BULL STREET - The art of the Con

John Myatt, Artistic Forger

Then there is John Myatt the newest and brightest star in the field of artistic forgery. Here is man that can turn out Matisse, Braque and Giacometti[95] with a flourish. Myatt went to prison for easily one of the best cons of the 20th century. He was an all around talent and hit the British charts with his musical single, “Silly Games.” In 1979, Myatt was becoming unbelievably prolific and when arrested in 1986 admitted to the creation of no less than 200 paintings by a raft of famous masters within a relatively short period of time. Most interesting of all, Myatt used a type of paint that was not even invented until the 1960s and not one expert ever noticed it until after he had been incarcerated.

Myatt advertised his works in a magazine by the name of Private Eye that appealed to folks that were interested in having copies of the great masters to hang on their walls. He offered what he called “genuine fakes” of 19th and 20th century from $250 and up and business was not so bad. In London, a man by the name of John Drewe in London was reading a particular copy of Private Eye that had one of Myatt’s ads in it. Drewe approached Myatt with the story that he was a working for British Intelligence and could a man like Myatt to help him with a particular project. Drewe had an amazing imagination and went on to meander about spies and revolutions in far off countries but this is really of no matter. We are not sure whether or not Myatt accepted Drewe’s story or not but he was going through a bad time with his marriage on the rocks, creditors all over the place and he agreed to do whatever Drewe wanted for a price.

Drewe only wanted Myatt, who at this time was an art teacher in Staffordshire, to paint famous masters. Before too much time had passed, Drewe was accepting delivery of a Myatt’s forgeries on a regular basis and once in his hands, he maliciously aged the work with a combination vacuum cleaner dust and varnish, he then coated the frames with salt in order to get them to rust a tad. Rusted frames always convinced buyers that the paintings were old beyond their years. So Myatt copied the artist’s style, Drewe aged the paintings and when all that was completed, he had his agents bring the works over to Christie’s, Sotheby’s[96] or Phillips to be auctioned off as the real thing. Moreover, there were not many questions raised as to the work’s authenticity, but there is more to the story.

Drewe realized that dealers, auctioneers and collectors would be less likely to question the authenticity of a fake painting if he created a provenance[97] as bogus as the work of art itself. He inserted false information into the records of the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London so that the paintings, which he was paying an artist to fake, acquired an instant history. Then, distancing himself to lessen the chances of detection, he persuaded others to sell the pictures.”[98]

In spite of the fact that the paintings were ultimately sold by the auction houses for substantial sums, well into the millions of dollars, it turns out that Myatt only received a tad under $200,000 in total for his efforts. Finding this out eventually, and feeling that he had been totally taken in by his partner in crime, Drewe, he turned state’s evidence against him and continued to cooperate with law enforcement officials until his ex partner was safely ensconced in a London Prison Cell and had been assured that he would be there for some time. The marriage of these two partners in crime had by this time lasted the better part of a decade.

Ultimately, the police paid Drewe an overdue and quite unfriendly surprise visit and even they were amazed at what they discovered:

“…They found hundreds of documents from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Sitting on Drewe’s kitchen table were two catalogues missing from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library, still in the museum bag that Drewe had used to smuggle them out. There were rubber stamps bearing the authenticating seals of the Tate and of an order of monastic priests; receipts for the sale of paintings across continents going back decades; certificates of authenticity from the estates of Dubuffet and Giancometti; also the more mundane instruments of document forgery: scissors, razors, correction fluid, glue, tape.”

“As police and art experts soon discovered, forging masterpieces as Myatt had done, was the least of it. Drewe’s real genius lay in his ability to authenticate Myatt’s works through bogus provenances - the history of a work of art, from its creation through its purchasings and exhibitions to its current ownership, crucial elements in the sale of any picture. It would turn out that over the previous 10 years, Drewe had systematically infiltrated some of the most security-conscious art archives in the world, altering the provenances of genuine paintings to same type of ploy with The Tate and the Victoria and Albert’s National Art Library. He was able change the references in the catalogues from the establish a lineage making way for Myatt’s mostly unexceptional forgeries, and then seeding the collections with false records that provided the pictures with instant heritage.”

