No drama will be lost by recounting the opening scene in "Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art" (Penguin Press, 311 pages, $26.95), Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo's riveting and true tale of an amazing scam that rocked the international art market in the 1990s:
As keepers of London's premier museum of modern art, curators at the Tate Gallery don't fawn over just anyone. But when a significant collector is donating major art, they do throw an elegant lunch, as they did in 1990 for Professor John Drewe, an urbane nuclear physicist turned connoisseur, and John Myatt, the collector's personal art adviser. All the Tate's senior staff turned out, including director Nicholas Serota, one of the art world's most powerful figures. Into the haze of tea and pleasantries, white-gloved conservators appeared carrying a pair of 5-foot-tall abstract paintings in summery hues. "Ah, the Bissières, how lovely," someone murmured as everyone paused to admire Drewe's munificent gift. Everyone except Myatt, that is. He was shocked -- and scared -- by his employer's audacity in giving the Tate paintings that he, Myatt, had painted a mere two weeks earlier.
Art fraud enjoys a charmed life in the literature of crime, perpetrated as it generally is by engaging rogues and clever hacks who insinuate themselves into chic settings where glamorous types drop names while air kissing. What's not to like? Even the walk-on characters in "Provenance" are fascinating, the couriers who schlep paintings between galleries, the overeducated librarians who mind the archives, the shrewd Scotland Yard detectives who bulldogged the case, and especially the uncorruptible London art restorer, Jane Zagel, and the Paris-based American-born art expert, Mary Lisa Palmer, whose hunches helped nail the criminals.
But it's the novelistic skill with which Salisbury, a journalist, and her late husband, Sujo, unpack the tale that makes "Provenance" such an absorbing read. Before he was nabbed in what Scotland Yard dubbed the 20th century's biggest art fraud, Drewe had schnookered major auction houses, collectors and museums. How? By faking not only art but also the provenance, or history of ownership, of the bogus Dubuffets, Braques and Giacomettis he sold. He whipped up fake catalogs, exhibition and sales records, and insinuated them into the archives of the Tate, the Victoria and Albert and a vast network of other museums and galleries. Buyers and sellers both rely on such records to establish the age, authenticity and significance of art -- if Picasso or Nick Serota once owned it, it must be important -- so the potential price rockets up.
Drewe's arrest, trial and conviction made international headlines in 1999. Archivists are still scrubbing the files he corrupted. And, as you might have guessed, he never was a nuclear physicist.
Mary Abbe, the Star Tribune's art critic, is at 612-673-4431.