and passed them off as fakes. But his masterstroke w
Haley Nimer
Feb 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book was fascinating. It's part art historical, part true crime and detective work, part human interest and insanely well written. The authors put their journalism backgrounds to good use and did (what I'm sure was) an insane amount of research. Their account was thorough, but not tedious. In regards to art, a provenance is essentially the paper trail that accompanies any given work. So and so bought this painting from the artist in this year, 12 years later put it up for auction at Sotheby ...more
Charles Mathes
Feb 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An art dealer acquaintance of mine likes to say (in all seriousness) that the most successful members of his profession are basically international Machiavellian criminals. The hero of this book (or villain, or whatever you want to call him) fits perfectly well into this world; in fact he has a distinct advantage over real art dealers who presumably have some sense of conscience or morality, or at least fear of getting caught. Not so with John Drewe, the brilliant sociopath who, circumventing th ...more
Nov 15, 2012 rated it liked it
After watching most of White Collar on Netflix, I wanted a literary fix of high-flying forgery and smart cons. This books is... sort of that book. The events described are certainly stranger than fiction, but I felt that the style was a bit too academic to really thrill. For example, before the first chapter the authors list all the characters, including short but comprehensive descriptions. Obviously the book could only be written if the con man got found out, but knowing every step along the w ...more
Timothy Hallinan
Sep 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Sociopaths are often interesting, and John Drewe, the subject of this book, is more interesting than most.

Drewe realized that what makes a forged painting "work" is not only the skill with which it's faked, but also the provenance -- the paper trail that tracks the picture over time to its creator or, at least, to an authoritative attribution. He made enormous donations to museums' archives, which many donors overlook and then got permission to do research there. Of course, they searched him whe
Dec 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
This was such a fun read. I was impressed that the authors were able to cram such a complicated story into such a manageable book and still make it enjoyable. Every now and then there would be a completely random bit of information that seemed out of place, and I did wish there had been more dates given to help with following the chronology of the story, but ultimately, it was a fascinating story that makes me look at the art world with a new perspective.
Mar 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Loved this. I have a special affinity for art crime procedural drama anyway, so this was a perfect read for me. The story blew my mind and I learned tons about how the art world works. That being said, I will never look at a museum painting the same way again.
Apr 24, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Very detailed look at a couple of crooks. Morally fuzzy, boring and not well suited to audio.
Karen Rettig
This is a nonfiction book that reads like a thriller. In the art world, “provenance” refers to all of the letters, receipts, gallery catalogs, and other documents that prove the authenticity of a work of art. In the 1980’s, a brilliant con man, John Drewe, discovered that he could pass off forged works by major 20th century artists as authentic if he also forged the provenance. These artworks were not copies but rather works done in the style of the artist. Drewe took advantage of the fact that ...more
Sep 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
It's always amazing to hear how people pull off such convoluted schemes.

Drewe's forgery business was fascinating, and the book was focused, fast paced, and fun. I've been straying from nonfiction recently because I keep running across good stories that are badly told, so this was a nice break from that trend.
Nov 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Harriett Milnes
Oct 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great read! Forging a work of art is only half the story, you have to forge the provenance also. This book goes into all the details of the famous Drewe case, also giving a history of other famous forgers, yet remains very readable! a page-turner.
Kylie Brooks
Mar 11, 2018 rated it liked it
A great read for anyone interested in the art world at all. This is a wonderfully told true story about a long con that fooled the art world. The writing is easy to breeze through, and the details shocking as the story unfolds.
Sarah Burns
Sep 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I just simply adored it. I loved how the characters were developed, where in the beginning you admired Drewe for his talent for manipulating people, thinking, "Dang. I wish I could do that. Make my life easier." Then, as the book goes on, you see how his genius criminality takes a slow spiral into insanity, unbalanced perception of truth, and violence. You lose sympathy with him just in time to enjoy the experience of police building evidence against him and watching him butch ...more
Dec 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
I really enjoyed this one - it read like Da Vinci code, a total art thriller- I didn't want to put it down, but it was even better in that it is the true story of one man's ability to rewrite art history. I ended up completely feeling for John Myatt, even though he was the artist churning out hundreds of fake Picassos etc because he was duped by the famous con man John Drewe (<---- who rightfully so comes across as odious in this book). You'll learn a lot from this book as the authors take yo ...more
Aug 24, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is the true story of how a brazen pair of London con men (one sociopath and one talented but poor artist) successfully conned some of the major art collectors and museums of the world into buying fake works of art. The story reads like a thriller, and you will marvel at the level of detailed deception they created in order to establish provenance for each fake. The damage they did is so deep that it may never be fully repaired. Although convicted, the artist is now free and selling his art ...more
May 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
I have a longstanding weakness for caper tales, and Salisbury's "Provenance" is a lovely story of art world deception. The ploy here is simple--- find a forger who can do passable imitations of handful of modern artists (Giacometti, Graham Sutherland, Debuffet) and then back them up with a host of forged documents--- sales receipts, letters, catalog entries, gallery records. I love the details here, love watching the ploy unfold. (Though what does it say that one's sympathies are always with the ...more
May 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
I first saw this book on a write up of a friend and his fiancée in the Chicago Tribune. They listed this as one of their favorite books. I am incredibly interested in art heists, cons, and diamond thefts so this book seemed appealing. So happy I picked it up. Though nonfiction, the writers manage to tell the story in a way that it felt like fiction. (I understand some folks will have a problem with that.) I was captivated by the detail of the con, how long it went on, and at the sheer probabilit ...more
Sep 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Provenance is a riveting, non-stop read. For a decade in London in the 1990's a high school dropout and young artiste manque came together to create forged paintings and provenances. They were able to fool many dealers and auction houses (an easy mark) and even penetrated the archives of the Tate (in order to place forged provenances in the archives). This book reveals the psychopathic personality of the con man and the lost soul of the artist forger. More than a good character study, it is a ta ...more
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“By the end of the twentieth century Interpol was ranking art crime as one of the world’s most profitable criminal activities, second only to drug smuggling and weapons dealing. The three activities were related: Drug pushers were moving stolen and smuggled art down the same pipelines they used for narcotics, and terrorists were using looted antiquities to fund their activities. This latter trend began in 1974, when the IRA stole $32 million worth of paintings by Rubens, Goya, and Vermeer. In 2001, the Taliban looted the Kabul museum and “washed” the stolen works in Switzerland. Stolen art was much more easily transportable than drugs or arms. A customs canine, after all, could hardly be expected to tell the difference between a crap Kandinksy and a credible one.” 1 likes
“Detective Sergeant Jonathan Searle, a Cambridge-educated art historian who worked at Special Branch, the muscle behind British intelligence on national security and espionage.” 1 likes
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