Before John Myatt was sentenced to prison in February for his part as a forger in perhaps the most ingenious and damaging art con of the 20th century, he lived in a humble cottage on a narrow lane in the idyllic Staffordshire village of Sugnall, a three-hour drive northwest of London. To his neighbors, he appeared to be an unremarkable painter who had never established a style with which to spawn a career. He also wrote catchy pop tunes. If Myatt was known for anything, it was for a hit single, ''Silly Games,'' which made the British Top 40 in 1979.
But beginning in 1986, Myatt discovered that he could paint like the masters, and for the next nine years he led a secret and stunningly successful professional life as a painter. Braque, Matisse, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, all became part of his repertoire. He faked their styles with such virtuosity that his paintings passed for the real thing.
Then, one morning in September 1995, Myatt opened his front door to walk his young son to the school bus and found policemen in his yard. A plainclothes officer introduced himself as Jonathan Searle, a one-time painter, restorer and art historian, and now Detective Sergeant at Scotland Yard. Myatt, 50, sturdily built with the toughened hands of a laborer, nodded with resigned expectancy and invited the policemen inside for tea. Then he asked if could walk his son to the bus. While he did, the officers ransacked the house. Upon returning, Myatt stood in the studio with Searle, surveying the chaos. ''Do you like this one?'' Myatt asked, pointing to a competent if undistinguished drawing of his son. Searle nodded sympathetically, but was amazed by what looked to be paintings by Giacometti, Chagall, Braque and Dubuffet hanging about the room. Drawing pads lying around showed sketched studies for works by Giacometti, Le Corbusier and Ben Nicholson.
Myatt confessed on the spot to having drawn and painted what the police later said were about 200 forgeries in the styles of nine modern masters and personally delivering them to London, one roughly every six weeks, to a man by the name of John Drewe. Scotland Yard already suspected Drewe of masterminding the sale of Myatt's forgeries (and perhaps those of at least one other painter, still unidentified) through the auction houses Christie's, Sotheby's and Phillips, as well as reputable dealers in London, Paris and New York. Then Myatt told Searle something the police didn't know: that he'd made most of the pictures out of an easily detectable household emulsion paint developed in the mid-60's, decades after most of the paintings were supposed to have been executed. In some cases, he used K-Y Jelly as a medium to add body and fluidity to his brushstrokes. Myatt had no idea how many millions had changed hands on account of his paintings, but estimated that he had earned as much as $165,000 over the years, some of which was deposited into a Swiss bank account in his name. The painter immediately offered to return the $30,000 he still had and to help snare Drewe.
Seven months later, on April 6, 1996, after recording conversations between the partners, detectives raided Drewe's home in the tony London suburb of Reigate, where 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 V. and A.'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 Giacometti; 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 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 approximately 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 art -- he altered art history. The police call the con the ''the biggest contemporary art fraud the 20th century has seen.'' The British prosecution office declared Drewe a menace to Britain's cultural patrimony.
The scandal has not only upset the market for the artists Myatt forged, but it has also exposed the art industry as its own worst enemy -- too reliant on sources of authenticity that are vulnerable to manipulation and riddled with conflicts of interest that invite corruption. Drewe's story says less about his own brilliance than about the readiness -- if not the willingness -- of the art world to be deceived.
''It's one of the most extensive frauds in the visual arts,'' says Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. ''What distinguishes this case is how methodical Drewe was, and how well he understood the process of validation. His manipulation of the system is as interesting and troubling as the forgeries themselves.''
I first met John Drewe this past March in the grim confines of Pentonville Prison in northwest London, where he was serving a six-year sentence for conspiracy to defraud and multiple counts of forgery. A man of medium height and build, with slate blue eyes and brown hair, he wore gray inmate's clothes, smiled aggressively when displeased and talked compulsively. I was cautioned by John Bevan, the prosecutor who built the case against Drewe, to stay on my guard while in Drewe's presence. ''I was very careful not to sign anything during the course of the trial and let it anywhere near him,'' Bevan warned. ''Over his history, everyone who dealt with him in one way or another took a turn for the worse.''
All that week Drewe had called me almost daily at my hotel, obsessively repeating the story of his innocence: ''The art that is the subject of this case is purely a smoke screen for a story that is much more massive and sinister than the police are willing to investigate or the court is willing to hear. It might seem to be fiction,'' he admitted plaintively, ''but I'm afraid it's not.'' Of course, it was.
Drewe has been creating fictions his entire life. He was born John Cockett in 1948 and grew up in an unremarkable lower-middle-class home in Sussex in southeast England. Even as a child, he made up stories about himself, bragging to friends that he was a direct descendant of the Earl of York and the son of the founder of the British Homes Stores. Despite a reported I.Q. of 165, he was an average student. Daniel Stoakes, a friend from those days whose life was to intersect with Drewe's some 35 years later, remembers Drewe as an abnormally organized child who kept an enormous library of books and clippings files, as though he were accumulating written information for some later purpose. ''His room,'' Stoakes recalls, ''seemed like a laboratory.''
