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Provenance

The amazing tale of one of the most audacious scams in the history of art.

By John Kehe / August 11, 2009



What is provenance? Good guess! But no, it’s not the capital of Rhode Island. Provenance means “origin,” as in, “What is the provenance of that famous work of art?” It is the paper trail of receipts, auction listings, exhibition catalogues, and letters of authenticity that accompany a piece of art through time.

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Provenance serves as an artwork’s passport, its certification – a mandatory starting-point for any transaction or public exhibition of note. How would dozens of forged “modern masterpieces” be able to pass through the highest levels of expert scrutiny without provenance? They wouldn’t. And that’s what makes Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art such a fascinating tale.

Husband-and-wife authors Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo spin the preposterous but true story of an unlikely pair: a dapper and charming London con man, John Drewe, and his malleable forger, John Myatt, a penniless part-time art instructor and single father of two. Together they perpetrated perhaps the greatest art fraud of the 20th century.

Myatt had a talent for mimicking any art style, so, badly strapped for cash, he placed an ad in London’s satirical magazine Private Eye, which had the kind of well-heeled and hip readership that might respond to his offer of “genuine fakes – facsimiles of 19th- and 20th-century paintings.” The ad worked, bringing the impoverished painter several much-needed commissions.

“His clients for the most part were cultural tourists, mall safarians who weren’t ashamed to buy a painting that would go nicely with the curtains,” write Salisbury and Sujo. What Myatt was doing was completely legal. Such copies can be found in hotel rooms and McMansions the world over.

Shortly after posting the ad, Myatt received a call. A caller with a polished and distinctly upper-class English voice introduced himself as “Dr.” John Drewe and asked Myatt to paint “a nice Matisse, something colorful, memorable, not too large.”

Pleased with the results of his first commission, Drewe ordered several more from Myatt. Although claiming that the fakes were gifts for his wife and friends, Drewe was already reselling them as genuine. If Myatt suspected his deep-pocketed client was up to something, it didn’t stop him from grabbing a paintbrush each time Drewe called in another order.

In the early stages of the deception, a few buyers of the forgeries became suspicious and asked for proof of the paintings’ lineage. Drewe, who never finished high school, began masquerading as a wealthy physicist with a PhD, consultant to the British Atomic Energy Authority, and university professor with a large collection of modern art.

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