Friday, January 3, 2014

The Week in Books

I'm not much of a modern art scholar (or any kind of a modern art scholar at all), but I just finished Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, and I am officially fascinated by the art world. It reads like a whodunnit, only you know the whole time who is doing what; the question is just whether they will get caught, and how. There are two fascinating threads - how the forger and con man did what they did; and how the people who finally caught them figured it out.

So John Myatt was an artist who specialized in making copies of famous works. His own art never really took off, so he made a business out of making fakes, like painting portraits in the style of a famous artist. John Drewe, a con man who would come up with one scheme after another, got wind of Myatt's work, and started commissioning pieces from him. He then started testing Myatt. Inviting home over for dinner and saying, "Don't tell my wife you painted that; she thinks it's an original." Seeing if Myatt would play along. Which he did, because he was making so much in commissions from Drew.

Now here's the fascinating part. Drewe ingratiated himself at some of the most prestigious museums in London, and used his charm (and some donations - money or "original" paintings) to get access to their archives, where he figured out ways of faking the provenance for his fakes - ie their history and authenticity. He would photocopy exhibition catalogs and then insert a fake into the new catalog, making it seem as if the fake had indeed been shown at a particular exhibition. He gained access to copies of receipts and certificates from art organizations and museums throughout London. Very few people suspected him. The paintings Myatt made were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars around the world, with the fake provenances that Drewe made.

There were two people who were skeptical of him from the get go. One was an archivist at the Tate, who thought that his demeanor and requests were fishy, but her supervisors didn't do anything when she sounded the alarm, because he had just given £20,000 to the Tate, with a promise of fundraising for more. 

The other one was at the Giacometti Association in Paris, when they were asked by Sotheby's to authenticate one of the fakes, and could clearly see that it wasn't authentic. When they contacted the auction house to tell them it was a fake and needed to be pulled, Sotheby's said they weren't going to pull it because the provenance was so good.

The story of how the men were finally found out is a fascinating read, and I won't give it away here. Suffice it to say that it could be a nail-biting thriller of a movie, and I think someone like Matt Damon should get the film rights, if they haven't already.

In Sum: I loved this book.

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