You don’t expect criminals to be charming and likeable. But John Myatt, the talent behind what Scotland Yard called “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century” (he was nicknamed “Picasso” in prison) is a pleasure to interview.
The Staffordshire-born artist, 69, grew up in a rural idyll looked after by his farmer parents and owes his clipped English accent to the posh boarding school to which he won a scholarship (“I was quite surprised my father sent me, actually, he was such a socialist”).
Arrested in 1995 and imprisoned in Brixton jail in 1999, Myatt had spent nearly a decade creating more than 200 forgeries of famous 19th and 20th century painters, commissioned by his co-conspirator John Drewe. His extraordinary life is about to be made into a Hollywood movie.
This unassuming offender and former art teacher – who can take off Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, you name it – started his unlawful career after his wife left him. In a bid to make some money while caring for two small children (“I couldn’t work and was worried I might lose them, frankly”), he began advertising “genuine fakes” in Private Eye magazine for £150.
Drewe bought one, a piece in the style of Cubist Albert Gleizes called Portrait of an Army Doctor, and showed it to Christie’s auction house whose experts valued it at £25,000, an enormous sum in 1986. Returning to see Myatt with a cheque for £12,500, Drewe came up with a business plan and Myatt accepted.
By the time Myatt went to prison both his parents were long dead, so it was his kids’ reactions he had to worry most about. “I really did feel embarrassed for my children. But my kids, who would have been around 13 or 14 at the time, just thought it was fabulously cool,” he says.
“They loved being searched [when they visited him in Brixton]. They used to point to people and say ‘Dad, what did he do?’ So the whole art crime thing didn’t seem to faze them at all.”
Having pleaded guilty Myatt was awarded a year-long sentence but served just four months. “Prison was horrible. But I suppose I was lucky because I was old,” he says. “I made some lovely friends and just kept my head down…I had a business on the side drawing pencil portraits in exchange for phone cards.”
Myatt left Brixton determined never to paint again and took a job in a garden centre. But then the police officer who’d arrested him stepped in, commissioning a family portrait and paying him £5,000 for the work, and it went from there. Before he knew it Myatt had commissions from the barristers who ran the case against him and was making money legitimately as an artist.
“I left prison in June and by October I had £10,000 in the bank that I’d earned legally through painting. And I was a very happy bunny,” he says.
He continued to create his “genuine fakes”, in no way pretending they were authentic, but continuing to do what he does best which is to copy the style of a famous artist and do something slightly different. His beguiling Miros and Vermeers would fool some of the best experts at first glance. Until they looked at the back, that is, and examined the paint, which is never oils.
After prison Myatt gained representation from Castle Galleriesand exhibits a mixture of his “fakes” and works in his own, hyper-realist style. He has had several successful shows, wrote a book called Provenance and has featured on several TV shows, including Sky Art’s Virgin Virtuosos.
He stresses the distinction between a “fake” and a “forgery”, claiming the former makes artwork in the style of famous artists accessible, while the latter (which is far more elaborate) is always criminal.
“A fake doesn’t cost the absurd, disgusting price of original paintings. It’s beyond disgusting, particularly in regard to Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his lifetime, when such paintings are set to fetch around £100 million. Just think what else that money could be used to for?”
Actually, Myatt thinks it is the contemporary art market itself that is rather criminal. “I will never have a show as an artist in my own right. Because I love doing a Monet and being able to sell it for the price of a Ford Mondeo,” he says.