“When I said yes to the money I knew some line had been crossed, even if I didn’t really see what I was doing as being criminal,” admits John Myatt. “I lived a pretty solitary life and bringing up two infants took up all my moral compass. Those few years of forging paintings were just an exciting, fun and somehow unbelievable time.”
Certainly Myatt’s story is almost too incredible to be true. You couldn’t, as the saying goes, make it up—an apt expression for a tale of forgery. But here it is. In the mid-1980s, Myatt was a cash-strapped art teacher and single parent who placed a small ad offering his artistic services to produce honest copies of 19th- and 20th-century paintings—‘genuine fakes’ for those who loved the work but, of course, couldn’t afford the original. Myatt’s were priced from a considerably more reasonable GBP150. He soon had customers, one, in particular, by the name of John Drewe, who kept coming back.
Drewe was a con man. Myatt’s fakes may have gone no further than front room walls had Drewe not taken his work and spun a fortune out of it. A few months into their growing relationship, Drewe contacted Myatt to tell him that he’d taken the cubist Albert Gleizes painting he’d reproduced to Christie’s and the esteemed auction house said it would sell it for him for around GBP25,000.
Drewe offered Myatt half in cash. It was more money than he’d ever had. Myatt was sucked into the con. For years they passed off an estimated 200 forgeries as the real deal, selling some for GBP150,000. It’s been called the greatest art fraud of the 20th century.
“I wasn’t suspicious about him at all at first,” confesses Myatt. “He was just a damned good customer. The magnitude of what we were doing didn’t really kick in until three or four years later, when I started to think about how I might get out of it all. But John [Drewe] insisted the works we produced were authentic right through his trial. If he’d have just said ‘yes I did it’ and ‘this is how is how I did it’, a lot of people would, I think, have admired him—if not openly.”
After all, for every such crime—even one affecting a world of affluence—there’s a victim, not least the reputation of the artist who is faked: the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani’s body of work is said to be so tainted with forgeries that a definitive record of it cannot be written. On the personal level, one can only imagine how bad the curator of a small, state-owned museum in France felt.
John Myatt’s ‘Self-Portrait’.
Last year, he made an uncomfortable discovery. Experts had visited to prepare paintings by Etienne Terrus for an exhibition and found that 82 of the 140 works attributed to him were forgeries. One was discovered when a gloved hand was passed over the signature on a painting—and it was wiped off.
“It’s a catastrophe,” noted Yves Barniol, mayor of Elbe where the Terrus Museum is located. “I put myself in the place of all the people who came and saw fake works of art, who paid an entrance fee.”
But they would not be alone. Last year the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, discovered that 26 works by Malevich and Kandinsky that it had on display, all loaned from the same collector, were forgeries. In another case, 21 Modigliani paintings on exhibition at Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale were announced as such.
Unsurprisingly, embarrassment—and the need to maintain public and professional credibility—means forgery is not a subject the art world is all that keen to talk about. If a gallery believes a painting is authentic, and its public believes it, why not let sleeping dogs lie?
And no wonder. The FBI, along with other major crime-fighting organisations, has estimated that, incredibly, around 20 percent of paintings owned by major museums across the world may not be the work of the purported artist—perhaps a case a misidentification or one of forgery. A 2014 report by Switzerland’s Fine Art Expert Institute went further, stating that at least half of the artwork circulated in the market is fake.
Museums and galleries can’t shoulder all the blame. Forgers are very good, typically always one step ahead. And forgeries—that is, artworks intentionally meant to deceive—are time-consuming and, given the necessary scientific analysis and historical research, bothersome to spot, with the chances of being sued only persuading art experts to back away from requests to authenticate a work.
In 2012, a work by the Italian painter Parmigianino was sold by auction house Sotheby’s for USD842,500. Four years later the painting came under suspicion when French authorities raided an exhibition in Aix, in which many of the works had come from one collector—the same collector who’d sold the Parmigianino. Legal action by Sotheby’s ruled last year that the collector has to repay them.
Besides, while the forgery of art has been practised ever since art was attributed to its makers, these days it’s potentially big business, with art’s growing cultural cache and status as an investment vehicle driving demand. Old masters and modern masters—those works that take the highest bids at auction—are the most commonly faked. The art market is so voracious, it all too often fails in due diligence in its lust to sell or buy.