At 17, Cockett dropped out of school and changed his name to Drewe. For the next 15 years, he slipped out of official sight. He worked briefly in a low administrative post at the Atomic Energy Authority. After that, the British Government has no record of him paying taxes, being arrested or seeking medical treatment. His official employment record is blank.
Drewe offers an account of those years. In 1968, he says, he joined the student protests in Paris, then headed for Germany: ''I studied physics for a period of six years at Kiel University. I came back to the United Kingdom.'' He claims he taught experimental physics ''at the University of Sussex for a year'' and, he says, received a second Ph.D. in physics from SUNY Buffalo. Neither Kiel University nor SUNY Buffalo has ever registered or awarded a degree to a John Drewe or a John Cockett; the University of Sussex has never heard of him.
In 1980, he was introduced to Bat-Sheva Goudsmid, an Israeli immigrant and children's eye specialist who lived in a handsome house in Golders Green, an upper-middle-class London neighborhood popular with Jews and Israelis. Goudsmid had bought the house in part with German reparation payments to her parents, who were Holocaust survivors. (She would later lose nearly all her assets because of her association with Drewe.) On their first date, Drewe arrived at her front door in a white Rolls-Royce, bearing a huge bouquet of flowers. He told her he was an adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority and a board member of British Aerospace. None of these things were true, but no one knows where the money came from to pay for his expensive life style. ''In 1980 he told me he was working for the Ministry of Defense,'' Goudsmid says. ''Then he said he worked for a munitions company in Woolwich.''
While Goudsmid believed that Drewe was leaving every day for the Ministry of Defense, he was, for several of these years, actually teaching physics at a private Jewish high school in the affluent neighborhood of Highgate. He left abruptly in 1985. When asked why, the school's administrator would only say, ''We made him feel that he should leave, and he did so,'' then hung up.
Although they never married, Drewe often presented Goudsmid as his wife. ''He asked me three times to marry him,'' she says. ''The reason I didn't marry him, I knew there was something wrong -- something very strange, but I couldn't put my finger on it. He did everything behind locked doors.'' They had two children, a boy and a girl. ''I never discussed my work; he never discussed his.''
Goudsmid had begun to notice a steady stream of paintings coming through the house. Drewe said they belonged to an old mentor of his at the Atomic Energy Authority, who wanted to sell off his collection piece by piece, and that he was simply helping out a friend on a commission basis. At one point, she caught Drewe spreading mud on a painting in their backyard. ''He said it would make it look more old, because it had been in a vault for very many years and it looked very new,'' she says. In truth, in 1986, Drewe had already stumbled upon a hapless John Myatt, who would be his foil for a lucrative new career.
When John Drewe found him, Myatt's life was in wretched shape, emotionally and financially. His wife had recently abandoned him and their two young children, and he was left to scratch out a meager living teaching art in the local schools. ''I spent all day teaching other people's children and had no time for my own,'' he told me this spring in Brixton Prison, in southwest London, where he was serving a one-year sentence for conspiracy to defraud. (He was released in June.) ''I wasn't doing my own painting. I needed to find a way to work at home.'' A few years before, a friend had offered to pay him $400 to copy a painting by the French Post-Impressionist Raoul Dufy. He copied the picture and Dufy's signature so masterfully that his friend told him his painting was fooling art experts.
''I thought it was funny,'' Myatt says with a shrug, insisting he didn't give it another thought until he became desperate to stay at home with his children. In 1986, he placed a classified ad in Private Eye, a satirical London biweekly: ''19th- and 20th-century fakes for $240.'' He received a call from a ''Professor Drewe,'' who said he was a nuclear physicist in need of paintings to decorate his home. Drewe asked first for a Matisse, then a Klee, then two marine paintings in the style of 17th-century Dutch masters.
Myatt would meet Drewe at London's Euston Station to deliver the rolled canvases. They'd have a pint together. Myatt began to confide in Drewe about the turmoil of his divorce. Drewe offered advice and comfort and eventually invited him to his home. ''I saw the size of his house,'' Myatt says, ''his Mercedes, his clothes, his manner.'' Drewe told Myatt that in addition to his work for the Ministry of Defense, he was associated with British Intelligence. He pulled back his jacket to reveal two pistols in shoulder holsters. ''I was very much your creature,'' Myatt would later say to Drewe in court. ''I found you hypnotizing and challenging and a very exciting person to be around.'' One day Drewe asked Myatt what style he wanted to paint in. Myatt told Drewe he'd always relished the idea of painting in the Cubist style. Myatt soon painted Drewe a Braque.
