There are millions of painters who could do a copy of the Mona Lisa, but I'm very happy to look at doing a work in the style of Leonardo Di Vinci. That's the difference.
John Myatt is only the latest in a long line of great British forgers with notoriety and infamy as his calling cards. The extent and audacity of his crime were breathtaking – I still can’t believe he got away with it. He was part of arguably the most sophisticated fraud in the faking of paintings ever perpetrated, and certainly the most impressive in recent memory. Over a period of nine years beginning in 1986 he faked as many as 200 works by assorted 20th century painters and draughtsmen. Only sixty have ever been recovered by police and some of the remainder are undoubtedly still hanging in museums and private collections where they are being revered and enjoyed as originals." - David Lee, art critic and editor of The Jackdaw.
A competent artist who never got the breaks, John Myatt might have remained a footnote on the page of art history. True, not many artists can lay claim to having written a Top 40 tune as he had - Silly Games in 1979 - but he wanted to be known for his art, not as a one hit wonder.
Yet fate conspired to prevent him working as an artist. Left alone with two young children to support he had to work as an art teacher to pay the bills. "I spent all day teaching other people's children and had no time for my own," he says. "I needed to find a way to work at home."
Casting around for ideas, Myatt remembered that a few years earlier a friend had offered to pay him £300 to copy a painting by the French Post Impressionist Raoul Dufy. His friend had been delighted with the result reporting that the copy was so good it had fooled experts. At the time Myatt had shrugged off the compliment but now it played on his mind, perhaps he'd found a way to work at home after all. In 1986 he placed a classified ad in Private Eye, '19th and 20th century fakes for £200' and a perfectly legitimate business venture was born. His materials were unorthodox - Myatt used household emulsion mixed with K-Y jelly to add body and fluidity to his brush strokes - but the results were pleasing.
Then Myatt received a call from a 'Professor Drewe' who claimed to be a nuclear physicist wanting to purchase paintings to decorate his home. Myatt obliged with paintings in the style of Matisse, Klee and two 17th Century Dutch Masters.
One evening Drewe phoned Myatt, "I took one of your paintings to Christie's, and they said it was worth £30000."
Myatt says "That was the moment that the legitimate business stopped and the crime began.
I said: I can't believe it. Are you aware it's painted in emulsion paint" He admits to being flattered, "My vanity was quite ghastly," he says. "The mistake occurred here. My reaction was to express an interest.
He rapidly painted his way through 20th century art history: Ben Nicholson, Nicolas de Stael, Le Corbusier, Matisse, Roger Bissiere. He admits, "I took no trouble technically. There was a negligence to everything I did."
He worried that his fraud would be discovered but Drewe calmed him, telling him how brilliant he was and how rich he would get. "I was flattered into thinking I was a man of importance." Yet Myatt could not shake the feeling that "...this would all end in tears."
And indeed it did - in 1999 John was sentenced to 12 months for Art Fraud and eventually served 6 months in Brixton Prison. Upon his release the arresting officer (from Arts & Antiques Squad, Scotland Yard) contacted John and became his first customer for one of John Myatt's 'Genuine Fakes'.
"Although I frequently use modern paints and canvasses the hope is that the finished painting will deceive the eye into thinking that it is seeing a new work by an established master".