John Myatt: Prison's Picasso
Written by: Emilia Sharples
“The biggest art fraud of the twentieth century”, also known as John Myatt, produced as many as 200 forged works of art between 1986 and 1994. Faking works by the likes of Marc Chagall to Alberto Giacometti, Myatt managed to deceive collectors and experts and his work still remains in some of the greatest museums today.
It wasn’t until he was 38 years old that John Myatt first realised his ability to precisely mimic and replicate other artist’s creations. Struggling financially as a single father teaching art, Myatt turned his talents into a business, selling ‘genuine fake’ works of art, in a bid to make ends meet. What Myatt didn’t realise was that this seemingly innocent moment of desperation would ultimately lead him to becoming one of the most renowned art forgers to date.
Woman and Phlox by Albert Gleizes, 1910 (left) John Myatt, Albert Gleizes Loo (right)
In 1983 he began a ‘legitimate’ business offering ‘Genuine Fakes for £150 and £200’. He innocently became involved with ‘Professor Drewe’, who claimed to be a nuclear physicist, and for whom he produced 14 paintings over a two-year period. In 1986 Myatt produced a painting for Drewe in the style of Albert Gleizes. Drewe had the painting valued at Christie’s for £25,000 and had it sold as a genuine. Enticed by the large sums of money that could be made, Myatt became involved in this crime, going on to paint a further 200 fakes for Drewe. It wasn’t until 1993 Myatt finally put a stop to the fraud. This event is described as ‘the biggest art con in the UK.'
The crime was so brilliant that the duo managed to con even the biggest auction houses globally, fooling Christie’s and Sotheby’s into authenticating the forgeries. Myatt never used original oil paint in any of his artwork, opting instead for a combination of acrylic paint, household emulsion and KY Jelly, with experts and critics consistently failing to recognise the difference. The other half of this dastardly duo, Drewe, went to exceptional efforts in order to make each canvas look 'the part.' After being handed the work by Myatt, he would stretch the canvases and add old gallery stickers to the rear. In a bid to mask his devious personality he went on to donate a whopping £25,000 to the Tate, characterising himself as a patron of the arts but this stunt also crucially gained him access to infiltrate the British Art Archives. This allowed him to literally 'rewrite the history' of his forged artworks, providing false authentication raising the brilliance of the crime to levels never seen or reached before.
Myatt was sentenced to a year in prison for his crimes but was released after just four months on good behaviour. His crony collaborator, Drewe, was given six years after being tagged as the mastermind behind the elaborate plan. For Myatt, it was his stint inside that brought attention to his career and after being released from prison he was commissioned by his arresting officer to paint a family portrait, as a sort of memento of this compelling case. After being released from prison Myatt decided to paint ‘on the right side of the law’, once again selling his ‘legitimate fakes’ but now for thousands of pounds as they are collected ‘by fans across the globe.’
Photo from Fame In The Frame on Sky Arts- Stephen Fry & John Myatt.
We raise the question that if a fake can trick even the best in the art field into believing it to be authentic, then why must we value one more than the other? Are fake pieces of art really that bad? Psychological studies would suggest the value we place in original art stems from the value we place on the originality of the artist’s idea and that the artwork somewhat channels this connection to their creative process. But Myatt argues by engaging with a 'good genuine fake' is to properly engage with the original art again.
According to Myatt:
When I paint in the style of one of the greats… Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh… I am not simply creating a copy or pale imitation of the original. Just as an actor immerses himself into a character, I climb into the minds and lives of each artist. I adopt their techniques and search for the inspiration behind each great artist’s view of the world. Then, and only then, do I start to paint a ‘Legitimate Fake’.”
In an interview Myatt explained: “I try to get the artist’s work to hypnotise me. I also surround myself with lots of books. I like to know everything…where he was, what he was doing…when he was painting.” It is through this intense hypnotic study that the forger is opened to the mind frame and sheer genius of the original artist. “Looking at a genuine fake is to give pleasure to the eye, to the intellect, to get that visual stimulus without it being stripped away by someone’s idea of the value of that item. And the fact is that when you’re looking at, say, a real van Gogh, you’re actually looking at the money it’s worth, those millions of pounds,” he argues.
When I paint in the style of one of the greats... I climb into the minds and lives of each artist... and search for the inspiration behind each great artist’s view of the world...then I paint a ‘Legitimate Fake’. ~ John Myatt
Even today there are thought to be 120 of Myatt’s paintings circulating the art market. He refuses to identify his works from their genuine counterparts instead wishing to forget his criminal past and live honestly. It does raise a fascinating conversation starter for the next time you visit a museum or gallery, however. As you wander the gallery space and gaze in awe at the Van Gogh hanging in pride of place on the wall, consider; was this painted by Van Gogh or indeed was it actually painted by the likes of John Myatt?
Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889 | John Myatt, The Starry Night (right)