One evening in 1986, Drewe called Myatt with news. ''I took one of your paintings to Christie's, and they said it was worth $38,000,''' Myatt recalls Drewe as saying. ''That was the moment that the legitimate business stopped and the crime began. He said to come down to London and we'll talk it over. I said: 'I can't believe it. Are you aware it's painted in emulsion paint?''' He pauses. ''My vanity was quite ghastly,'' he says. ''The mistake occurred here. My reaction was to express an interest.''
Drewe's timing, in many ways, couldn't have been better. By the mid-80's, the art market was generating unprecedented profits and front-page headlines. Jasper Johns's ''False Start,'' which cost $3,150 in 1960, sold for $17 million in 1988. Picasso's ''Yo Picasso'' sold for $47.9 million in 1989, more than twice the preauction estimate. In 1990, Van Gogh's ''Portrait of Dr. Gachet,'' a painting whose authenticity is still controversial, was bought by a Japanese collector for a record $82.5 million. The prices of pictures even by obscure artists skyrocketed. Myatt's ''masterpieces'' were suddenly hot commodities.
The painter took trips to Coventry Cathedral to copy Graham Sutherland's studies for his huge tapestry of Christ in His glory. He meditated on Giacometti reproductions, then took five hours to paint a picture that eventually sold for $175,000. Myatt moved on to Ben Nicholson, Nicolas de Stal, Le Corbusier, Matisse, Roger Bissi re, glorying in painting his way through 20th-century art history. His unorthodox formula of emulsion and K-Y Jelly was fast-drying, allowing him to paint quickly, if obsessively. ''I took no trouble technically,'' he says. ''There was a negligence to everything I did.''
Even so, his pictures were passing as genuine and selling for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was enjoying a financial success he could never have approached by painting Myatts. Perhaps no other forger of his or any other time has worked so prodigiously and in so many styles. ''It was a kind of addiction,'' he says, then shakes his head sadly. ''It was shocking, it quite terrified me. The moment they started to restore them they would know what they were faced with.''
But Drewe calmed his nerves by telling Myatt, who a year before had been lovelorn and broke, how brilliant he was, how rich he would get. ''I was flattered into thinking I was a man of importance,'' Myatt says, although he concedes he had an ''abiding sense of unreality, that this wasn't really happening, that this would all end in tears.''
Before Myatt, the most successful forgers of our time counted on the brute force of their pictures, imitating one or two giants of art so that the paintings' discovery would be splashy news, the reclamation of a ''lost masterpiece.'' Hans van Meegeren aped Vermeer in the 1930's and 40's; the flamboyant Tom Keating did Rembrandt in the 1950's, and Eric Hebborn copied Augustus John, Corot and others of their ilk.
Hard information on the quantity of bogus art sold is difficult to come by, in part because fraud, when discovered by dealers and auction houses, is usually kept secret to boost public confidence in the art market. Experts usually claim that, depending on the period and the painter, between 10 and 40 percent of pictures by significant artists for sale are bogus, or so overrestored as to make them the equivalent of fake. One of a number of reputable West End dealers drawn into the scam, who demanded anonymity, claims that 15 percent of sales at auction houses are fake. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said that during his tenure, a full 40 percent of the artworks considered for purchase by the museum were phony or overrestored. Geraldine Norman, the British art journalist credited with exposing Keating and Hebborn, says that at least 10 percent of the pictures purportedly made by major Impressionists are fake. Some experts say that as much as 60 percent of the Giacomettis on the market are fake, at least in part as a result of Drewe's con. Forty percent of pictures supposedly from the Russian avant-garde era are almost certainly forgeries. The widows of Modigliani and Chagall were accused of selling certificates of authentication. Salvador Dali, lying on his deathbed in a stupor, is said to have been fed thousands of sheets of blank paper to sign for fake lithographs. In a grotesquely sad twist, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico was caught back-dating new pictures to a time, 20 years previously, when his work was popular and in heavy demand, in effect forging himself.
Modern art, in particular, seems especially vulnerable to fraud. Its abstractions are sometimes difficult to understand or grasp, and a modern painting is often loved less because of its intrinsic quality -- its beauty, as conventionally understood -- than because of the identity of the painter, its mark of social status.
''There is the line that modern art pretends to be things it's not,'' says Sandy Nairne, director of national programs for the Tate Gallery. ''There is a crossover between the way Drewe perpetrated a con with the cultural view that modern art may be viewed as a con on the public.'' There is a sense, Nairne says, in which Drewe was simply ''making up modern art.''
