After Stint of Crime, Art Forger Sells Genuine Fakes
AFTER many years as an art forger, both criminal and legitimate, John Myatt has a thing or two to say about the vagaries of the art market.
"Never was there such a load of rubbish talked about anything as has been, and will be, talked about art," he said, sitting in his kitchen, Van Gogh's beautiful "Harvest" (a fake, painted by him) on the wall behind him. "The nonsense, really, is that paintings should be priced the way they are, that a Van Gogh can go for, what is it, $75 million? That's disgusting."
Former art student, former musician, former impoverished single father, Mr. Myatt for seven years participated in what a Scotland Yard officer called at the time "the biggest art fraud of the 20th century," painting fake masterpieces that an accomplice passed off as authentic. But all he really wanted, he said, was a job he could do at home.
It was the mid-1980's, his wife had just walked out on him and their two small children, and his job teaching art barely covered the baby sitter's salary. By scaling back to two teaching days a week, Mr. Myatt explained recently, he could combine forgery with childcare.
"Twelve and a half thousand pounds means I can get a car that works and doesn't break down all the time," Mr. Myatt said, describing his reaction to his first serious windfall. That was a fake Albert Gleizes, which he whipped up in a matter of days and that sold for £25,000 at Christie's (he split the proceeds with his accomplice, John Drewe). "I can get nice clothes for my children instead of continuous hand-me-downs."
Mr. Myatt used his knack for forgery and knowledge of art history to produce fake after fake, more than 200 in all. Fake Giacomettis. Fake Paul Klees. Fake Chagalls. Some sold for well over $150,000. (Only 80 or so have been recovered by the police; the rest are still at large, although Mr. Myatt said he did not know where.) But while he provided the art, it was the smooth-talking Mr. Drewe who drove the operation, cooking up the ersatz provenances and handling the sales. In 1999, Mr. Drewe was sentenced to six years in prison. Mr. Myatt, who pleaded guilty to fraud and testified for the prosecution, served 4 months of a 12-month sentence.
He makes an unlikely ex-convict.
He is so well regarded in this Staffordshire community, where he is the organist and choir director at the local church, that when he was in jail, his neighbors banded together and refurbished his kitchen. Visitors to a recent London exhibit of his work — new works in the style of famous artists with the words "Genuine Fake" written in indelible ink on the back — included the foreman of the jury that convicted him; his defense lawyer; and Jonathan Searle, the Scotland Yard detective who arrested him and who, when Mr. Myatt got out of prison, commissioned a portrait from him (as did a prosecutor in the case).
Mr. Myatt now gives lectures on art forgery alongside officers from Scotland Yard. At his London exhibit, he sold everything he displayed — 68 fake Miros, Picassos, Giacomettis and the like — at prices from $875 to more than $8,000. (The cheapest picture was a Myatt original, titled "Ceci N'est Pas Une Magritte.") Besides the Van Gogh, Mr. Myatt's house is chock-full of other fake great works — Matisses, Ben Nicholsons, Braques. His studio is filled with half-finished Monets. Now 60, trim, with thinning gray hair and a very dry sense of humor, he talks forthrightly, but with a residue of shellshock, about his life of crime.
AFTER studying art in college, Mr. Myatt discovered his talent for forgery when, oddly enough, he was working as a songwriter in the 1970's. (His song "Silly Games" hit No. 1 on the British charts, but that is another story.) His boss mentioned that he wanted to buy some Raoul Dufy paintings, then worth more than $100,000 each.
But he didn't need to. "I painted a couple of Dufys for him," Mr. Myatt said. His boss paid £250 apiece, slapped them in £600-pound frames, and hung them up. "We all thought it was very funny," Mr. Myatt said.
The get-solvent-quick potential of the enterprise appealed to him later, when he was broke and wondering how to raise two children under the age of 3. He placed an advertisement in the satirical magazine Private Eye, offering legal forgeries for £250.
Everything was above board at first. Someone commissioned Mr. Myatt to paint his father, a retired navy commander, in the style of Joshua Reynolds. "We took a painting of some fabulous old guy gazing out with lots of medals, and just changed the face," Mr. Myatt said. "He thought it was brilliant."
There were many requests for Picassos and Van Goghs.
Then Mr. Drewe called, identifying himself as a physics professor who wanted to dazzle his girlfriend with his new art collection. Mr. Myatt painted more than a dozen pictures for him, at £250 each. The enterprise crossed into illegality when Mr. Myatt painted the fake Albert Gleizes that Mr. Drewe, without a word to Mr. Myatt, passed off to Christie's as a family heirloom. From then on, Mr. Myatt supplied the pictures and Mr. Drewe did everything else. He tipped cups of black coffee on the works to make them look old. He put them in period frames. He concocted false provenances and false explanations for how he came to have them.
Mr. Myatt stayed willfully ignorant, unquestioningly accepting whatever Mr. Drewe paid him.
Meanwhile, Mr. Drewe was getting weirder and weirder, Mr. Myatt said, spinning stories about the royal family and Mossad. "And I thought, this is the stupidest thing I've ever done." Having made about £90,000 in all (Mr. Drewe made about £1.5 million, prosecutors said), he told Mr. Drewe he had had enough.
Scotland Yard came calling a year later as part of its larger investigation into Mr. Drewe, whose by then ex-girlfriend had turned him in.
"The judge was very nice and said all kinds of nice things about me before sentencing me to prison," he said.
MR. MYATT passed his jail time drawing portraits of inmates and guards. When he got out, he married his second wife, Rosemary, who sings with him in the church choir and runs the increasingly successful Genuine Fakes business. Michael Douglas has bought the rights to his story.
What really gets to Mr. Wyatt is how easily his pictures fooled everyone, even though he used inauthentic materials — household emulsion instead of oil paint, for instance — and even though, he says, much of the early work was pretty poor.
"The stupid thing is that the quality of the paintings is so much better than when I was doing them with John Drewe," he said of his new pieces.
He sees himself doing this for maybe five more years, and then devoting himself to his own art.
"I want to go out and see if I can just forget about art and art history and go out with a brush and try to do some honest painting," he said.
Until then, there is a new wrinkle to contend with, he said: an unidentified forger who has been selling fake Myatts.