The Origamist

Pathological liars are sometimes referred to as “folded”, emotionally “enveloped” by their imagined selves, and thus “origamists,” from the Japanese word for folded paper birds and animals.” – Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo

For a while I have been fascinated by the work of John Myatt, a painter who was infamously involved in one of the biggest art cons of modern times. Myatt is a gifted mimic of other artists and painted what he referred to as “genuine fakes”. Having fallen on hard times, he was recruited by a con man, John Drewe, to help pull off this enormous con selling hundreds (potentially more than a thousand) forgeries into the art market.

Drewe was such a pathological liar he seemed to have convinced himself that he was telling the truth about what the work was -that Myatt was merely a restorer of art and not its producer. Drewe constructed a world around the art, proving its history, proving that it had been exhibited and sold many times. And he managed to get his proofs into some rather important places. In some ways his creation was a work of art larger than Myatt’s.

I have recently read the excellent book, Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo, which attempts to explain how the con worked and how they were caught. It’s a brilliant read as it’s written as a classic thriller or police procedural. John Drewe’s character is truly unbelievable and repeatedly things happen which are so far fetched as to make you question if you are really reading a factual account of events. The story even features a police officer who is two weeks from retirement who just wants to put this one last case to bed! This story literally has everything. (For probably my Dad’s entertainment only, it even has a visit to a certain Polish restaurant – Daquise). I would certainly recommend it just for the entertainment value alone, I would love for it to be made into a movie (I’m thinking Coen Brothers).

But I was even more interested in the discussion on what makes art art. Were these pieces less good than the originals? When some of the collectors thought they were genuine they were described as “perhaps the greatest work” of the particular artist. When they were discovered as forgeries they we sometimes described as “obviously fake”.

There is a passage in the book about an earlier forger, Han Van Meegeren, who produced ten Vermeers. His works were only discovered because he sold one of them to Herman Göring and so after the war he was accused of collaboration. He revealed that it was a forgery because that was a lesser crime than collaboration and nobody believed him until he created an eleventh Vermeer in his cell.

After the truth was revealed, Van Meegeren wrote, “Yesterday, this picture was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

It’s an intriguing question.

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