All of which made buyers of modern art the perfect target for Drewe, who counted on his victims' hunger for found treasure. Serious collectors and art experts, among the world's most educated, often cannot fathom the possibility of being rooked, and then once taken, cannot face the humiliation of admitting it. Says Hoving: ''When the collector gets what he wants and he's told it isn't real, he says, 'I don't care, to me it's a Renoir.''' Even though one forged Giacometti, a 1955 ''Nu Debout'' Drewe sold to two New York dealers, is obviously lacking in the artist's typical depth of field and manic linearity, one of the dealers maintains, ''I still think it's one of the best Giacomettis I've ever seen.'' As Geraldine Norman puts it, many collectors' interests in art ''are reflections of social climbing and romanticism about names, a thousand things that have nothing to do with the surface of the work of art you are looking at.''
A forger's chief motivation is typically intellectual gamesmanship. Embittered by the spurning of his own work, he takes satisfaction in suckering the entire art world en masse, then pulling aside the curtain, exposing himself as a renegade genius and the art experts as the frauds and fools. Drewe had a different strategy: to deliver low-profile paintings in high volume, make multiple hits for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- which would not attract unwanted attention -- rather than a few jackpots worth millions. To succeed, however, he had to begin creating irresistible provenances.
'A painting's last owner is the forger's biggest problem,'' the prosecutor Bevan says, standing beside a shoulder-high mound of banker's boxes containing Drewe's output of faked documents. He pulls out a sheaf of faked provenance for the forged 1955 Giacometti. ''You can show who owned paintings in the 1950's -- just use people who are dead,'' he said. ''But the last owner is usually alive.'' According to Bevan, Drewe used several people, most of them easy prey -- old friends or acquaintances down on their luck in money or love -- to front for Myatt's forgeries.
One was Peter Harris, ''an old drinking companion,'' Bevan says, ''who never owned a painting in his life. All he had were some posters of all the pubs of London on the wall. Drewe got him to sign documents when he was dying.'' (Harris died of throat cancer in 1989.) Another was Danny Berger, an Israeli immigrant and luggage salesman, who was broke. Under Drewe's direction, Berger sold a number of paintings to Christie's and Sotheby's, as well as to private dealers.
But no one's life was more shattered by Drewe than that of Daniel Stoakes, Drewe's codefendant, who was acquitted. The two had been childhood friends some 35 years earlier but lost contact after school. ''I divorced my wife,'' Stoakes says. ''I was living in a mobile home. I thought about old friends, and I thought about John out of the blue.'' He called Drewe, who, it turns out, had been using Stoakes's name as an art owner on forged provenances for years. ''I fell into his hands like a ripe plum. He came to see me in a big red sports car. And this is his genius -- he told me a horror story about how his wife had become a danger to his children. He'd tried to get a doctor to commit her. This story went on and on. He couldn't use bank accounts. He came at a time when I was quite vulnerable. His genius was to ally himself to me. He rang up in tears about his children.''
This was the hook, Stoakes recalls. ''He said: 'I own one painting,' by the British artist Ben Nicholson. 'We can perhaps kill two birds with one stone. You're in need of some money, and I have this painting. There are problems about its history, small gaps here and there. I can't use my name, but I need the money to fight for my children. Can I use your name as the owner? There's a small percentage in it for you.' I got hooked by the romance of it,'' Stoakes admits.
Drewe drafted fictitious letters for Stoakes to copy in his own hand, in which Stoakes pretended to be the owner of the painting. ''I thought it was part of the game; I had no idea what a false provenance meant.'' Stoakes pauses, then concedes his own gullibility. ''I wanted to believe him. He was a male friend who was going through what I was going through. He sussed out what my weakness was, both with the romance and the possibility of making money. But it was the idea of a very old friend in a friendless world.''
When Drewe couldn't find accomplices, Bevan says, he simply fashioned them out of whole cloth. ''He created this other creature, Len Martin,'' Bevan explains. Since the early 1970's, Drewe had saved correspondence with Kiel University, in Germany, in particular letters to and from a professor of physics named H. Heinrich Martin. Drewe had carved Martin's signature from the letter and refashioned the first name, and ''Len Martin'' was born. ''What he did,'' Bevan says, ''was take an original document from a solicitor's, skillfully cut-and-pasted it, whited out the lines, photocopied it, copied it again. There you are, a lovely official document: 'To Whom It May Concern, this letter confirms the painting by Giacometti is being sold with the full authority of the owner.' This letter is signed by the owner of the Giacometti, Len Martin. Len Martin doesn't exist.''
