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Another Notable about Mis-Identity, “Provenance”

I’m continuing my reading journey through the current American Library Association Notable Books List. You can also find it divvied up by fiction and nonfiction in the library’s “Books Movie and More” website.

One of this year’s themes from the Notable List  is revealing itself–the impact of multiple identities. They were critical to the novel, “Await Your Reply,” and to the nonfiction book about human smuggling, “Snakehead.” And now here they are again, at the heart of another nonfiction title,”Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art” by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Provenance.” Salisbury and Sujo create a strong sense of story despite having to veer from the story to educate the reader about the art world. With only a few exceptions, they share just enough information to show when something is critical or important, without losing their narrative thread.

The story itself is fascinating. In the 1980s and 1990s, a mastermind named John Drewe teamed up with an artist to sell fake paintings as the real things by artists such as Giacometti, Paul Klee, and Ben Nicolson. Drewe realized that he could not do this on a profitable enough scale without providing the kind of provenance, or documented history, that would convince scrupulous collectors and museums of authenticity. He compromised the archives of London’s Tate Gallery, for instance, inserting pages into catalogs of exhibits from the 1950s, creating rubber stamps from reputable galleries, and using names of people known or unknown to create a history for paintings. Apparently a pathological liar, Drewe developed the persona of an educated and cultured person. He dressed well. He spoke in an artistocratic way. He got people on his side.

Equally interesting are the parts about John Myatt, the artist who could paint in so many styles so convincingly. Drewe spotted his vulnerability immediately.

Salisbury and Sujo begin by telling how Drewe got underway and gained momentum. Then they turn toward the people involved in the unraveling and taking the case to trial. The archivists who weren’t convinced by Drewe. The keeper of the legacy of Giacometti who knew that certain works were wrong. The police officers who had to build a case. Drewe’s spurned common-law wife.

The story’s a fascinating one, and that it’s so well told and documented makes it a perfect choices for the Notables List. It raises pithy questions about identity and what it means to lead people to believe you’re someone you aren’t. Certainly it raises questions about art–what does it mean that a particular person painted something? How much does a piece of art stand on its own apart from its history?

I’ll be recommending this to many readers–to those who love a mystery, who enjoy art, who are generally on the lookout for a well-told story, to lovers of nonfiction. L. Kent Wolgamott mentioned this in an article in Sunday’s Journal-Star as a good one for true-crime readers.

And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next Notable I read will be as satisfying as this one.

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