The members-only Gallery Book Club met last night at the Alliance for the Art for its inaugural meeting. Some fifteen art enthusiasts met to consider Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Re-Wrote the History of Modern Art.
Filled by investigative reporters Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo with with extraordinary characters and diabolical subterfuge, Provenance had at least one book club member speculating that the tome is, in reality, “a history-based fiction.” In truth, the book does read like a fast-paced, well-plotted thriller. But the book is not fiction. It is a meticulously-researched, captivating account of one of the most far-reaching and elaborate cons in the history of art forgery.
Provenance revolves around a Bernie Madoff-like confidence man by the name of John Drewe. Con men, the authors point out, know “how to identify a mark’s particular longing and zero in on it.” While John Drewe victimized dozens of art dealers, gallery owners and collectors, his true mark was the art market itself.
What Drewe aptly perceived is that when museums, art dealers and collectors buy works purportedly rendered by artists like Picasso, Frank Stella or Alberto Giacometti, they typically verify the artwork’s authenticity by asking for documents that trace the piece's ownership back in time to its original sale by the artist or his gallery. This chain of title is called “provenance,” and in 1990s’ Britain, it had become so important that buyers actually ignored the evidence of their own eyes as long as a work’s provenance was in order. All the more if the work’s provenance contained the names of famous, well-known prior owners.
Realizing this, John Drewe infiltrated the archives of venerable institutions like the Tate Museum and the Victoria & Albert, planting hundreds of phony bills of sale, receipts, gallery ledgers, day books, handwritten letters from artists like Picasso, Giacometti and Braque and exhibition catalogues from galleries that had long since gone out of business in order to create seemingly rock-solid provenances for the more than 300 forgeries painted for him by struggling artist John Myatt.
“For nearly ten years [Drewe] spent countless hours studying the dullest aspects of the art business,” write authors Salisbury and Sujo. “He had researched archival methods until he could identify and exploit gaps in the firewall designed to protect the art market’s records and reputation. He had gone to infinite trouble to place fakes next to established masterpieces so as to make them appear to be part of art history.”
But what Drewe apparently didn’t count on was Giacometti Association Director Mary Lisa Palmer’s steadfast refusal to let provenance overrule her unerring eye when it came to Alberto Giacometti’s body of work. “[Art] is a very stylish business and people judge you based on your style,” Salisbury said in an interview after the book was published. “And that’s what they were doing to those artworks too; they were judging them on the provenances and getting all excited that some very famous, well-known people owned these works and that was clouding their judgment. [Mary Lisa Palmer] was the only one that was saying, ‘I don’t care who owned it. Look at the work. Look at the canvas. That’s all that matters. And that canvas is a fake ….’.”
As the Alliance Gallery Book Club noted, Drewe also took advantage of the fact that for many dealers, gallerists and collectors, art is now a commodity, just like coins or rare stamps. Gone are the days when people bought Monets, Picassos, Rauschenbergs and Rosenquists because they loved the work. Many purchases are motivated by the lure of double, even triple digit appreciation. Others just want the bragging rights that come with owning a rare painting by a Renoir, Matisse or Durer.
"Many collectors hang fakes on their walls and keep the originals in a vault," one member told the Book Club with obvious chagrin. "Which leads me to ask 'What is a collector buying?'," asked fine art photographer Jan Palmer, who served as co-moderator of last night's seminal meeting.
The book also left Club members questioning whether what they see in museums is genuine or Memorex. One of the gallery owners who purchased a fake from Drewe claimed that "a quarter of the works he saw every year were fakes or had some serious problems of authenticity." In her interview, Salisbury reported that she'd seen various statistics. "I think I saw something that said almost 50%. It was a lot more than we realize." The problem goes beyond outright fakes. "[T]here are people out there who might change a signature or they might think it's by a certain artist and add a signature on," Salisbury observes. "And I remember after reading that thinking, Boy, I'll never buy artwork from a dealer."
The Alliance Gallery Book Club meets on the third Tuesday of the month. It's next meeting is October 15 from 7-9 p.m. Emile Zola's The Masterpiece is the October title and Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany will be discussed in November. The club is open free of charge to all Alliance members.
Individual memberships are $50 per year and the whole family can join for just $75 per annum. Membership benefits also include 20% discounts on all classes and workshops, a wide variety of FREE class Try It sessions, discounts on theatre tickets and youth camps, special exhibition opportunities and the satisfaction of knowing you are supporting a strong and growing community of artists and art enthusiasts here in Southwest Florida.
Please visit www.artinlee.org or call 239-939-2787 to become a member today. And pre-registration for the Members Only Book Club is strongly recommended.
The Alliance for the Arts proudly supports artists and arts organizations in our area as the state designated Local Arts Agency for Lee County. The Alliance for the Arts galleries and gift shop are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1:00 on Saturdays. The Alliance is located at 10091 McGregor Boulevard, just south of Colonial Boulevard.