Then, in 1989, in a move that would significantly widen the scope of the con, Drewe gained access to the closely guarded library of correspondence between 20th-century artists, collectors and curators at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. He ingratiated himself to the I.C.A. by claiming to be a collector interested in the Institute's history and then by donating two paintings to a coming fund-raising auction -- a Le Corbusier and Giacometti -- that Myatt says are forgeries. Convinced by Drewe's claims and grateful for the paintings, the I.C.A. opened its files. According to the police, the Institute's letterhead, and much correspondence from its archives, would soon appear in Drewe's fabricated provenances.
At the same time, Drewe was playing the Tate, preparing his way first by offering it a pair of Bissi re paintings. The museum initially liked them, and said it might hang them in its galleries. Then it showed them to Bissi re's son, who said the materials were not the sort his father would use. The Tate hedged. Drewe withdrew the offer and quickly made a $32,000 donation to support cataloguing in the archives. He then followed up with an application to research the library. Convinced of Drewe's expertise, and with the donation in mind, the museum quickly assented. Drewe made a similar application at the Victoria and Albert's National Art Library, which asked for the applicant's occupation. Drewe listed ''professor of physics.'' He gave as a reference a ''Dr. John Cockett,'' and an address, his own. The N.A.L. wrote for a referral. Drewe wrote back, ''John Drewe is a man of integrity,'' and signed ''John Cockett.''
Soon after, alone among the manuscripts of the National Art Library, wielding a scalpel, Drewe went to work. To bring the forged Giacometti to life, he dissected a 1955 catalogue for an exhibition at the Ohana Gallery (now defunct) in London, ''Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Stage Designs by Members of the Entertainment World,'' which had hung works of art by show-business celebrities. Drewe, perfectly matching the typeset of the original on a computer, reset the title page, rewording it to read ''with contributions from Members of the Entertainment World.'' He then seeded the catalogue with photographs not only of Myatt's versions of Giacometti, but also some of his better Chagalls, Dubuffets, de Stals and Nicholsons. Then he restitched the binding and replaced the forged catalogue in the stacks.
Later, in a stroke of astonishing audacity, Drewe created a fictitious firm called Art Research Associates and, through a London-based middle man, hired himself out as a professional archivist to a New York dealer seeking confirmation of the Giacometti's authenticity. The dealer had purchased the picture almost a year before for $175,000, and was trying to sell it. But Lisa Palmer, director of the Alberto et Annette Giacometti Association, whom he contacted, wouldn't vouch for its authenticity. Scotland Yard had already begun investigating Drewe. The painting had been offered for auction at Sotheby's in New York, but then, at Palmer's behest, was removed.
The dealer sought an objective opinion. The middle man put him in touch with Professor Drewe of Art Research Associates, who months earlier had ''thoroughly investigated'' the painting, issuing a report that concluded ''the provenance of this painting is not in question.'' The dealer arranged to meet Drewe at the National Art Library, where they studied the forged Ohana Gallery catalogue. It included the Giacometti, in reproduction, amid other impressive works by modern masters, many of them, of course, forged.
By way of provenance, there were letters from Harris, conveniently dead, together with correspondence from a number of previous owners -- including Len Martin, who never existed -- plus a stack of concocted invoices tracing the picture's path out of Giacometti's studio. Despite Palmer's insistence that the painting was a fake, and despite Sotheby's reluctance and Scotland Yard's interest in Drewe, the dealer, overwhelmed by the mountain of perfect provenance, was convinced the picture was real. Afterward, Drewe took him to an expensive lunch, bragged that his wife was a first cousin to Itzhak Perlman and that he spent most of his time researching art lost to the Nazis in World War II. The dealer paid Drewe $600 for his efforts. ''This is a shark-infested business,'' the dealer now says bitterly.
It is the provenancing that distinguishes Drewe's scam. ''People don't think a forger is going to go to such great lengths,'' Bevan says. ''This was a full-time job. Drewe chatted up the families of the artists to find out their domestic details, their love lives, so he could write antique letters -- from de Stal to his lady friend, for instance, in 1950 -- as part of the provenance.'' Alan Bowness, former head of the Tate and the son-in-law of Ben Nicholson, was fooled into authenticating two of Myatt's fake Nicholsons, not because the pictures were good -- in fact, the general consensus was that they were unimpressive at best -- but because the provenancing was flawless.
''I've never experienced anyone who had the level of sophistication of John Drewe,'' says Melanie Clore, director of the Impressionist and modern-art department at Sotheby's, which sold 14 of Myatt's forgeries. ''He was phenomenal. You're not talking about obtuse pictures that came in with a dear old lady that have no history, and they've been sitting in an attic.'' In the case of one Giacometti, Clore says, ''this was a major picture meant to belong to the director of the I.C.A.''
