Art Pot x Law Review: Legal Issues with John Myatt's Forgeries
John Myatt, who boasts “In Prison, they called me Picasso”, is known for his unique approach to art forgery. He did not simply create non-existing works but also recreated previously known works by famous artists, making him the master forger behind “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century”. For this role, Myatt tricked museums and art galleries into believing that the fakes were genuine, hence coining the term: “genuine fakes”. Today, Myatt is actively involved in the art world, including helping investigators with cases of art forgery much like his own.
Born in Staffordshire, England to a family of farmers, Myatt had a rural upbringing. While a teenager, he attended boarding school and, in later years, got married and became an art teacher. When his wife left him, however, he was left as the sole caregiver of two young children.
Making a meager living as an art teacher, in 1983 Myatt began to advertise “genuine fakes” in a London magazine for £150. The works were largely “nineteenth and twentieth-century artworks”. It was during this time that Myatt became affiliated with Professor John Drewe, a regular customer in the forgery scheme. With Drewe commissioning fourteen paintings in total, just a small portion of Myatt’s complete collection, Myatt was able to acquire a living from producing replicas.
The partnership began with a replication of a cubist painting by French artist Albert Gleizes, valued at roughly £25,000 when it was brought to Christie’s by Drewe. With Myatt’s permission, the work was sold to the auction house and he, in turn, acquired a £12,500 share of the profits. With the steep financial success from just one work, both Drewe and Myatt became addicted and realised the potential for a career in art forgery.
At this point, it is important to expand on Myatt's description of “genuine fakes”, as stated above. As opposed to simply creating fraudulent or new pieces of art, he created works that already existed. In these fakes, Myatt used pigments that were significantly similar to the originals, fooling art authenticators, museums, and auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s who were “under the impression that these works were originals”.
With Drewe handling the sales operations, Myatt created over 200 forgeries, not fakes, with “Matisse, Giacometti, and Chagall” as targeted artists. The fraudulent business lasted for years, with a majority of the money secretly sequestered by Drewe. Catching a whiff of this shady behavior, Myatt separated from the partnership in 1993. In 1995, however, the lucrative business was ratted out to police by one of Drewe’s ex-girlfriends.
Specifically, Myatt “was convicted of conspiracy to defraud, two counts of forgery, one of theft, and one of using a false instrument with intent”. During the four-year investigation, Myatt assisted detectives, going as far as to provide evidence “to help prosecute ex-partner John Drewe”. Myatt faced a 12-month sentence for conspiracy to defraud, though the time was shortened to four months due to good behaviour, allowing him to leave Bixton prison in June of 1999.
Although Myatt was hesitant to return to the art world, people involved in the trial. including the “detective who arrested him and the barristers for the plaintiff”, urged Myatt to create works on commission. From this point onwards, Myatt changed the trajectory of his career to simply being known as an ex-convict.
Myatt not only creates commissioned works that are “collected by fans across the globe,” but also assists in legal investigations of art fraud cases, not unlike his own. The fakes created by the artist are exhibited to great acclaim all over the world. In addition, Myatt stars in a television programme, “Fame in the Frame”, which features him creating live portraits of celebrities.
This article is part of a collaborative series with publication Art Pot which aims to show how law and art have, and continue to be, interconnected. Read Art Pot's exploration of John Myatt's forgeries here.