Imitation and Morality; John Myatt's Skill at Emulating the Work of Modern Masters Once Got Him into Trouble with the Law, but Now It Has Turned into a Successful Career. Terry Grimley Went to Meet Him as His Largest Exhibition Yet Opens in Birmingham

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Byline: Terry Grimley

When you walk into a room full of self-declared fakes it's easy to be an art expert. But if I encountered some of John Myatt's paintings on the walls of a Bond Street gallery, I'm not sure I would be so confident.

I can instantly spot the fake Nevinson because the colour is wrong - and anyway it's a copy of a well-known painting in the Tate (Myatt was commissioned to make a copy and enjoyed it so much he did another one for himself).

I don't think he gets Ben Nicholson's colour right, either, but when it comes to Miro I'm not so confident. And there's a Dufy which I would not only be willing to believe was genuine but would even think was rather a good one.

John Myatt is the painter from Staffordshire who achieved notoriety a decade ago when it was revealed that around 200 of his fakes had successfully been passed off as the real thing, making him possibly the most prolific art forger in history.

His partner in crime, John Drewe, had gone to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate archives to create bogus provenances for these works.

In contrast to this, and to the forensic subterfuges carried out by other forgers, Myatt's approach was cheap and cheerful. His paintings were done in modern emulsion paint, sometimes stiffened with KY Jelly, so he always knew their proud owners would discover the truth as soon as any conservation work was done on them.

Since completing a one year prison sentence (he was released after four months) Myatt has gone on to make a career out of the above-board faking of well-known masters like Monet, Picasso and Giacometti.

He has been the somewhat bemused recipient of minor celebrity bestowed by a public which is endlessly fascinated by art forgery, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in seeing the art market's apple carts upturned.

Now the largest exhibition of Myatt's work is about to open at the St Paul's Gallery in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, and he continues to be surprised by the ongoing interest in it.

"The public reception to it has been astonishing," he says. "At the London show at the end of last year art dealers were saying 'Oh, that one's really good...' and I thought 'these are the people who really ought to hate me'. I don't get it, frankly.

"I think a point about fakes is you have this whole clutter and baggage of art history that stops you being honest about paintings, and from the public's point of view the vast amounts of money that are paid for works of art now have created a fog between the art and the onlooker. When you know something is a fake it gets rid of all that. You are allowed to ask all these silly questions like 'will it go with my curtains?'."

A musician as well as a painter, Myatt studied art in Stafford and Cheltenham in the 1960s, qualified as a teacher but worked as a full-time artist in Lichfield in the early 1970s - a mosaic devoted to Dr Johnson survives from this time.

But at the end of 1973 he moved to London and switched to a career in music, playing keyboards and becoming a resident songwriter for GTO Records. His biggest success was co-writing Silly Games for Janet Kay, which spent one week at number one in July 1979.

Then, he recalls: "I was getting fed up in London and wanted to come home. I signed a new contract with London publishers, and two years later the publishing company went bankrupt, and all the money dried up."

Worse, his 18-month marriage broke up, leaving him with two young children. His parents had both recently died.

Desperate to find a way of earning a living from home so he could look after the children, he put an ad in Private Eye offering to paint "genuine fakes" to order.

"Among the customers was the infamous Mr Drewe. From 1983 to early 1986 he was just another customer, except he kept on coming back. Where most of them had two or three he was on to about number 15. …