“The scale of the corruption is unprecedented. The method is, too. Archivists may never know how much of their libraries have been compromised. Of the 200 “masterworks”, Myatt painted and Drewe sold, the police have located only 73. Drewe did more than slip phony pictures into a market hungry for important contemporary are - he altered art history. The police call the con the “biggest contemporary art fraud the 20th century has seen.” The British prosecution office declared Drewe a menace to Britain’s cultural patrimony.”[99]

In another astounding move, Drewe donated two of his best forgeries to Institute of Contemporary Art In London. He told them that was an art collector who was interested in the history of the Institute. This donation along with his wild story naively caused the Institute to give him access to their stationary and just about anything else that they had. He used this opportunity to his tremendous advantage by authenticating many of his forged works with bogus letters from the Institute to potential buyers. Interestingly enough, Drewe used the then defunct Ohana Gallery in London to a fare-the-well, he substituted pictures of their offerings with images of the paintings that Myatt had recently finished. He then inserted pages bearing the imprimatur of Ohana into catalogues and artistic workbooks.

He also created a bogus company by the name of Art Research Associates, which would give opinions of authenticity on paintings within his inventory. This ploy worked particularly well when after he had sold a famous American gallery a fake Giacometti for almost $200,000, however they had some second thoughts and needed someone to authenticate it. Coincidently, they somehow found Drewe listed in an Art Magazine, which proclaimed his expertise relative to Giacometti and got him on the phone. They wanted to hire him to expertise the phony painting that he had sold them. Art Research Associates charged them a $2,000 expertizing fee to find out that the fake was indeed real.

Moreover, he would also write reports on paintings that Myatt had finished and then he would secretly imbed them into old catalogues that were often used for reference by the big galleries. He had come into possession of an ancient typewriter that was perfect for this particular illusion and Drewe completely fooled all the experts that investigated the backgrounds of these works. His most audacious actions came when he was able to blackmail a Roman Catholic religious order into creating phony histories of Myatt’s works. These opinions would come with all of the correct seals of the order. His illusions were so compelling that Drewe was even able to sell a fake Sutherland to Nahum, one of the top art dealers in London. Moreover, Nahum also became a regular on the television show, “Antiques Roadshow”.

While Nahum dropped about $60,000, this was mere chicken feed when compared to what happened to Whitford Fine Arts, a trendy gallery in London’s West End section. They bought a de Stael from Drewe and when they later found that it had been forged, they confronted him. Drewe adeptly told them that he was sorry but it was obviously he that had been taken in by whoever, he had purchased the painting from and told Whitford that he would handle the matter with the forger personally. In the meantime, “would they take four Sutherland sketches in exchange?” The people at Whitford Fine Arts were none to swift and thinking that they were coming out way ahead on the transaction jumped at the opportunity. Of course, the Sutherland’s were also forgeries but they did not discover the fact until the entire story about Drewe’s exploits had unfolded in the press.

For a good part of this time, Drewe had become engaged to a woman that could not quite bring herself to tie the not with him. She said that there was something about Drewe that she could just not put her finger on. Eventually when the relationship had stalled for a time, they broke up; however, Drewe had mistakenly left behind some very incriminating evidence of his phony works. As she went through this material, she became convinced that she had been taken for a ride by him in the same fashion as everyone else she was reading about. She called the police and for our Mr. Drewe, that was the beginning of the end.

Drewe or Len Martin, or Sussman, or Green, or Atwood, or Bayard, or Cloverdale or any of the other names he sometimes called himself were all assumed. As his life unfolded, everything he did or said turned out to be a lie.

“…Drewe arranged a meeting with them (the police) in 1994 to try to establish himself as a trusted informant in case the art fraud he was already running was uncovered. It was a typically devious piece to thinking by Drewe and yet the fraud itself, the biggest involving modern paintings this century, was devastatingly simple and has shivers through Britain’s multi billion -a-year art market.”[100]

Eventually it turned that his real name was John Cockett and it was in this embodiment that he was sentenced to six-years in imprisonment at London’s Pentonville Prison for his efforts extraordinary criminal efforts. Moreover, Drewe was so good at what he did that art museums on both sides of the Atlantic still do not know how corrupted their data has become, because of the fact that Drewe had placed red herrings everywhere he went. What he did to the art world will take decades if ever to unravel. Only 60 of the 200 painting done by the team of Myatt and Drewe have ever been recovered which leaves a lot of stuff still hanging on people’s walls.

Who knows, you may have one of these paintings on your own wall; carefully turn the canvas over and see if doesn’t say Elmyr or Drewe on the back.

However, all these folks were mere amateurs. Perhaps the grandest forgery of them all was accomplished by Giorgio de Chirico who was caught in the act of backdating his own paintings by two-decades, a period when he was much more popular. Effectively, the artist had forged himself.



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