Indeed, Drewe changed and fabricated so many records at both the Victoria and Albert and the Tate, and with so many different artists, that the directors of both museums admit that they may never know how much of their collection has been corrupted. And the scandal has also reverberated in the United States. Lowry, for one, is deeply concerned about MOMA. ''We take our role as a public institution very seriously,'' he says. ''That means providing as much access as possible to research documents. The thought that we have to think about restricting access is profoundly troubling.'' Once Drewe was discovered, Lowry says, a process of reverse screenings took place on both sides of the Atlantic. Records were scoured, paintings were re-examined, all to purge the system. ''It will take years, probably, before it is fully accomplished,'' he says.
More than any other art fraud in recent memory, the Drewe scandal has raised the ire of London's independent art dealers, much of it directed at the auction houses, which, they claim, willfully moved Myatt forgeries knowing they were fakes in order to boost profits. How else to explain passing off supposed oil paintings by famous artists made with vinyl paint and K-Y Jelly? The auction houses, in turn, insist they were conned like everyone else.
''These pictures were not flung in sales and we turned a blind eye,'' insists Melanie Clore. ''Reputable academics authenticated the pictures, and people who have a lot of experience with these particular artists condoned them. I think it's a case that affected the whole art establishment, dealers, auction houses, academics, collectors. We were as diligent as we could be.'' Complaints about the auction houses, she says, sound more like the sour grapes of dealers bitter and embarrassed about being suckered themselves.
In the case of one Giacometti, Sotheby's withdrew the picture just hours prior to its sale because Lisa Palmer of the Giacometti association was suspicious of it, in spite of what appeared to be an overwhelmingly substantiated provenance. ''You go to the Tate Gallery archives,'' says Clore, ''and you look through the stock book of the most reputable gallery in London in the 50's and you find the picture reproduced in black and white. You can't be more diligent than that. You can't underestimate the lengths to which Drewe went.'' Christie's refused to comment beyond the assertion that it checked the provenances thoroughly and so did nothing wrong.
Thomas Hoving doesn't think that the auction houses are always, or even often, purposely deceitful. ''The auction houses get stung from time to time because of the volume they deal with,'' Hoving says. ''In general, they simply don't have the time to confirm the authenticity of everything. The amount of things they deal with is awesome.''
Lowry of MOMA adds, ''If it is determined that a dealer or an auction house is a willing purveyor of forgeries, their credibility is so affected that at the end of the day it's self-destructive.''
Peter Nahum, a senior director and head of Sotheby's British paintings department for 17 years and one of London's most respected art dealers, was among the first to be bilked by Drewe. He complains that too many private dealers and auction houses ''are really interested in churning through as much money and getting as much profit as possible,'' and that both are consequently complicit in their own corruption. While at Sotheby's, Nahum sold up to 10,000 paintings a year and looked at up to 40,000. As a dealer, he sells 300 to 400 a year, and though he looks at about 100,000, he says the smaller number of sales reduces his chance of being conned, but doesn't eliminate it.
Nahum argues that in recent years the market has been thinned of good art, and that the auction houses have cut costs by firing their experts. ''Nowadays,'' Nahum laments, ''expertise gets in the way'' by slowing the process. ''You can't expertise on 100,000 pictures a year. You can't do your job properly and make any money.'' Leslie Waddington, another London dealer, agrees: ''It's a much bigger problem than the discussion about Drewe. The real question is, Who are the experts at Christie's and Sotheby's? Are they just experts at selling and chatting up old women? . . . If the auction houses dominate the world, where is the expertise going to be? Will they have no one who has visible knowledge?''
Nahum's first contact with Drewe came in the late 80's. Unbeknown to him, Drewe had been offering Nahum paintings by Ben Nicholson and Laurence Lowry for years through his band of runners. ''They were bad and expensive, and I ran them along,'' Nahum says. ''But then we're in the middle of a very bad recession. We've all lost a lot of money. We're all desperately trying to meet our overhead. There is no business. It's hell.'' In 1984, Drewe's next-door neighbor, Clive Bellman, ''came in with a Graham Sutherland 'Crucifixion,''' Nahum said, adding that he thought it was junk. But Christie's, Nahum had been told, had just sold a group of similar Sutherlands for $24,000 to $32,000 each. This Sutherland came with letters of authenticity from an order of monastic priests, the Order of Servite Mary -- all, it would turn out, forged. Nahum bought the painting and sent it to auction at Christie's in London. Eventually, Nahum bought the Nicholsons. ''They weren't great paintings, but they were flashy, colorful, what the market desires. The market doesn't want anything difficult or intellectual.''
Those paintings, too, had come with convincing documentation, including, according to Nahum, supporting letters from Alan Bowness, the world's top Nicholson expert. In flusher times, provenance is often checked more thoroughly. But, compromised by the necessity to move product, experts sometimes can't afford to look too hard; thus, the poisonous combination of raw commercialism and the desire for discovery. ''The Dubuffets were a joke,'' Waddington says. ''One or two of the Nicholsons looked good. I thought the fakes were third-rate. I say that glibly now. When I saw them I was worried, but I didn't say they were fakes.'' As Nahum says, ''None of the innocents are innocent.''
