John Myatt, the unassuming master forger at the heart of what British police have called the biggest contemporary art fraud of the 20th century, once stood at the back of an auction room and watched four of his fake masterpieces sell for thousands of dollars.
“I did think actually, as I walked out, ‘The world is really a very stupid place, and I am probably one of its most stupid inhabitants,'” Myatt recalls.
Yet along with a partner who would turn out to be a career con man, John Drewe, Myatt took part in a sophisticated seven-year scheme that swindled many of the art world’s swankiest specialists in the booming art market of the 1980s and 1990s — and brought in millions of pounds.
Working in household emulsion paint — a substance that hadn’t even been invented when many of the paintings he mimicked were first done — Myatt replicated more than 200 works by masters like Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Dubuffet, and Giacometti.
“Part of me felt, ‘Hold on a minute, these are painted in modern materials. They’re painted in K-Y jelly and house paint, for God’s sake. Anybody will look at it and they will just go, ‘No!'” Myatt recalls.
But Drewe reportedly “aged” the paintings with vacuum dust and garden soil, then falsified documents outlining the works’ ownership history so he could pass them off as authentic works by great artists of the 20th century. Drewe even made a £20,000 contribution to London’s Tate Gallery in order to gain access to library records there that he used, and in some cases altered, to forge better histories. The extent of the damage done to art history archives is still unknown.