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'Provenance' (excerpt)

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ProvenanceOne sunny April afternoon in 1990 two Englishmen strode up the steps of London’s Tate Gallery, passed beneath the imposing statues atop the pediment—Britannia, the lion, and the unicorn—and made their way through the grand portico into one of the world’s great museums. Both men had recently been welcomed into the narrow circle of curators, historians, and benefactors who gave the Tate its cachet, and today they were the special guests at a reception in their honor, to be held in one of the museum’s private conference rooms high above the galleries.

The more distinguished of the two was Professor John Drewe, a nuclear physicist with a pencil-thin mustache and gray-blue eyes. Drewe was often seen riding through London in a chauffeured Bentley and lunching at the most exclusive restaurants with members of the art world’s aristocracy. It was said that he had amassed an extensive personal art collection, and that he lived extremely well.

Today, as always, the professor held his head high. Everything about him, from his bearing to his clothes, suggested not just a gentleman of style and substance, but someone who expected deference in all his dealings.

The other honored guest was John Myatt, a different sort altogether. A struggling painter and onetime pop musician with a peasant face straight out of Bruegel, he looked as though he would have been happier trudging through the moorlands of Staffordshire than standing awkwardly in the Tate’s lobby in his charity-shop suit. Myatt, in attendance as Drewe’s personal art historian, took his every cue from the professor, whom he considered not only a business partner but a mentor as well.

A senior Tate staff member in a dark-blue Savile Row suit welcomed them and ushered them to the conference room upstairs. It was a large and impressive space, with polished wood floors, white walls, and bay windows looking out on the Thames. Around a solid oak table sat several of the Tate’s curators and senior staffers, including Nicholas Serota, the museum director, a slim, soft-spoken aesthete with rimless glasses, and Sarah Fox-Pitt, the formidable head of the Tate archives.

Like most other museums, the Tate was a privileged community run by a small army of art experts and archivists. Since 1988 it had been led with quiet imperiousness by Serota, who had taken over at a time when new funding was a priority. Along with every other British cultural institution under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s free-market policies, the museum had been forced to compete for sponsors, and while it still received government grants, these hardly covered the major purchases and expansions Serota planned. He was dedicated to reinvigorating an institution that the Guardian newspaper once described as stuffy and uninspired, “a bastion of sluggishness.”

An economist as well as an art historian, Serota was not shy about forming ties with corporations, wealthy new patrons, and private collectors. To float a single Cézanne exhibition, his accountants scheduled more than forty champagne receptions. Later Serota would inaugurate the Unilever Series, the Tate’s first brand-marketing collaboration with a company, and museum patrons visiting the restrooms would find the cubicles “adorned with a discreet notice—similar to those underneath some of its most famous paintings—thanking an anonymous benefactor for donating the wherewithal to keep them in toilet rolls,” as the Guardian reported.

The director did not have much choice. The art market was booming, and the Tate and many other art institutions were being priced out of the business. To keep the museum’s goals and galleries afloat, its directors and trustees were forced to tango with any number of prospective donors.

John Drewe was the perfect dance partner. He had been cultivating his relationship with the Tate for weeks, organizing lunches at the restaurant at Claridge’s Hotel for curators and senior staffers, including Fox-Pitt. If Serota embodied a new, less class-conscious Britain (he was known to wash his staff’s teacups after meetings), Fox-Pitt was Old World. A slim and sophisticated aristocrat in her late forties, she had worked at the Tate as a curator and archivist for more than a decade and had carved out her own fiefdom. Her archives had become an important part of the museum, and she was always looking for ways to expand. She had a reputation as a fearsome gatekeeper with X-ray vision that allowed her to peer into the heart of anyone she suspected of harboring anything less than the most altruistic motives toward the Tate. One luckless acquaintance who failed to pass muster recalled how Fox-Pitt looked through him, then past him, as if she had determined with a single glance that he was useless for her purposes.

Drewe had piqued her interest from the start. He was versed in the archival arts and spoke eloquently about a cache of important letters, catalogues, and lecture notes that had passed through his hands over the years. He seemed to know a great deal about twentieth-century art records, particularly those of the avant-garde Institute of Contemporary Arts and the British Council, and he boasted about his own private archive, which contained letters from Picasso, lecture notes from Ben Nicholson, and a trove of material from Dubuffet and other major artists.

In the course of his conversations with Fox-Pitt, Drewe talked at length about his background in the sciences. He had an impressive lineage: His father, a noted British physicist, had worked on the development of Britain’s atomic energy program, and had split the atom in Cambridge in the early 1930s. Drewe had followed in his father’s footsteps by going to work in the nuclear industry. In midlife he had become fascinated with art and its history, and as his collection grew he began to understand the importance of archives and documentation. He had developed a collector’s gratitude for the role played by archivists in the safeguarding of art history, and he hinted to Fox-Pitt that parts of his collection, as well as some other valuable historical documents, might find their proper home at the Tate. He also hinted that he was considering a substantial monetary donation to the archives.

Excerpted from "Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art" by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) July, 2009.

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