Provenance, which means history of ownership, is a key term to drop at a gallery opening between sips of Champagne, preferably with the hint of a French accent. The word has gained currency in the past 10 years.
The currency comes from disputes over works of art, which grab headlines with art prices soaring and prominent people often holding the works in question.
With paintings that were seized from Jews during the Nazi era, the art trade routinely expunged names of Jewish collectors or dealers from a work's provenance to avoid stigmatizing paintings as Holocaust loot and alerting heirs to stolen property. A new field of expertise is filling gaps in these histories.
Most countries ban the export of antiquities, so that anything without papers documenting its export before that ban was issued is suspect. The demand for illegally exported antiquities has in turn triggered a demand for fake export documents. Provenance maneuverings involving antiquities have dogged museums in Southern California in recent years.
Provenance cleansing and trimming are facts of today's art market. Yet the scheming in "Provenance," by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, reveals the degree to which "proper" histories can sell phony art.
In 1985, a velvet-tongued British con man, John Drewe, who saw gold and glamour in modern art, persuaded a cash-poor painter to copy everything from Ben Nicholson to Alberto Giacometti - not copies of masterpieces, just modern pictures that no one had seen before.
To market those investments, Drewe created provenance papers for the forgeries, certifying ties to respected museums or venerable galleries. The right donation or bottle of Champagne with a curator won Drewe access to the archives at the Tate and other museums, where he "documented" his fakes, cooking the books.
Security, Drewe figured, was based on the assumption that people might remove things, not add them. For a while it worked. Plenty of experts were tricked.
This decadelong scam and its unraveling had everything - a Faustian tale of a desperate painter, John Myatt, toiling for the Mephistophelean Drewe, plus credulous museum directors and art dealers, heroic subalterns who smelled a rat, and hard-nosed Scotland Yard cops. Drewe, Myatt and another accomplice went to jail, briefly.
Only about 80 of the 200 Myatt forgeries that Drewe admitted selling were recovered. The rest are still out there - art historical disinformation.
The authors of "Provenance" have a feel for the color and flair of the epicurean who dined and dressed lavishly and drove a Rolls-Royce. Usually passing himself off as a nuclear physicist, he also claimed to work for British intelligence or as an arms dealer. Even his name was a fake.
They deal adroitly with Drewe's Achilles' heel, a vanity that led him to talk too much and leave clues. We see Drewe's vileness toward the Israeli mother of his children. She testified against him and ended up far more damaged than the museums and art buyers he cheated.
The Drewe scandal was a wild feast of duplicity with a rich ensemble cast. Yet its characters are far more complex and mysterious than what we get in "Provenance," which stumbles through opportunities for drama and shortchanges its own crescendo, the spectacle of Drewe's trial in 1998, when he played lawyer grandiloquently, and lost. Also, inexplicably, there are no illustrations.
Drewe's target was modern art, which ends (these days) about 1980. Contemporary art, now much more in fashion than when Drewe was active 10 years ago, seems to have found a partial solution to the plague of fakes born of scarcity: Artists and their dealers produce in multiples to satisfy demand. Yet anyone buying works by Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring knows (or should know) that fakes are out there in droves.
Although Drewe's predatory days are over, forgery will survive as long as collectors seek venerable and rare works, like Modigliani, another faker's favorite. And why not? Drewe's punishment - an early release after serving two years of a six-year sentence, suggests that art forgery is a minor, and victimless, crime.
John Drewe was caught in the act. Yet beware, buyers. He's the devil we know. The greatest art frauds are those that remain unrevealed and unpunished.