John Myatt put down the receiver and sat in silence. He was, he says, a man in shock. An abandoned husband with two babies to bring up, his career as an artist becalmed, he had just been offered pounds 12,500 for a faked painting which he'd knocked up in a few hours with old brushes and Dulux emulsion.
"I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "I was broke. I used to get pounds 150 for my fakes, but now the price had gone up. The art world was fooled! Hell, what would you do? I took the money."
It was 1987 and the start of what critics accept was the greatest art- forgery caper of the century; a scam that would last eight years and take in the world's biggest auction houses; a tale of deception and chicanery that would see almost 200 fakes passed off as works by such greats as Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Graham Sutherland, Georges Braque, Paul Klee and Ben Nicholson. No wonder Hollywood is now interested in the story.
On the other end of the phone that day had been John Drewe, then a 38- year-old confidence trickster, a man of such charm and intelligence that he had managed to worm his way into the affections of the art world and - crucially - into the archives of London's Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Gallery, because these were the places where buyers went to establish the authenticity of works of art. And Drewe had been laughing as he spoke, telling Myatt they were about to become very rich indeed.
It had all begun, in a small way, the year before. John Myatt, then an energetic, witty 41-year-old teacher, had been abandoned by his wife, Anita. He was struggling to make ends meet, bringing up three-year-old Amy and two-year-old Sammy, painting in his spare time in the threadbare living-room of his old farmhouse in Sugnall, near Stafford.
They were hard times. And in desperation, he placed an advert at the back of Private Eye magazine, offering "genuine fakes" for pounds 150. Then he waited to see what would happen.
"This man called John Drewe replied, so I did a painting for him, and then he came back again and again," Myatt tells me, as we sit in his dim, fusty living-room, littered with tins of emulsion. "He would call me, ask for something by, say, Chagall. I'd do it, get on the train to London and hand it to him at the station. He'd give me my train fare and a cheque for pounds 150 or pounds 250 and I'd get back on the train and go home."
A former art student and musician, Myatt recalls how he came regularly to paint works to order from Drewe, using nothing more deceptive than modern canvasses and household emulsion paint (Dulux is his favourite). He would call them pastiches - never forgeries - because they were not copies of original works. They were new creations painted so convincingly in the style of a given artist that even experts could not tell the difference.
A lean, well-spoken man, Myatt's voice drops as he remembers those days. "I was struggling at the time," he says. "The money from Drewe helped me keep it all together. But I didn't think there was anything amiss until that phone call the following year, when he told me that a Cubist painting I'd done in the style of Albert Gleizes had just been valued by an auctioneer in London at pounds 25,000. He asked me how I fancied pounds 12,500. Well, naturally, I said yes."
After that, the works poured out; the only rules were that they had to be by modern masters and that those masters had to be dead. But although one of Myatt's Giacometti fakes sold at auction in New York for more than pounds 100,000, the painter claims he received only a fraction of the money Drewe made. He knew nothing, for example, about the Giacometti sale until he was told about it years later by the police. Drewe, meanwhile, is thought to have netted at least pounds 1m.
The secret of the scam's success rested with Drewe. As Myatt painted, his partner was weaving his own kind of magic, producing his own kind of forgeries. …