But raising an alarm, or even offering solid evidence of fraud, is no guarantee that a painting won't be sold. In 1994, Waddington was approached by Jean Dubuffet's concerned daughter with photocopies of 18 of her father's gouaches, some of them his trademark cows. ''Some of these I was very worried about,'' Waddington recalls. ''I thought they were fakes, but the provenances were good. I thought maybe Dubuffet had a bad phase.'' Then the dealer noticed that the paperwork had been signed ''Jean Dubuffet,'' but knew that the artist almost always signed his name ''J. Dubuffet.'' His suspicions aroused, he then noticed that three or four of the photocopies showed inscriptions to ''Lawrence'' or to ''Lawrence Alloway,'' curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in the 1950's. But Dubuffet was rigid in matters of social etiquette, and would have inscribed the works to ''Monsieur Alloway.'' The last tip-off was the date on the art, ''1955.'' Dubuffet stopped doing cows in early 1954.
The Jean Dubuffet Foundation was alerted. But the dealer soon learned that even after the warnings, Armande Trentinian, director of the foundation, issued certificates of authenticity for the works without having seen the originals. Because her lover had bought one for himself for $16,000, Trentinian's blunder was probably a product of stubbornness, possibly to cover her initial mistake. The Pace Gallery in New York had already bought four of the pieces. ''Everyone was profiting,'' Waddington says, suggesting that there was little motivation to stop the flow of fakes. Trentinian has since resigned.
''When I authenticated these works, I believed they were from Dubuffet,'' Trentinian says. She claims she had the drawings analyzed. ''The ink was good. The result was perfect. All the analysis was good. . . . If the elements we have now show certainly that these works are fake, then I regret my mistake.''
In another instance, the forged Giacometti, the 1955 ''Nu Debout,'' passed through the hands of two independent dealers before it was offered to the American purchasers. After Lisa Palmer could not guarantee the picture's authenticity, the Americans had the painting analyzed privately by Eugena Ordonez, a conservator who also worked at MOMA. Though Myatt had painted the picture sloppily and in an emulsion paint not invented until the mid-60's, a decade after the picture was supposedly done, Ordonez's report was ''inconclusive.'' Ordonez says she had been hired only to analyze the pigments, which gave satisfactory results, but not the medium, which might have raised suspicions that the painting was a forgery. ''What I say in my report is what I was asked to do,'' Ordonez explains. ''What I think and know about a painting is something else entirely different.'' When asked if a conservator who suspects the picture's origins, but doesn't object when the picture is sold and later determined to be a fake, is an accessory to a crime, Ordonez paused, then replied, ''That's a good question.''
As Lowry puts it: ''When a forger is as successful as Drewe was, it's not one person who's corrupt, it's not one dealer. It's a whole system that has failed. A lot of checks and balances that should have connected, didn't.''
By late 1994, Myatt had begun to pine for the simplicity and safety of his pre-Drewe life. He began to dread Drewe's phone calls. ''The sound of his voice going on and on,'' he recalls now, ''I needed a stiff drink afterward.'' Myatt had also become repulsed by how Drewe preyed on the vulnerable, the dead and the dimly acquainted to concoct art owners. Drewe had used Myatt's dying father's name on some of his fake provenances; he had done the same with Stoakes's. He had even cannibalized portions of his own mother's will. Myatt had also grown vaguely afraid; twice Drewe showed off his weapons. And after nearly nine years, Myatt yearned to return to painting in his own style.
The last straw was a Christie's auction that Myatt attended with Drewe, where he watched one of his own Dubuffets sold off for a lot of money. ''It was strangely depressing,'' Myatt says. ''It should have been my own work.''
Meanwhile, Drewe had walked out on Goudsmid but had left behind incriminating evidence of his forgeries. She in turn contacted the police and left three incriminating letters from Drewe with a friend. A third person, an acquaintance, took other documents from Goudsmid and kept them in his house in the London neighborhood of Hampstead. In mid-January 1995, Drewe called Myatt to inform him that Goudsmid had the papers and was blackmailing them. Myatt recalls Drewe's saying, ''I can't stand for it.'' He told Myatt he'd ''burn down the house.''
