In the aftermath of the biggest art fraud of the 20th century, 120 forged artworks still remain at large, while their author, John Myatt, continues to paint from his tumbledown cottage in a sleepy Staffordshire village.
Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, John Drewe masterminded a plan that would see Myatt, a technical artistic talent capable of copying the Great Masters of art history, paint 200 fakes that sold for a grand total of over £1.8 million.
He told UNILAD how he became embroiled in a decade of fraudulent criminal activity which would upset the Art Oracles, embarrass the museums, earn him jail time in Brixton Prison, and leave a trail of forged masterpieces across the wealthy Western world.
Now aged 72, having served time behind bars for his crimes, Myatt has a no-nonsense attitude to the elitist art world, a sense of humour to die for and a self-deprecating charm rarely found among the white-walled exhibitions of commercial artistry.
But it all began when John was just a boy – with an artistic flair, a natural aversion to scientific subjects at school, and the support of his parents, he naturally gravitated towards art school as a young man and got a place at Stafford and later Cheltenham Schools of Art.
John recalled his ‘traditional art training’, explaining how he developed a keen eye for ‘deconstructing every painting’ showcased in the darkened lecture theatres of Art History class, looking at slides of Cezanne’s work and Giotto’s oeuvre as well as reading books on perspective, shading and life drawing techniques.
What was that like when it was just a blank canvas? What was it like before the first brushmark went onto paper? I realised that it was possible to get close to what Hogarth or Gainsborough had done, because I could see how they’d done it, even on the slides in a lecture theatre.
It was a funny feeling, but I could understand the draftsmanship. It was beyond what I could achieve but I could at least mimic the effect of the paint.
Estimates show 20 to 30 per cent of all artworks are forgeries, which John muses could be accurate regarding the market below £50,000, adding:
There’s money to be made there if you’re criminally inclined.
Here’s where we pick up his story.
Myatt graduated art school and, after a brief stint writing songs and playing session music, became a substitute teacher to appease his parents:
So they could brag about my career and all that nonsense.
But when his wife left him, the single father of two realised he had to find a way to quit his job, stay at home and take care of the kids – who were both under two-years-old.
So he put an advert out in Private Eye offering paintings in the style of the Great Masters – and charged £150 for each in order to put food on the table and ‘stay away from the welfare system’ of Thatcher’s Britain.
That’s how he came to meet John Drewe, his best customer, a ‘con artist’ verging on madness and the man who would later orchestrate what Scotland Yard dubbed ‘the biggest art fraud of the 20th century’.
After Drewe ran out of commissions, he invited Myatt to paint whatever he liked – a gesture the artist presumed was a sign their professional relationship was over after two years and 16 works of art.
The painter recalled:
I found a drawing by a german cubist called Albert Gleizes and I turned it into a painting. A very small thing. I took it down to Euston, handed it over and said my goodbyes to Drewe.
I thought that was the last I’d seen of him.
A couple of weeks later, I got a phonecall from Drewe who said he’d taken the painting to Christie’s. He told me they’d deemed it a genuine and given it a valuation of £25,000.
He said, ‘How would you like £12,500 – cash – in a brown envelope?’ I said, ‘Yes please’.
Over the next ten years, Myatt painted 200 forged artworks, which Drewe would sell to private collectors and auction houses, in the guise of a researcher who infiltrated the V&A, the Tate and the ICA, making over £1,000,000 between them.
The money became almost addictive and played an ‘important’ role in the escalating and ongoing criminal endeavour, ‘particularly when you’ve got kids and are trying to keep things together’, explained Myatt.
John was ‘quite happy’ to take a backseat and operate as the artistic mule behind Drewe’s deception; the brains behind the beautiful but beguiling bluff, if you like.
Eventually, the fear of getting caught developed into a certainty the game was going to be up, with John recalling:
I realised first of all, these paintings were painted in acrylic or emulsion paint. I went to some lengths to disguise the fakes, but even I could tell the difference.
