With a final glance at the Giacometti masterpiece, the New York auctioneer brought his hammer down: "Going, going, gone. To the gentleman at the back for $300,000".
Moments later the pleased buyer was admiring the addition to his extensive art collection. His smile would have vanished in an instant if he had known it was a fake, and that he was the latest victim of forger John Myatt.
"I got caught in the end," says John ruefully. "But I'm sure that many of my paintings are still hanging in collections and art galleries around the world, admired every day as the works of the Old Masters. Even I find it hard to believe I got away with it for so long."
John, 55, fooled the world's greatest art experts for years, using nothing but house emulsion, lubricating jelly and varnish to create hundreds of bogus works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Graham Sutherland and Ben Nicolson. His story is recounted in the new TV series Fake, which also looks at other incredible strokes pulled by cheeky impostors and conmen.
John had gone to art school and dreamed of becoming an artist, but became a successful songwriter instead, co-writing Janet Kay's 1979 No 2 hit Silly Games. Then, in the mid-1980s, his world fell apart. His music publishing company went bankrupt and he split with his wife Anita. Desperate for cash and with two children - Amy, now 16, and Sam, now 15 - to support John turned to a skill he'd discovered at college.
"I could always produce flawless copies of great paintings," he says. "I did it for a laugh at college, something to amuse my mates. I even did a copy of two works by 1930s impressionist painter Raoul Dufy for an old boss once. I dashed them out in my spare time in a fortnight and got paid pounds 500."
John put an advert in the back of Private Eye magazine reading: "Genuine fakes from pounds 150". Work began to flood in from people who wanted a Renoir with their grandfather's face on it. Then one fateful morning John Drewe walked into his studio.
"We got on well and he became a regular customer who'd bought ten or 11 paintings," says John. "Then one day he told me he'd taken the last piece I'd done - a fake of a Cubist painting - to Sotheby's and had it valued by an expert at pounds 25,000. I was stunned. Then he said, 'How do you fancy increasing your standard of living considerably by passing your paintings off as the real thing?'
"That was the crunch moment in my life. I should have said, 'God, no way'. Instead, I found myself saying, 'That sounds like a lot of fun'.
"I used household emulsion paint and lubricating jelly to create the right paint effects as quickly and cheaply as possible, then aged the paintings with varnish and old teabags. It never failed."
His accomplice John Drewe used archive material to forge background documents which appeared to prove the history and authenticity of the paintings he was offering for sale in some of the world's most prestigious auction rooms.
Soon paintings such as the Giacometti forgery, sold at auction in New York, or the Ben Nicolson which sold for pounds 100,000 in London, were bringing in thousands of pounds. Drewe and Myatt split the proceeds between them and were laughing all the way to the bank.
"It went on for six years and I was in a state of mild shock," adds John. "I turned out more than 200 of these fakes. I simply couldn't believe that we were fooling the best art experts in the world. It was incredible."
The great art …