According to Goudsmid, Drewe heard that some of his papers were now in the house of Goudsmid's acquaintance. Drewe called her repeatedly, badgering her about how many locks were on the doors and whether there was an alarm. By this time, Goudsmid had taken the evidence back to her own home. The next night a man fitting Drewe's description was found hiding in the acquaintance's basement by a young renter. A few hours later, the house burned. A 25-year-old Hungarian woman renting the top floor jumped from the flames and later died of her injuries. Based on Goudsmid's statement and the witness's description, Drewe was arrested and put in a police lineup. But he had shaved his mustache, cut his hair and taken off his glasses. The young renter failed to identify him. Reluctantly, the police released him.
Three months later, armed with Myatt's confession and Goudsmid's evidence, police raided Drewe's house and rearrested him, charging him with conspiracy to defraud and forgery. Even after four days of interrogation, Drewe refused to admit guilt, never wavering from his story that the paintings were genuine and that Myatt was just a man he'd hired to reline some pictures he'd bought at auction. Drewe's ''all-consuming drive to pull the strings -- hence his title 'puppet master' -- has left him unable to live outside his own version of reality,'' says Detective Constable Inspector Miki Volpe, a 22-year veteran. ''He's a verbal bully who thinks he can manipulate anyone. As you start to learn more about this man, you realize the enormous web of deception he has spun. . . . He was certainly the most devious character I had ever come into contact with in my service.'' Drewe was released on bail and immediately disappeared.
While on the lam, Drewe obviously reconsidered his case, for when he was reapprehended two months later -- his mother was followed to his hiding place on the south coast -- his story changed from blanket innocence to a fantastical frame-up defense. He no longer denied the fraud, but now claimed that he has been set up as fall guy for a widespread conspiracy that included Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Defense and the governments of at least seven nations; that there were not 200 paintings, but more than 4,000, all sold to help finance covert arms deals that he helped broker between British weapons manufacturers and Iran, Iraq and Sierra Leone; that Myatt wasn't a ''starving artist'' but actually an operative for Combat 18, the violent neo-Nazi group, and that Peter Harris, who appeared on countless false provenances, was really a South African intelligence agent and weapons broker. Drewe explained the mysterious blank 15 years in his life by claiming to have worked covertly for the British Government. ''I was very active in the development of certain items of defense technology,'' he told me in Pentonville Prison. ''The sale of the paintings relates to some pretty devastating things. They include the sale of a ballistic-missile guidance system which I was responsible for selling to Iran in 1991. I have got the papers to prove it.'' Asked repeatedly for corroboration, Drewe produced not a single source. The prosecution's position is that Drewe's story of international intrigue is a figment of the imagination of a fantasist and consummate con artist.
At the trial, which began last September, Drewe fired his lawyer for refusing to conduct the art-for-arms defense and took up the case himself. The courtroom was arrayed like an art gallery, with nine of Myatt's forgeries hung about the walls. The trial, which was expected to last three months, stretched to six. Myatt sat in the witness box and called Drewe a ''psychopath'' and a ''liar'' to his face. By the trial's end, Bevan was mocking Drewe with the identities he had assumed: ''The truth is that you are Mr. Drewe, you are two sorts of Mr. Cockett, you are Mr. Sussman, you are Mr. Green, Mr. Atwood and you are Mr. Martin and Mr. Bayard the researcher and Mr. Coverdale, aren't you?'' The jury returned with a guilty verdict in less than six hours. Drewe is appealing his conviction.
If Drewe's success provides any lesson, it is that the art world's aura of sophistication creates a false sense of security that makes it especially vulnerable to what was, in the end, a confederacy of mediocrity. Myatt's sloppy pictures, Drewe's litany of far-fetched identities and the ignorance of his pitiable salesmen should have been no match for the likes of the auction houses, scholars and dealers that Drewe conned. But in the end, the system's multiple lines of defense -- dealers, galleries, auction houses, museums, archives, world-class experts -- proved all too permeable.
But if a picture brings esthetic pleasure and is beloved before its fictitious pedigree is exposed, and the only person who loses money is a collector probably wealthy enough to absorb the loss, then where exactly is the problem? As Van Meegeren said at his 1947 trial for forgery about a Vermeer he had faked: ''Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?''
An article on July 18 about art forgery misidentified a painting whose authenticity is under question. The painting is not Van Gogh's ''Portrait of Dr. Gachet,'' purchased for $82.5 million by a Japanese collector in 1990, but an almost identical Van Gogh painting held by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The article also misstated accusations concerning Modigliani's widow. Modigliani never officially married his companion Jeanne Hebuterne; she died immediately after his death, and so could not have sold certificates of authentication to collectors. The article also misstated the circumstances surrounding the signing of blank pieces of paper by Salvador Dali. The blank papers were not signed on Dali's deathbed in 1989; according to an earlier notarized statement issued by the artist, the signings had ceased by Dec. 23, 1980. The errors were pointed out in readers' letters after the article appeared; this correction was delayed for checking and confirmation.