The artist jailed for Britain’s most audacious art fraud has sneaked into top art galleries to hang his fakes next to real masterpieces. Don’t worry, John Myatt tells Event , I’ve done my time and it’s all perfectly legal…
John Myatt has a Van Gogh in the kitchen, a Monet in the sitting room and a Matisse on the stairs. His sprawling farmhouse, just north of Stafford, would be among the great galleries of the world except for one thing – the man who painted all those masterpieces is, in fact, Myatt himself.
John Myatt has a Van Gogh in the kitchen, a Monet in the sitting room and a Matisse on the stairs. The man who painted all those masterpieces is, in fact, Myatt himself
Myatt with Stephen Fry and his portrait of Fry as Pope Innocent X by Diego Velasquez;
He was once a criminal faker, and in 1999 was convicted for taking part in what was called ‘the biggest art fraud of the 20th century’. Using a mixture of emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly, Myatt faked dozens of paintings by artists including Matisse, Giacometti and Ben Nicholson. Dealers in London and New York were fooled by his fakes, as were Sotheby’s and Christie’s. A receipt for £140,000 for a fake Ben Nicholson from Christie’s still hangs in Myatt’s loo.
His criminal period began in 1985, when his first wife left him. Formerly a supply teacher, he had to work from home to look after his two young children. Always keen on painting in the style of Dufy and Monet, he started selling copies, putting an advert for ‘genuine fakes’ in Private Eye. That was when his partner in crime, John Drewe, walked into his life. Drewe, a regular customer of Myatt, told him Christie’s had paid £25,000 for Myatt’s copy of an Albert Gleizes, a French Cubist.
Myatt’s harlequin with a rose, in the style of Picasso
‘He said, “How would I like £12,500 in a brown envelope?”, and I said yes.’
Myatt started churning out Chagalls, Mattises and Giacomettis, and Drewe sold them for a fortune to dealers and auction houses. In 1995, they were rumbled when Drewe’s ex-girlfriend, angry at being abandoned, spilled the beans. Myatt pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Drewe got six years. ‘You can’t excuse it,’ says Myatt. ‘I don’t think of myself as dishonest, but I was dishonest.’
To begin with, prison was an overwhelming experience for Myatt. ‘It’s frightening when you go in,’ he says, ‘It’s noisy, there’s quite a lot of unpleasant people there. You can’t sharpen pencils. You have to go cap in hand to the screws’ office – they had a sharpening machine there. You couldn’t get hold of paint; you could only draw.’
Myatt wasn’t allowed to draw pictures that might threaten security, but he managed to smuggle out one drawing of the prison wall, done in E Wing.
He has nothing but praise for the ‘superb’ police. In fact, it was a policeman who persuaded him to return to painting after he was released from jail. Myatt had been planning to give it all up. ‘The police sent art materials into Brixton for me,’ says Myatt. ‘One policeman commissioned a picture of his family, and the barristers in the case wanted a memento, too.’
These days, Myatt makes a living as a professional, self-confessed faker, and stamps the back of his copied paintings with the words ‘Genuine Fakes’. He launched his career as a legitimate faker, appearing on the Sky Arts show, Fame In The Frame, painting Stephen Fry in the style of Velazquez, and later this month he will appear on Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge, presented by Giles Coren and art historian Rose Balston. In the eight-part series, fakes painted by Myatt are smuggled onto the walls of art galleries in place of genuine masterpieces by British painters. Ten finalists compete to spot the imposters, to win their own faked masterpiece.
For the programme, Myatt, 71, set about faking a Gainsborough.
‘He underpainted in grey,’ he says, ‘He established the whole painting, almost in black and white, and went on to tint it.
