“In prison, they called me Picasso.”
John Myatt’s life demonstrates how one wrong step—and one wrong partner—can turn a struggling artist into a criminal art forger. Myatt began his artistic career with promise. He was awarded a scholarship to open his own art studio and supported himself by selling and teaching art for several years. But his traditional, pastoral style did not create enough interest to earn a proper living. In order to provide for his children, he devised a plan to sell “genuine fakes” through an advertisement in a local paper.
Myatt’s idea was not illegal as he originally conceived it because Myatt had no intent to deceive—he did not sell his copies of recognizable masterpieces as original works. It was when he teamed with professional con man John Drewe that he crossed the line from legal copies of original art to illegal art fraud. The Myatt-Drew partnership created one of the most damaging art hoaxes of the 20th century. Myatt forged over 200 modernist paintings, approximately 120 of which are still circulating in the art market, and Drewe most likely corrupted the art historical record for generations to come by falsifying provenance documentation. Provenance, or ownership history, are the crucial documents collectors and curators rely on as proof of an artwork’s authenticity.
Right: Courtesy of Washington Green Fine Art.
|1945||Born in Staffordshire, England.|
|1960-1965||Attends art school and discovers his talent for painting in the style of the Old Masters. Wins a grant that allows him to open a studio in Lichfield, England, where he creates original works.|
|1979||Failing to make a living selling his work, he briefly becomes a music producer and songwriter, composing a song which becomes a top 40 hit.|
|1983||His wife leaves him and he is forced to support their two children alone.|
|1986||Places an ad in the local paper offering “Genuine Fakes for £150 and £200 (today ~$510 and ~$680).” John Drewe, a seasoned swindler, responds to the ad and asks Myatt to create a painting in the style of cubist artist Albert Gleizes. Drewe sells the painting through Christie’s for £30,000 (today ~$102,000), giving Myatt £200 (~$680).|
|1986-1993||Becomes partners with Drewe. Myatt forges over 200 works by modernist masters. Drewe manages sales, creating false provenance documents and passing off the forgeries as rediscovered works.|
|1993||Dealers become suspicious of Drewe’s large supply of art works with Drewe becoming increasingly volatile, Myatt ends their partnership.|
|1995||Myatt arrested by Scotland Yard and cooperates with authorities. Estimates he has earned £165,000 (today ~$395,000) through the sale of his forgeries.|
|1996||After recording conversations between the partners, the police raid Drewe’s home and find incriminating documents and props used in their forgery scheme.|
|1998||Testifies against Drewe at trial, claiming the financial hardship of raising children as a single parent led him to crime.|
|1999||Found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced to one year in prison. Drewe, considered the mastermind, is sentenced to six years in prison.|
|2000||Released from prison for good behavior after four months. Encouraged by arresting officer to start a business selling “genuine fakes.”|
|2005||Holds a sold-out exhibition of his work in a London art gallery.|
|2005-2013||His paintings sell for upwards of £25,000 (~$40,000). He teaches and lectures widely. Represented by Washington Green Fine Art Gallery, London.|
|2011-2012||Stars in the BBC TV series Fame in the Frame, where he interviews celebrities and paints them into copies of famous artworks, explaining the stories behind the original paintings and revealing his forging techniques.|
For seven years, the Myatt-Drewe forgeries inundated the art market, earning Drewe in excess of £2 million (today ~$4.7 million). Myatt earned only £165,000 (today ~$400,000) by his own estimate. Gradually, the sheer number of previously undiscovered masterworks caused suspicion. Experts observed inconsistencies in the paintings’ composition and materials, and noticed similar receipts, catalogues, and stamps from prestigious museums and art archives serving as proof of provenance. Eventually the Art & Antiquities Unit at Scotland Yard investigated and in 1999, after standing trial, both Myatt and Drewe received prison terms: one year for Myatt and six years for Drewe, as the mastermind.
Released from prison for good behavior after serving only four months, Myatt was encouraged by Jonathon Searle—the police officer who arrested him—to redeem himself by selling “genuine fakes.” With his artworks in demand and commanding high prices, Myatt has now achieved greater success than he ever dreamed possible. His notoriety has earned him invitations to lecture, teach at prominent universities and television appearences. He has become a celebrity, but stays on the right side of the law because each artwork he creates is labeled a fake and documented as such so it can never be sold as authentic.
Myatt did not use extraordinary techniques to fool the expert. He mixed simple house paints with lubricating jelly to mimic the correct viscosity of oils. To “age” his works he rubbed the canvas with coffee grinds and vacuum cleaner dust, dirtying and dulling the paint. Myatt later admitted he sometimes created “appallingly bad” imitations but Drewe’s clever manufacture of provenance documentation turned Myatt’s dubious paintings into undiscovered masterpieces.
Drewe met with prestigious museum directors and trustees by posing as a wealthy collector—and potential donor. Over time, Drewe gained their trust and was allowed into their archives unsupervised under the guise of “personal research.” While in the archive, Drewe stole documents that he later doctored. He altered old catalogues referencing works by famous artists by inserting photographs of Myatt’s forgeries. By creating false provenance documents, Drewe fooled researchers into believing Myatt’s paintings were authentic; tainting the art historical record for future scholars. When Scotland Yard investigators raided his home, they seized the typewriter, stolen documents and counterfeit stamps he used to create his steady stream of convincing, but fraudulent, provenance documentation.
2013, 2 minutes 31 seconds
Myatt is interviewed in his studio in Birmingham, England, and describes how his forgery career began. His “big mistake” ultimately led to a criminal prosecution and a prison sentence. He demonstrates his technique for fooling the experts, which incredibly did not include the use of authentic materials.
Essay: “Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.” (Orson Welles in F for Fake)
By David Lee, a London-based independent art critic and publisher of The Jackdaw magazine
In this essay, the outspoken art-world maverick muses about why it is hard to resist the talented yet unrefined forger John Myatt and questions if the authenticity of what we see is as important as we are led to believe.