Joanne's Reviews > Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

Provenance by Laney Salisbury
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's review
Jun 14, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery, non-fiction
Read in June, 2010

What an interesting book! I've read a lot of fictional mysteries featuring art theft, but this is *nonfiction* and a very detailed account of how John Drewe, a brilliant egotistical pathological liar, rocked the art world by successfully forging thousands of art works and, as the title suggests, their provenance. Through his force of personality, supreme confidence, and the occasional donation, he was able to win over the Tate Gallery and gain access to their archives, whereupon he *inserted* forged documents backdating his forged art to the 1950s (archives have traditionally been concerned with people taking things *out*, not putting them *in*). He also impersonated people, name-dropped, set up false corporations, used his friends, and built an amazing chain of people who believed in him because they trusted the person who recommended Drewe to them. By the time he came to trial, he had his own network of dealers, but his personal life had fallen apart and he was increasingly unstable, asserting a huge conspiracy against him that involved the Mafia, arms dealers, the Mossad, British intelligence, and just anyone else who was in the news at the time. It's an amazing story.

The book bogs at times with too much detail about people and places. It's obviously well-researched, but it digresses for pages into, for example, the history of other forgeries, or the history of a particular monastery, or the history of the term "confidence man."

It reminded me of one of the chapters in Blink about art forgery -- several of the people who ran across the forgeries felt or suspected that something was off about them, but they shrugged their doubts away because the provenance was so good. And several people simply did not like Drewe as a person, finding him vaguely creepy, and thus avoided being swept into his net. I think Malcolm Gladwell would say to trust those instincts.

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