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Book Review: Provenance 

click to enlarge Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by - Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. Penguin Press, 2009, $26.95.
  • Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art byLaney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. Penguin Press, 2009, $26.95.

The art world exists in a rarefied atmosphere of passion, wealth, and self-importance; aside from the odd theft, one seldom thinks of it as a world rocked by crime. Within its borders, however, exist the same temptations that come with any high-stakes game. Provenance, a true-crime work that enthrals without a drop of gore, explores what happened when an upmarket con man devised a complex, ingenious plan to circumvent the art world’s defenses.

Woodstock residents Salisbury and Sujo, a husband-and-wife team of top-flight reporters, obviously knew a truly great story when they heard one, and they tell it well. It’s the twisted tale of a sociopath who hooked up with a talented, struggling painter and devised methods of faking the requirement that major artworks changing hands come with a provable history of the work’s ownership since its creation.

Sujo, who passed away shortly after finishing this work, was the son of a gallery owner. Perhaps it’s that native’s perspective that helps the book achieve an affectionate yet unsparing portrait of the world of high-dollar collecting. Like a drunken salesman falling for the wiles of a larcenous dance hall gal, the übersophisticated world of the Tate Galleries, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s swooned into the arms of conniver John Drewe all too readily. The sincerity of some of those who dedicate their lives to the guardianship of High Culture stands out in vivid contrast. “Don’t be ridiculous,” an archivist is told when she raises questions about Drewe, the villainous fabulist at the center of Provenance. “He’s a benefactor.” It becomes evident that the millionaire collectors and dealers might have remained in blissful ignorance till Drewe died an old and wealthy man, were it not for the lesser-knowns with their messy desks and tidy minds.

Like all the best true crime, Provenance is a fascinating character study: of Drewe, of his talented and ultimately not unlikeable partner in crime, John Myatt, and of his victims and opponents. They are a fascinating crowd: the scorned and ferocious common-law ex-wife who gets her revenge, the relentlessly determined art expert Mary Lisa Palmer in her sensible shoes, and the Scotland Yard detectives who piece the puzzle together.

Drewe seduces his way into the archives and good graces of museums and galleries with an instinct for the weaknesses of his victims, pretending to worship at their altar whilst committing sacrilege. Myatt, a single dad and a creative underachiever, gets drawn in by need and vanity; the reader is relieved when he finally gets to come clean.

Drewe, whose reality is so solipsistic that the mind boggles, reaches no such epiphany. As a boy, we learn, he gave speeches to imaginary crowds and styled himself a “hero for the future,” claiming kinship with the Earl of York. At trial, he fired his lawyer and mounted a sort of Oliver North defense that the whole scam had been in service of a complicated international undercover operation. Drewe’s impenetrable narcissism is ultimately scarier than an entire fleet of garden-variety gangsters.

Provenance would make a great film, but even a great film would have a hard time equaling the layers of depth and tone provided by Salisbury and Sujo’s book. Read it for the art history, read it for the psychology, but do read it.

  • Anne Pyburn Craig reviews a smart thriller novel.

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