‘He was a much better technician than [his rival] Reynolds. His work is beautifully done, with a feathered, soft edge. Reynolds’ big problem was that he was very impatient. He wanted his painting to dry as quickly as possible. He used honey as a binder [the material used to hold the paint in place]. Even within his lifetime, customers came back, saying, “It’s all very well, but my nose has fallen off.”’ That’s why Myatt uses acrylic paint and emulsion – ‘acrylics will dry while you’re drinking your tea’ – and K-Y Jelly as a thin wash over colours. ‘K-Y Jelly gives you, say, a deeper blue and you get a smoother finish.’
Any scientist analysing these paintings would spot that they’re made with modern materials. But the point of a good fake is that it’s so convincing no one will think to analyse it. ‘A Gainsborough is covered with several coats of varnish,’ he says, ‘if you can fake the smoothness of the surface texture, then bury it under varnish, it’s hard for anyone to spot a fake, unless you’re a Gainsborough expert.’
He says the more recent the artist the easier to fake. ‘In the first half of the 20th century, painters didn’t go through all this technical stuff. That was all old hat. What you wanted was an immediacy in the way you painted. The same goes for Van Gogh, who was doing two paintings a day in a frenzy.’
If a painting was originally done quickly, it’s that much easier to fake it. Van Gogh is a particular favourite of Myatt. In his studio, he has three van Goghs on the go – a self-portrait, a church and a street scene in Arles.
For a good fake, it’s not enough just to paint a good copy. Everything that goes with an old painting must match up, too.
‘If you gave me a year, I could do a very good fake of a 1920 Modigliani,’ Myatt says. ‘First, I’d get a cheap Twenties painting, scrape it down and find primer [undercoat] from the same period. I’d pretend I was an art restorer and get a paint with the same constituents from a vintage paint supplier.’
To ‘age’ old paintings, Myatt uses strong coffee or brown umber, a natural earth pigment. He is currently working on a 17th-century Dutch painting of a young woman.
To give the impression of craquelure – a fine web of cracks in old paint – Myatt puts down a layer of slow-drying varnish beneath a layer of quick-drying varnish. The combination produces an ultra-quick cracking pattern.
Whenever Myatt’s second wife, Rosemary, wants a new masterpiece, he simply rustles one up. Sometimes, they’re direct copies; sometimes, he adapts the style of famous artists. In the sitting room, he’s got a Majorca seaside view, where he and his wife went on holiday. Two men are dragging a boat from the water.
HOW TO MAKE A FAKE
Vincent Van Gogh – The Starry Night
‘A clever forger would replicate the surface painting. He would look at the thickness of the paint and make sure that was the same.
‘What is difficult is to get the same paint. Van Gogh used Sennelier paint, with a binder of linseed oil, which had a particular, fluorescent look.’
Vincent Van Gogh – The Starry Night (left). John Myatt’s copy of Van Gogh (right)
Claude Monet – The Houses Of Parliament
‘The problem with Monet’s series of paintings of Parliament was that he later worked on them for about a year or more back in his studio in Giverny. The difficulty is getting the paint’s consistency right, because he kept on adding to the pictures, producing such a complicated layering of paint.’
Claude Monet – The Houses Of Parliament (left). John Myatt’s fake Monet (right)
‘I nicked this idea from Monet,’ says Myatt, ‘He had one guy; I had two. It’s in the style of Monet – his brushwork, his immediacy.’
On the staircase, there’s a Matisse portrait of a woman’s head. ‘He’s actually quite hard to do,’ says Myatt, ‘If one of those lines goes wrong, you’re finished. You have to have a properly loaded brush to get it to work.’
Myatt is relieved to finally be able to make a living out of these legitimate pictures, and he now advises the police on catching fakers.
‘Last January, I gave a talk in Whitehall to the Hong Kong Police and Interpol,’ he says, ‘They think they’re getting closer, through scientific analysis, to tracking down fakes. Still today, between 20 and 30 per cent of what goes to auction is fake.’
Myatt may have gone straight. But there are still plenty of crooked artists out there.
‘Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge’ is on Sky Arts from March 28