- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

By Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo
Penguin, $26.95, 327 pages

According to Interpol, art crime is one of the world’s most profitable criminal activities, trailing only drug smuggling and the arms trade in dollar volume. Forgery generates relatively little media attention, in part because there is no blood, in part because the arcane art world is only dimly perceived by the man in the street, and in part because the victims are generally rich and as such inspire little sympathy.

And when the victim is an institution, such as a museum, it will often conceal its loss rather than embarrass its professional staff.

The most damaging series of art forgeries in recent decades were pulled off by a pair of improbable Englishmen, John Drewe and John Myatt, whose operations are engagingly told by two investigative reporters, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, in “Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.”

The authors note that there are several levels of forgery: the outright fake, the unsigned work to which someone adds a famous signature in order to increase its value and a work that has been incorrectly ascribed to a prominent artist. In “Provenance,” the authors write, “the guardians of high art have estimated that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the works on the market are either fakes or genuinely old works that have been doctored to fit a more valuable style or artist.”

According to the authors, art criminals like the London scene. “Fences [are] unusually civil and one could unload just about anything. For art thieves and forgers, the city had become one of the world’s great crossroads for dodgy canvases.”

The scam that Scotland Yard called “the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century” centered on a professed nuclear physicist, John Drewe, who exuded an aura of wealth and who circulated in high circles of London art. Drewe sought to make a living off forgeries, but he required a skilled artist and these were hard to come by. He found the man he needed in John Myatt, a down-and-out painter who earned a meager living as an art teacher. Myatt would also paint “legal” copies of famous paintings that he made no effort to pass off as originals.

Drewe cultivated Myatt and judged him capable of forging modern works by artists such as Roger Bissieres and Alberto Giacometti. To get Myatt’s fakes past the experts, however, they must have such convincing provenances as to discourage close examination. And Drewe’s forging of provenances — a painting’s documentary trail of ownership — is what made his crime unique.

With his Saville Row suits and a plummy accent, Drewe conned his way into key archives where he planted phony documents that lent authenticity to Myatt’s fakes. He gained access to the Institute of Contemporary Arts by donating two of Myatt’s paintings to a fundraising auction. A donation of $32,000 led the prestigious Tate Gallery to open its archives. Everywhere he planted shipping papers, customs and insurance forms, and reports from various restorers to lend credence to Myatt’s ongoing work.

While Drewe lived the high life in London, Myatt slogged away in his decrepit rural farmhouse. In all, he completed more than 200 fakes, working with increasing facility. Whereas Dutch forger Han van Meegeren had gone to great pains to create paints consistent with his phony Old Masters, Myatt bought his paint at the hardware store.

Things began to unravel in 1995. Jennifer Booth, chief archivist at the Tate, became suspicious of Drewe and his underlings and their strange behavior in the archives. The London art squad at first showed little interest, but Booth was insistent, pointing out that many “new” paintings had similar provenances. At about the same time Drewe left his common-law wife, Batsheva Goudsmid, for a younger woman. Batsheva was not pleased, and went to the police with her story.

The police arrested Myatt in September 1995, and the forger — already uneasy about his life in crime — agreed to cooperate. Drewe and Myatt were brought to trial in September 1998 and quickly found guilty. Considering the chaos they had unleashed in the art world, however, their sentences were relatively light. Drewe was sentenced to six years in prison but served only two. Myatt was sentenced to one year but served only four months.

Drewe quickly disappeared from the radar screen, but Myatt began a new life. He was welcomed back to his hometown in Staffordshire. One of the policemen who worked on his case commissioned Myatt to paint a family portrait. Soon Myatt had more commissions than he could handle and set up a legitimate business, Genuine Fakes. A pillar of his community, Myatt now sings in the church choir, makes occasional TV appearances, and sells his paintings for as much as $75,000.

Meanwhile, many of the “Drewe fakes,” as they are called, adorn the walls of museums, galleries, and private homes. Presumably they are enjoyed for themselves, raising the interesting question of whether an art object is “worthy” only if it has a perfect pedigree.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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