March 29, 2011

Master con artists: John Drewe, John Myatt


Scotland Yard called it the biggest art fraud of the 20th century. Amazing that, since many of the forgeries involved were made with emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly.

Between 1986 and 1994, British conman John Drewe flooded the art market with more than 200 bogus masterpieces supposedly by modern master, deceiving collectors, art dealers and auction houses in London, Paris and New York. Among the luminaries he fooled: Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Christie's, Sotheby's.

His accomplice was artist John Myatt, whom he'd found through an ad in Private Eye in 1983. While Myatt forged paintings by masters like Giacometti and Matisse, Drewe faked provenances, scammed his way into the art world and London archives, where he stole documents and replaced them with new "old" ones he had created himself.

The masquerade came to an end in 1995 when Drewe's wife, from whom he was separated, outed him. Only about 80 of the phoney works have been recovered.

I wonder how people who're so obviously smart go so badly wrong. What they could accomplish if they put their brains to good use! The story's not new of course, but I just watched the Masterminds documentary on TV. You can watch it here at YouTube so you can see for yourself how the pair did it.  
(more on the con artists after the videos)

And here's a video of Myatt talking about his life of forgery:

John Myatt, 65, was sentenced to 12 months in prison in 1999 but was released for good behaviour after four months. He is now a successful artists who paints "Genuine Fakes". Myatt has appeared in several British TV series and a Hollywood movie is said to be in the works. You can see his works at his John Myatt website.

Less is known about what became of John Drewe, a charismatic charmer who had reportedly made £1.8 million from the art con. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison and served 2. He is a fascinating character with a reported IQ of 165 who had apparently been making up stories about himself since he was a child. Among his claims: he was a descendant of nobility; he had a PhD in Physics; he advised the Atomic Energy Authority; and in his trial defense, he claimed he was a secret agent for the government and was the fall guy in a conspiracy involving Scotland Yard, the Defense Ministry and the governments of several countries!

This passage best describes what a compulsive liar he was:

"As they rifle through potentially incriminating pieces of evidence (while searching Drewe's house), a no-nonsense Geordie detective (policeman) takes a note of his suspect’s various cover stories. “At 7.40am, he said he was an agent for the works of Alberto Giacometti. At 8.05, he was an art researcher specialising in British watercolours. At 8.15, he was a historian working on a groundbreaking study of artworks lost during World War II. At 8.33, he was an unofficial diplomatic go-between in the process of organising reciprocal post-war reparations between Germany and Russia…At 8.40, he was an entrepreneur developing a computerised art database that could link lost paintings to their owners. At 9.21, he was the head of Norseland Research, a British partnership that marketed revolutionary archival methods. At 10.20, he put in a call to his mother."

The passage (via The Sunday Times) is from The Conman (also published as Provenance), a book about the con job.

Do you think you will know if you ever come across a fake artwork?

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recent posts on art you may like
Fulvio Bonavia: A Matter of Taste
Invisible Man: Liu Bolin
Mehmet Ozgur smoke art

Resources and related links
A 20th century master scam (New York Times, 1999)
The Master Forger (The Guardian, 2005)
The Art Loss Register
World's Greatest Forgers (Freemanart)
How con artists work (howstuffworks)
Interview with The Conman/Provenance co-author Laney Salisbury at The Open Case

by liberal sprinkles


Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Well, it takes all kinds...and I suppose when someone says things with bold confidence there is the tendency to believe them. Crazy story. I'm not surprised there is a movie in the works!

Titania said...

Interesting story; many con artists (I guess this is a profession!) get away with it. The worth of art is and was hyped up in the galleries in New York and then suddenly it all crashed. I guess there is more then one fake mouldering away in vault!

liberal sprinkles said...

ooh there are probably tons of fakes and not just in vaults! I looked for figures related to art fraud for this post and around the time of the Drewe/Myatt con went to trial, some said that about 40% of art in the market were fakes! Couldn't get more updated figures but it may not have changed drastically since.

The amazing thing is how easily the art world allows itself to be conned. Doesn't say much for experts, does it?

Charisma is dangerous in the hands of people with criminal minds, and maybe not just those!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Grace ... I stopped by the other day and read the article, but haven't watched your videos. What an amazing post! You always do so much hard work on yours. I have finished mine "A" Challenge, and the a-frame photos are now linked up. Sometimes I'm afraid that I will lose everything so I go ahead and post before I am all done. Thanks, and have a wonderful day!

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