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Provenance: Book Review

In my last post I wrote about how I was trying to spend more time offline. One of the things I have started doing is visiting the library and reading more books. I struggle with books because many that I pick up are duds and either bore me or depress me so I never end up finishing. Sometimes I like to read a book that someone I trust recommended to me because I have more confidence that I will actually like it.

Recently, I read the book Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo about John Drewe and John Myatt who carried off an elaborate art forgery scam for years in the 80’s and 90’s. Even though it is a nonfiction book I found it very entertaining and it felt more like reading a novel to me. John Drewe was the classic con man sociopath type who convinced everyone that he was a physicist and involved with the upper echelons of the British government. John Myatt was a single father who trying to make it as an artist by selling paintings “in the style of” famous artists but barely paying his bills. Eventually, Drewe convinced Myatt to paint outright forgeries while Drewe sold them at auction making a huge profit. Even though some of the paintings were quite bad, Drewe was able to convince people that they were originals by infiltrating into museum archives and falsifying documents to create fake provenances (hence the title). Eventually, it all came crashing down when some persistent art experts became suspicious after catching a few sloppy mistakes and Myatt ended up cooperating with the investigators.

As someone who went to school for history, I really appreciated all the research that the authors did to come up with this book. I also developed a loathing for this John Drewe character who really ended up doing a lot of damage by contaminating historical archives, not to mention all the forged paintings that are still floating around out there thought to be originals. John Myatt was the most interesting to me. It’s true that he was in a vulnerable place when Drewe led him astray. However, I still wonder what goes on in a person’s mind when they get caught up in something they clearly know is wrong, yet ignore their conscience for years. He did end up going to prison for a couple of months and actually used this incident to launch a legitimate art career painting “genuine fakes.”

One thing I would have liked about the book is if they would have included a photo of Drewe and Myatt so I could have pictured what they looked like. Likewise, I would have liked to see some examples of the forged artwork. The artwork that Myatt was forging was of modern artists that I personally don’t have much interest in, but I still would have liked to see some examples. I did some googling and did find this article which shows some pictures and also Myatt’s website.


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