“Galleries would be better served if they listened to experts more before making an acquisition. They’re typically well supported by scientific resources but these people are not always properly consulted. Sometimes financial incentives cloud their judgement,” notes Thiago Piwowarczyk, co-founder of New York Art Forensics, a leading independent art authentication service, working mostly for private collectors.
He’s just the man to turn to if the will to know the truth is there. The rational, scientific means of testing the authorship of a work of art dates back to the 1870s, when Italian art critic Giovanni Morelli proposed a more systematic connoisseurship based on the study of an artist’s habitual ways of working as a means of identifying deviations from it. Works in dispute would be measured against an indisputable record of works by the artist.
These days there are increasingly clever ways to spot a fake—not only provenance research (the chain of ownership, authenticating supporting records) and visual analysis (is the use of materials and techniques consistent with the artist and with the period of production?), but now also photography and ultraviolet analysis, x-ray fluorescence analysis (assessing the actual elements in the paint and by turns predicting its age), and microscopy (to assess the origin of any tell-tale debris on the canvas).
“We have some happy endings to our stories but we’re often the bearer of bad news—that’s the least enjoyable part of the job,” says Piwowarczyk.
“Some clients are simply disappointed and very few get litigious. But the facts speak for themselves. It’s for this reason that we don’t use techniques that are too esoteric. Every one has to be peer-reviewed to stand up in a court of law, though of course these techniques keep getting refined and faster. And that’s just as well. There’s increased demand for what we do, both because more art is now being sold online and because forgers are getting more sophisticated.”
Indeed, forgers are clever. They are, almost by definition, extremely talented (if not innovative) artists. But then they also use period papers, canvases and paints, or know-how to mimic them. They create signs of ageing. Rather than copy a well-known work—one known to be in a museum somewhere—they may forge a ‘lost’ work that can be attributed to an artist; they may well also forge supporting documentation.
The Myatt and Drewe scam is a case in point. Drewe made exceptional additional efforts to make each canvas look the part—stretching it, adding old gallery stickers to the rear. He even gave a GBP25,000 donation to the Tate, making him a darling of the arts and, crucially, allowing him to infiltrate the British Art Archives in order to rewrite history to authenticate the bogus paintings, on a scale never done before or since.
In fact, what revealed the con was Drewe’s minor slip-up in building these facades—his use of similar gallery stickers for two separate paintings said to be from two separate exhibitions, a statistical unlikelihood. Then the Giacometti Association smelled a rat. And what finished it was Drewe being betrayed by his estranged common-law wife.
But, all the same, Myatt had used household emulsion rather than artist’s paints to produce his ‘Ben Nicolsons’ and ‘Graham Sutherlands’; he aged his canvases using tea, KY jelly and the contents of his vacuum cleaner—easy tells to any expert who bothered to look. Even Myatt—who removed himself from Drewe’s scam some time before it was uncovered and ended up being sentenced to 12 months in prison—describes some of his forgeries as “really bad quality, absolutely awful”.
“The art world just didn’t want to see that they were fakes. Large sums of money were involved and the more art becomes an asset the more people don’t want the authenticity of that asset to be challenged. It’s wealth trying to protect itself and why not I suppose?” asks Myatt.
Van Meegeren in 1945 painting ‘Jesus Among the Doctors’, also known as ‘Young Christ in the Temple’, in the style of Vermeer.
“Of course, the art world revolves around trust, on behaving honourably. It still works that way. And there are plenty of examples of ‘Friday painting’—an artist’s works that are authentic but not up to their usual standard. Every artist does them. So there are caveats. But there’s also no getting away from the fact that the art world is financially driven.”
There’s also more to the fraud than paint. Rather, Myatt and Drewe’s success stemmed less from an ability to create convincing forgeries at an artistic level, as in playing the art system; certainly, forgers are often inspired by the appeal of fooling the art world more than they are the lure of money. In this Drewe was, like Myatt’s paintings, not original.
Elmyr de Hory, a forger during the 1950s and 1960s, tapped both dodgy and easily fooled dealers to authenticate fakes; he also bought pre-war monographs of the artists he was faking, removed plates from them—these were then typically loosely stuck down on different paper stock—and replaced them with an image of his forgery. Thus the book then helped authenticate the fake.
