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Provenance: The Biggest Art Fraud Of The 20th Century

A new book tells the incredible true story of the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century. WFIU's Adam Schwartz interviews the co-author of "Provenance."

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

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There is a hidden aspect to the art works that we see in galleries and museums. Each work on display comes with a history of its ownership, dating from the piece’s conception to the present. The history can include receipts, early sketches, correspondence—anything that shows the piece is authentic. This process of keeping track of an art work’s documentation is called “establishing provenance,” and most of the time, it works.

But in 1980s England, a brilliant con man named John Drewe infiltrated the archives in of some England’s most prestigious galleries and museums and planted faked provenances there. This allowed him to sell some 200 forged paintings supposedly painted by such masters as Giacometti, Dubuffet, and Ken Nicholson, and rake in millions.

The story of the nine-year scam is told in a new book, Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by investigative journalists Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.

WFIU’s Adam Schwartz interviewed Laney Salisbury from her home in Woodstock, New York.

Q: How did John Drewe and John Myatt “rewrite the history of modern art”?

A: Largely through the provenances that John Drewe created to go with the paintings that John Myatt forged. What John Drewe did that made his scam different from every other art fraud out there, is that he went into the archives of art museums and put false documentation in the archives. So that when people went to double-check the authenticity of the forgery—because they had doubts—they would find the paperwork there. And then they would think to themselves, “Oh, this must be authentic.”

Q: John Myatt met John Drewe when Myatt placed a small ad in the back of the satirical magazine Private Eye. The ad read, “Genuine fakes. Nineteen and twentieth century paintings from £150.” At that point, Myatt was honest about his paintings in the style of modern masters being fakes. Slowly, however, Myatt fell under Drewe’s spell and became a willing participant in the scam. How did John Myatt go from being honest to criminal?

A: A con man slowly grooms a person to cross the line. What John Drewe did with John Myatt was he befriended him. And through a slow process of friendly persuasion , convinced Myatt that what he was doing wasn’t really a crime. That the art market deserved it, and that there were a lot of fakes out there, and modern art is one big fake itself, and there will be no victims in this crime.

Q: Who were some of the artists John Myatt forged?

A: Bracque, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Graham Sutherland, Paul Klee, Roger Bissières. There were about thirty. He was quite a talented forger.

Q: How did John Drewe’s personal presentation inspire confidence?

A: He came across as a man who was well off. Someone who could afford to collect the art he claimed to own. He was in the society of the art world, and the art world tends to dress very well. They enjoy luxury. They really care about how they look and what they buy. Their tastes are very refined and very high. John Drewe had to fit into that milieu. He dressed like them, so the others would identify with him. So when he came across with a claim he had a collection of 20th century works, he was much more credible. Because he looked like them and talked like them.

Q: John Drewe sold some 200 forged paintings. About how many have been recovered and how many are still in collections, thought to be genuine?

A: The police have recovered about seventy-five to eighty works. The rest are believed to be floating around out there. John Myatt has said that he’s seen a couple works hanging on the walls of some museums, and I know from another source that a collector has a “Giacometti.” Whether he knows it’s a fake or not, I don’t know.

Q: Are the museums that have faked provenances planted by John Drewe going to have them purged from their archives?

A: They have worked to do that. The Tate went through all their books that John Drewe is known to have looked at and tried to find those documents that he forged. The only problem is, they know only the ones that were included in the police investigation. There are others they don’t know about. So those papers could still be in there. And the police have indicated that John Drewe visited many other galleries and institutions in London and abroad. His forging skills were so good that some of this paperwork may never be found.

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John Drewe and John Myatt served prison terms for their part in the swindle. John Drewe claims he’s innocent and that he never knew the paintings were fakes. John Myatt still makes pictures in the styles of such masters as Claude Monet. But now, on the back of each canvas he writes, “genuine fakes” and signs his own name.

Laney Salisbury is also the co-author of The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic.

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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