However, John admitted getting his forgeries past experts became somewhat of a ‘challenge’, revealing it was never a glamorous endeavour and he preferred to hole himself up in the studio ‘trying to refine and hone these technical problems which cropped up’.
On the other hand, John said:
Drewe loved conning people. He was a con artist. His pleasure and gratification came from deluding people who he thought were in positions of authority or were higher up the social scale, if you like.
He loved going to Claridge’s and wining and dining curators from the Tate – I think he became almost mad with the power and his marriage was in a disastrous state.
Eventually, and somewhat inevitably, they were rumbled by Drewe’s ex wife, and John pleaded guilty as soon as he could, landing jail time in Brixton Prison, where he met ‘all kinds of people from the most revolting people I’ve ever met to the nicest’ all while encountering ‘a fabulous amount of drugs’.
Laughing, Myatt recalled how fellow inmates called him Picasso:
I was 55, an old man and I was an artist, a curiosity. Everybody wanted to know what everybody else was in for; aggravated burglary, sexual assault, rape. There was a hierarchy from the violent criminals, way down to the subhuman people; the rapists and paedophiles.
My natural instinct was to like everybody, and with the exception of one or two with whom you didn’t establish eye contact, I didn’t have any trouble at all.
The only difference – bar the lack of freedom – when you’re locked up is the nasty people are nastier and the nice people are nicer. It’s an extreme situation and a claustrophobic one.
Once out, Mayatt had ‘philosophical reservations’ about picking up a paintbrush:
When I got back home it hadn’t registered and I was determined not to paint. It was much more than remorse. It was a self-disgust. I just felt that painting had let me down and I’d let it down. I actually wanted to work in a garden centre. The children were old enough for me to work around their schooling. I didn’t have to change nappies anymore.
It was such a rollercoaster and I had to think what I wanted out of this whole saga, for the rest of my life. The thing to remember about criminals is regardless of the crime, when you walk out of those prison doors and your sentence is over, it’s finished. That’s it.
You’ve paid your debt to society, you’ve been incarcerated, deprived of your liberty, paid criminal compensation – had assets and money and things taken off you, quite rightly so, I think. But the most difficult thing to get your head around is that for everyone else, it’s only just beginning, which was exactly what happened to me.
You can’t square the circle. Either you take the moral high ground and say, ‘I’m never going to paint again’. Or you take stock of the way the wind is blowing and you gauge what you enjoy doing and you follow.
Luckily, John had a gentle push towards the paintbrush when one of his old screws asked him for a family portrait. Quickly followed commissions from the barristers and even the judge involved in the case, who wanted mementos of the incredible story.
John later received an email – ‘dial up, of course, in those days’ – from a gallery in Warwick that wanted to show his Genuine Fakes, which Anne Robinson of The Weakest Link opened, days before it sold out as a roaring success.
Television contracts on Sky Arts and the BBC flooded in as well as a position on the books of national gallery chain, Castle Art Galleries, who continue to sell John’s Genuine Fakes.
Between offering talks at Whitehall to helping Interpol figure out ‘how stolen art is used as collateral for weapons’ and replicating Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, John has recently released a series of homages to Vincent van Gogh.
You can watch Myatt teach three amateurs how to forge a Van Gogh below:
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So, what does the future hold for John? Bar a feature film biopic, he’s still unsure:
For most of my life I’ve been a rock in a landslide. I’m not in control of a lot of it.
I don’t know about having a position in art history – personally I think I’ll be a footnote in the annuals of twentieth century art forgery – but it’s a comfort to be able to enjoy Monet and Pissarro and Degas and Cezanne at first hand.
Frankly, I’d pay people to let me do it.
Luckily for John, his skill, class and charisma means the art world he once shunned and embarrassed is paying him to create genuine fakes.
Now working on the right side of the law, Myatt has sworn never to identify the remaining 120 forgeries.
The mystery has become his oeuvre.