Another forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, invented a fictional collection of Weimar-era art—supposedly that of his wife’s long deceased industrialist grandfather—even creating aged family photos in which his wife posed as her grandmother, with his forgeries on the walls in the background.
Although he worked with period pigments, he made the mistake of using a tube of zinc white that was mixed with titanium dioxide, a process that did not come into use until after 1920. Yet he was only uncovered decades after his active years, in 2010—long after one of his works had been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—when the tech allowed such close analysis of the paint.
John Myatt’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’.
Likewise, one of the great early 20th-century forgers, Han van Meegeren, baked his canvases to create a cracked effect; he used Bakelite on them, since one test of the time was to pierce a suspect painting with a hot needle—old paint couldn’t be punctured. But he also worked on the leading expert in Vermeer, Abraham Bredius.
It was known that Bredius had always argued for Vermeer having had a religious period, so he was more willing to authenticate van Meegeren’s fake ‘Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus’, despite it looking nothing like a Vermeer. Bredius’s approval of the work— allowing it to be accepted as part of the Vermeer canon—then allowed van Meegeren to produce similar works and have them accepted too, despite them still looking little like Vermeer’s.
Van Meegeren almost got away with it too. He’d sold one of his fakes to Hitler’s vice-chancellor Hermann Goering and, when later charged by the Dutch with collaborating with the Nazis, in order to save his neck van Meegeren was compelled to admit he’d forged the painting. Faced with a disbelieving judge—and, naturally, a disbelieving and humiliated art world—he painted another Vermeer in the courtroom.
“As a forger you have a talent for reverse engineering a painting,” explains Myatt. “It’s like someone who can strip a V6 engine without a diagram, who just knows where the parts go intuitively. And I was a kid who was always taking clocks apart, maybe not managing to put them back together again, but who learnt a lot about clocks along the way. Likewise, you can develop a deep feeling for an artist by studying them—the thickness of the paint they use, the type of brush, the stroke. It’s the nuts and bolts you need, which have nothing to do with the feeling that inspired the original work of course.”
Ironically, Myatt’s celebrity has given him an artistic cachet in his own right. He now paints legitimate ‘genuine fakes’ again, selling for anywhere between GBP300 and GBP30,000 a pop, his first customer when he got out of prison having been the Fraud Squad officer who arrested him; the foreman of the jury bought one too.
It raises the question: if a copy is every bit as good artistically as the original, just why are we so bothered by authenticity? The mayor of Elbe, recall, apologised to all those good people who had paid entry to his town’s museum only to unwittingly see forgeries. But would their experience have been any different for not knowing this?
A painting considered a masterpiece worth millions instantly becomes one that’s worthless and ridiculed purely through a change in attribution.
Yet psychological studies suggest we value the original over the identical forgery, less because of the art itself, but because we appreciate the originality of the artist’s idea and have some gut sense of a connection to their creative process. But Myatt is less convinced. He argues that to engage with a good genuine fake is to properly engage with the original art again.
“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.
“To look at a copy is to reinstall the relationship between the viewer and the work. A known fake liberates the onlooker to enjoy the aesthetic experience again. To me if it looks like a Raphael Madonna and smells like a Raphael Madonna then it’s a Raphael Madonna.”
The same might be said of a Tracey Emin. Joseph Kotrie-Monson is an international defence lawyer specialising in fraud with Mary Monson Solicitors, the company that a few years back defended an assistant to the British contemporary artist accused of fabricating copies of her original works—works he was probably involved in making too.
“If you think about it, forgery brings up all sorts of metaphysical questions about what a ‘real’ piece of art is,” says Kotrie-Monson. “You might well consider the distinction between the art and the artistic statement, between the physical object and the idea. But that doesn’t often come up in a court of law. They’re interested in the material world, not the artistic one.
“But these days art fraud cases don’t come up half as often as I’d like, given my own interest in art,” he adds. “These days other kinds of fraud are just that much easier to perpetrate. In fact, you have to be a bit of a romantic to engage in art fraud now.”
Cover image: John Myatt’s ‘Starry Night’.