I give you Part II, the conclusion, of my interview with Laney Salisbury. A huge thank you goes out to her again. And to all of you for checking the blog. I hope this inspired you to think about some of the questions and I think we will have a great discussion tonight.
Evanston Public Library: And after reading what he did to that elderly woman I realized that he just can’t stop. You’ve said that Drewe is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can even help himself do you?
Laney Salisbury: He’s a thug. No, I think his self-esteem is all wrapped up in this. This is true for many con-men; they get a kick out of fooling people. And it’s not about the money; it’s about how it makes them feel. So, it’s just part of who they are. They have to be challenged and that’s why some con-men make rules for themselves to make the game more difficult for themselves. It’s usually why almost every con ends up with the con-man conning his partner, because that’s the ultimate biggest challenge; if you’ve done that then you must be great.
You said you had to search for this story and that you were really interested in this con-man persona. How did you find it?
There was a lot of Googling back then. There was no sort of “A-HA” moment. I remember coming across, in the archives, a forger from the past from the 20’s or 30’s. It was van Meegeren who someone just wrote a book about too. And I actually said to Aly, “This would be a great story, but can we find someone recent. I’d like to report on something where the people are still alive.” He actually then showed me an article on John Myatt and I read it and, for me, sometimes I see a story and I can immediately tell if it’s a book. I don’t know what it is; I can just see all the issues that can be discussed, narratives that can be focused on, it just seemed like the perfect little story, so I gave it a shot.
In the UK the book was released under two different names: “The Conman: How One Man Fooled Britain’s Modern-Art Establishment” and “The Conman: How an Amateur Figured out the Art World and Fooled the Experts” versus the US version, “Provenance: How a Con Man and an Art Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.” Which title do you feel is the most telling?
Oh, “Provenance”. I can’t stand the other titles. I don’t know why they did that. I like “Provenance” because it’s all about history. This is a book not only about the provenance of artworks but of people too. In my head, who is the real John Myatt? John Myatt can’t even figure out who he is. He doesn’t have a style of his own so that’s what he does. John Drewe is a faker and these other people are fakes, so, to me, it seemed like a more appropriate title. It’s not just about the con-man; it’s about all our abilities to figure out where our origins are and who we are. I didn’t come up with the title, it was the publisher, but when I saw it I thought, “Oh yeah, how perfect.”
In the roundtable discussion you referred to the director of the Giacometti Association, Lisa Palmer, as the hero of this story. Can you explain why you feel that way?
Because she’s real. She doesn’t fall for any of the bells and whistles or trappings. She’s just very down to earth and very factual, and didn’t put up with anybody’s BS. I thought that was admirable, particularly in the art world, it is all about what you’re wearing and where you’re staying and what kind of watch you have. It’s a very stylish business and people judge you based on your style 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. And she was the only one that was saying, “I don’t care who owned it. Look at the work. The work is a fake.” And she just wouldn’t accept anything else and she was just very much the keeper of the flame. So many people told her so many stories, so she would just listen to them and say, “Look at the canvas. That’s all that matters. And that canvas is a fake, so don’t bother talking to me about this.” She wasn’t fooled by anything. She wasn’t fooled by John Drewe’s degrees or charms, unlike everyone else, except that archivist.
The biggest criticism of you book, in fact the only one I can find, is that you didn’t include photographs. You have stated you were unable to attain the rights to the forgeries because there was confusion about who actually owned them, be it Myatt, Scotland Yard, or the gallery owners. Why then did you choose not to include originals, and not the forgeries?
I would have also had to get permission for that. It also just became a time element. And Aly died before this was all completed. And this was the last step, and it was just too much. The result is that part suffered. The issue that made it complicated was that for every artist, you have to track down the estate and you have to ask, and then negotiate a price, get the picture and put it in the book. It would have been a long process, and then with the fakes, I don’t think it would have been possible at the end of the day.
You mentioned van Meegeren and the Vermeers, and the cover of that book (“The Forger’s Spell”) says that the van Meegeren hoax was the greatest art hoax of the twentieth century, yet all the press says that John Drewe’s con was best. Which is greater in your opinion?
Oh, John Drewe. I mean each story is different. I think what made John Drewe different from van Meegeren is that John Drewe was also messing with the archives. So in that sense it was not just about putting fakes on the market, he was changing cultural history. And that’s how his scam was very different than others.
I’ve read a couple things that talk about the possibility that this story will be made into a movie. One report read that Michael Douglas would be Drewe and on Myatt’s personal website it says that Green Gaia is currently writing the screenplay. Do you have any part in that?
Ya know it’s confusing. That Michael Douglas movie got canned a long time ago. Then for a while John Myatt and I had a contract that expired, to get a movie deal through the traditional route, where you have an agent. But those take time and it’s up to John, he can do whatever he likes. He seems to be signing these little deals that tend to go bust. If it works, great, I hope they use the title of the book, but I don’t know. This is the third one that’s come along. It’d be good. I don’t know if it’s going on or not. I still talk to him, but I haven’t in about eight months, probably because the contract expired. He has his life rights and I can’t just sell the rights to the book, he has to sell his life rights.
In all these interviews, not to mention you were an Oprah book club pick, what is the one question you’ve never been asked, or what is the one thing you’d like people to know about your book?
This book took four years to write. The world is so fast these days and people are used to getting information right away, sometimes they don’t appreciate how hard it is to get good information. It is a process that takes time. And if you want the good, verifiable, right information, you still have to sweat for it. To me, four years doesn’t seem like that long given that you have to talk to people and show them documents and say, “This is what I read. Does this make sense? Is this how you remember it? He said this, what do you think he said?” Sometimes you work for three weeks for the approval of one quote. So, I guess that.
What is your favorite non-fiction read?
Wow, there are a lot. I love Nathaniel Philbrick, “In the Heart of the Sea.” It was so well crafted and put together, so smooth. I love “The Perfect Storm” by Junger. That was my first real introduction to that kind of narrative non-fiction. “In Cold Blood” too, I love those classic ones.