Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo

One of art historian Leo Steinberg’s hobby horses  is the way the literature of art generates interpretations that are autonomous of the images being described.  What is written about a work can spin false leads and confused trails that looking directly at the work ought to dispel.  Just as this happens with the historical interpretation of images, so too – as the macabre case described by Laney Salisbury and her late husband Aly Sujo demonstrates – documents can trump the objects they support in questions of attribution.

The story – a real page-turner, fascinating and nauseating in equal measure – is of an extraordinary scam perpetrated by one John Drewe, a con artist who posed as a nuclear physicist, philanthropist and art lover, and his semi-unwitting sidekick, an art forger named John Myatt.  Myatt was a former art student down on his luck who was offering his services, through the classified section of a weekly satirical magazine, as the painter of “authentic forgeries,” that is to say pastiches or copies of the masters that made no attempt to disguise what they were.  Drewe commissioned various works from him, charmed him with his generosity and erudition when they met, and coaxed him into crossing the line beyond good-natured emulation. Over a decade of deceit the pair put 200 fakes into circulation.

When Drewe first attempted to insinuate the works he was commissioning into the market he came up against the obstacle of provenance: Who had owned these objects before him, and how could their authenticity be backed up?  It was in his address of this problem that Drewe distinguished himself as an outlandish and original faker in a league beyond his amanuensis behind the easel.

Frustratingly, the book has no illustrations, for one would dearly love to see the works that seduced such distinguished art world players: auctioneers, dealers, collectors, art historians.  Myatt’s skill must have been all the more considerable because, astoundingly, as he couldn’t afford oil paints, he cooked up his confections in household paints instead.  Equally astounding is that Drewe didn’t feel the need to subsidize and insist on “authentic” materials.  This was because the focus lay elsewhere: on Provenance.

Drewe wormed his way into the confidence of the ramshackle Institute of Contemporary Arts, an avant garde, multi-disciplinary venue founded in the 1950s by Herbert Read and Roland Penrose whose rich archives were in disarray.  Drewe was the knight in shining armor philanthropist-enthusiast who would help straighten them out.  No one objected when he got box loads of dusty old papers out of everyone’s way and took them home with him to Golders Green, where he lived with his Israeli girlfriend.

Honore Daumier The Print Collectors c.1860-63. Oil on panel, 31.8 x 40.6 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
Honore Daumier, The Print Collectors c.1860-63. Oil on panel, 31.8 x 40.6 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

In fact, this trove of historic documentation gave Drewe the raw materials – the handwriting, stationery, logos, receipts, and names and addresses of lenders and agents and institutions – from which to fabricate credible documentation.  He became a collage artist whose creation was provenance.

When presenting photographs of Myatt’s fakes to the authenticating authorities – such as Sir Alan Bowness, former Tate director and son-in-law of Ben Nicholson – these documents worked their magic, along with the entirely plausible ownership histories the ICA archives furnished.  Drewe’s coup de grace, however, was to place his phony leads in the institutional archives where diligent dealers and scholars would research the Myatts presented to them.  With his ICA connections, Drewe was soon a trusted benefactor of the Tate archives, too, donating £20,000 and promising another half a million, and extended his researches to the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The security in archives and libraries focused on preventing valuables being taken out; there wasn’t corresponding diligence to prevent stuff coming in.

Drewe’s webs of deceit extended to recruiting unsuspecting friends and acquaintances to be previous owners of his fences; forging catalogues of shows that never took place to include documentation of Myatt’s forgeries, and slipping them into libraries; concocting a connection with a religious order whose officers were then coerced into inadvertent corroboration.  His undoing began thanks to dogged diligence from Tate archivist Jennifer Booth, who was unswayed by Drewe’s generosity and followed her suspicions, and the director of the Giacometti Association in Paris, Mary Lisa Palmer, whose skepticism was borne of actually looking at the painting she was supposed to authenticate and realizing it was “wrong,” and having that guide her, not the impeccable paperwork that was enough for the auctioneers and dealers whose sales she held up. “The art world hath no fury like the expert duped,” quip the authors.

But what really undid Drewe was the evidence of the Israeli girlfriend, Batsheva Goudsmid, he so grieviously wronged – bribing a psychologist with “le Corbusiers,” he was able to frame her as an abuser of their children and thus win custody of them.  Goudsmid was convinced that Drewe was behind a fatal fire in the Hampstead property of a man who was blackmailing him.  It was when she took archival papers left by Drewe in her house to the detective investigating the fire, and that policeman turned to colleagues in Scotland Yard, that Drew’s scheme began to unravel.

Drewe got six years, and served two, and continues to spin a web of conspiracy theories about international military espionage in his self-aggrandizing defense.  Myatt served a few months of a one year sentence, went back to “authentic forgeries,” and got his own TV show on how to fake masterpieces.  The archives began to look at what was coming in as well as going out.  The Israeli girlfriend was left a wreck.  And 120 masterworks in house paint are still out there, all with impeccable provenances.

Penguin Press, New York, 2009. 327 pp, ISBN 9781594202209. $26.95