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Forger's Fakes Are a Real Steal

Fraud: John Myatt spent years illegally copying and selling masterpieces. Now he adds his name to them, and art lovers are snapping up the works.

September 23, 2002|JANET STOBART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARWICK, England — A small gallery here in Warwick, a town known more for its 14th century castle than for 20th century masterpieces, is drawing art lovers to an exhibit with some landmark signatures--Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, Chagall.

The artworks represent the new, "honest" career of John Myatt, a master forger whose cleverly marketed fakes fooled experts for years in one of the art world's longest-running scams.

The paintings in Warwick are fakes too--but everyone knows it.

And buyers are willing to shell out thousands of pounds for them. Every one of the paintings in the show--Myatt's first since leaving prison three years ago after serving a four-month sentence for his infamous career--has already sold.

The two-room gallery swarms with local art lovers putting in bids for a seascape by Raoul Dufy or a Giacometti sketch or a cubist canvas by Braque. They mingle with television crews and the bemused gallery's owner, Alan Elkin.

"I never thought this would happen," Elkin says. "We had German TV in yesterday, and Mexican TV is coming tomorrow." He says he's looking forward to the usual quiet life of a country art gallery owner once he's delivered the 70-plus paintings to their new homes.

Myatt, congenial, unassuming and relieved to have put his life of fraud behind him, now signs his name on the back of each painting.

"There'll be a chip or something in them as well," he says, sitting in a corner of the gallery. Myatt speaks matter-of-factly about his life as a forger.

For more than seven years beginning in 1987, Myatt worked with a consummate con man and art dealer, John Drewe. "He'd say, 'We could do with another [Ben] Nicholson or something,' " is how Myatt describes the casual way business was done.

Myatt would paint and deliver his forgeries to Drewe, who, after careful research and doctoring of records, would offer the works to respected institutions of fine art--Christie's, Sotheby's, even London's hallowed Tate Gallery, as well as private art houses. Then Drewe would hand Myatt a check for his part of the deal.

Their aesthetic life of crime began when Myatt, an art teacher from the Midlands of England, was working in London as a songwriter. He painted imitations of Old Masters for friends and, to make more money, he says, "I put an ad in [the satirical magazine] Private Eye offering 'Genuine Fakes.' "

It brought him enjoyable, if not profitable, success--like the time a man "wanted a Joshua Reynolds of a British admiral looking out to sea with medals and sash."

"I changed the face to his own," Myatt says, "so he could say to dinner party guests: 'That's my great-great-great-uncle--don't you see the resemblance?' "

Myatt charged a modest 250 pounds (about $375) per painting--often less than the framing costs.

Then Drewe answered the ad. "He said, 'Can you paint me a Matisse for my wife?' " Myatt says. They met and exchanged painting for payment on a London train station platform. Drewe and his wife liked the painting and asked for another.

"That was the unusual thing about him," Myatt remembers. "He then said, 'Can you do a Dutch marine painting?' He just kept coming back."

The turning point was "Portrait of an Army Doctor" by French artist Albert Gleizes. "It wasn't a copy--I found a drawing by him and developed it into what I thought he would have done if he'd turned his drawing into a painting," Myatt says.

Drewe reframed the painting, and two weeks later, "he said: 'You know that Gleizes? I've just taken it into Christie's, and they say it's probably worth about 25,000 pounds--how would you like 12 1/2 thousand?' "

As Myatt recalls with rueful hindsight, "this is where the train veered off to the left of the track instead of going straight on--that was the fatal moment."

Myatt's wife had recently left him with two toddlers. He was living back in Staffordshire, in an old, unheated farmhouse, juggling a teaching career and the children. Drewe's offer seemed like one he couldn't afford to refuse.

For Myatt, it was less a question of morality, he says, and "more a question of survival."

The pair chose deceased painters, and mostly British artists because Drewe found he could get into archives "and give the painting a history that will verify it," as he told Myatt.

One recipient of Myatt's paintings, Peter Nahum, an art gallery owner in central London, remembers seeing Drewe's offerings. Nahum took a Nicholson and a Graham Sutherland and sent them to Christie's to be auctioned--"but only after they [had been] authenticated by Christie's and Sotheby's," he emphasizes. "The Nicholson was not very good, but the artist's son-in-law also gave it his blessing." He remembers it being sold at auction in New York.

"Is Myatt a good artist? No. Without John Drewe, his pictures wouldn't have gone anywhere," Nahum says. In his view, Drewe's ability to fake the records regarding the provenance of paintings--rather than Myatt's skill--gave them their seal of authenticity.

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