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[dl] Books


Three new counterfeit-themed books are the real deal.


THERE IS SOMETHING INTRIGUING -- AWE-INSPIRING, EVEN -- ABOUT THE ART OF THE CON. Stories about swindles, frauds, and forgeries tap into our collective fear of being taken for a ride but also expose our secret admiration for those cunning enough to pull off such acts of trickery.

Three new books delve into the lives of the masterminds behind three real-life scams. As each of the charlatans learns, it is usually the smallest of mistakes -- a forgotten stash of papers, misplaced trust in a confidant -- that unravels his carefully constructed web of lies.

Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art

By Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo | The Penguin Press, $27
JOHN MYATT’S paintings command tens of thousands of pounds. He’s hosted two British TV shows about art, and filming is rumored to begin soon on a movie about his life. His is a success story that would have seemed impossible 10 years ago, when he was serving time in a London prison for his role in what Scotland Yard called “the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century.”

Myatt, a talented mimic, was drawn into the underground art world by John Drewe, and it is the enigmatic and troubled Drewe who is the star of Provenance. Drewe sold more than 200 of Myatt’s “masterpieces” -- which were made to look like original works by other famous artists -- to auction houses, museums, and millionaires. On top of that, Drewe actually rewrote history by providing detailed (and forged) provenances for each phony painting. He infiltrated museum archives and stole, deposited, or altered records to give Myatt’s fakes a home among the real works of artists such as Ben Nicholson, Marc Chagall, and Alberto Giacometti. Provenance authors Salisbury and Sujo deftly tell the story of how the crime’s vast scope came to light in the mid- 1990s as detectives, archivists, and curators began to put the pieces of Drewe’s deception together.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist

By Thomas Levenson | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25
IN THE LATE 1690s, coiners and clippers had so debased the British currency that it was nearly worthless. Desperate for a solution, the British secretary of the treasury called upon England’s wisest men for help, including scientist and scholar Isaac Newton. In 1696, Newton was installed as warden of the Royal Mint, at which point he estimated that one in every 10 coins was a fake.

The very skills that made Newton one of the world’s greatest scientists made him a formidable detective as well. He was logical and analytical, bringing “the rigor instilled by decades of painstaking laboratory work” to his effort at the mint, Levenson writes. He was especially driven to prosecute William Chaloner, a clever coiner who proved himself a worthy opponent of the astute Newton. For years, the two men played a game of cat and mouse, until Chaloner finally succumbed to his fate.

Newton and the Counterfeiter scribe Levenson has done meticulous research here, unearthing an intriguing tale of Newton’s days as a detective. And though at times the story is slowed by the sheer amount of information Levenson provides, the book is nonetheless a fascinating trip through seventeenth-century crime and punishment.

The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

By Jason Kersten | Gotham, $26
IT ISN’T HARD to see why DreamWorks has optioned the story of counterfeiter Art Williams. In the 1980s, he endured a hardscrabble upbringing in one of Chicago’s roughest housing projects, where he shook down parking meters and robbed drug dealers to get by. That’s when he was introduced to the age-old crime of counterfeiting. Williams would eventually print millions of dollars worth of counterfeit bills, including fakes of the 1996 new series $100 bill, which was thought to be the most secure $100 bill ever created. His story is rife with danger and intrigue, from the mysterious allure of dark, ink-stained basements hiding massive printing presses to the constant threat of gangsters who followed him from Chicago to Texas to Alaska.

Kersten, who originally wrote about Williams in an article for Rolling Stone, is a natural storyteller who captures this con artist brilliantly for the page. As we keep pace with Williams’s criminal pursuits, Kersten also reveals him as a man who is simply trying to provide for his family; who would “pass bills” by purchasing toys and clothes, which he would then donate to charity; and who cultivated so much pride in his illicit skill that he found it nearly impossible to quit.