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The NS Interview: John Myatt, former art forger

“When people have more than £30m, they go crackers”

When did you realise that you had a skill for copying works of art?
When I was little, I used to copy things out of comics - war comics, the Dandy or the Beano - and turn them into my own paintings.

Why did you get involved in forgery?
I was broke. I had to look after two youngsters and stop my teaching job. I had to find a way of getting money while being at home. It was as simple as that.

Would you act differently now if you were in the same situation?
Absolutely. The railway line goes this way or that way. You don't know until much later that you can't turn back. You find yourself in a situation - in my case, committing a crime - that you wish you weren't in.

You used materials such as emulsion and K-Y Jelly. Were you surprised experts were fooled?
I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it. If they had shown me my paintings, I would have told them they were fakes. It's silly.

Why did you use those materials?
I don't like the smell of oil paint. I was painting on the dining-room table, at night, and I didn't want the room to smell of white spirit when the kids came down in the morning.

Why do you think people were taken in?
Money. Money should be the second most important reason for buying a painting but, for many people, it's the most important.

Did you expect to get found out?
It was a foregone conclusion. If you want to be a successful criminal in the art world, do it once or twice and do it big. I did it about 250 times.

What do you think of the art boom that has made prices stratospheric?
It is pathetic. What's the matter with the rich that they want to spend fortunes on paintings when they could have a hospital wing built instead? When people have more than £30m in the bank, something strange happens and they go crackers.

Do you think that inflated prices make forgers lose sight of the criminality of their actions?
You can tell yourself that it's a victimless crime but it's just not true. There are victims.

Do you think it's morally wrong to forge art?
I don't. A good fake is a good thing. It's interesting that when it is revealed as a fake, people feel differently about it. I would gladly have a house full of good fakes. When very rich people buy these fantastic paintings, the first thing they do is stick them in a vault in the bank and have copies made to stick on the wall.

What makes an original an original if you can't tell the difference visually?
You can piggyback on someone else's inspiration but they had the inspiration before you. In terms of aesthetics, is there a difference between an original and a good fake? Not really.

There are now forgeries of your forgeries. How do you feel about that?
There was somebody advertising my paintings. What a fool I'd look if I called the police.

As many as 120 of your fraudulent paintings are still in circulation. What would you do if you came across one?
I would never do anything. It would be cruel to the people who have got the paintings. After all, they bought them in good faith. Who am I to interfere?

Were you reluctant to start painting again after your imprisonment?
I didn't want to paint at all. It was Jonathan [Searle], my arresting officer, who got in touch and said: "You should start painting again as soon as you can, because you're a fool if you don't." When you come out of prison, you are at a low ebb. He was marvellous. He told me that there would be people who were interes­ted and he was right.

Were you surprised by your success?
I couldn't believe it. I just wanted to put a bag over my head and disappear. I've been lucky.

Are you proud of the forged paintings as works in their own right?
They've been confiscated by Scotland Yard. I'd like to have a look at them. My suspicion is that they're not very good.

In the 1970s, you co-wrote "Silly Games", a Top Ten hit for Janet Kay. In a different life, what would you have done?
I would love to have a little piano bar somewhere. I love blues music and Mozart. I'd love to be banging away at a honky-tonk.

Is there anything you'd rather forget?
I forget so many things that I'm grateful to remember what I can. You should try being 66. I'm doing too much forgetting.

Are we all doomed?
We won't be here to see the end of the universe, so no, we're not.

Defining moments

1945 Born in London
1979 Co-writes "Silly Games", a Top Ten hit for the reggae singer Janet Kay
1985 Starts forging paintings regularly after his wife leaves him
1995 Arrested by detectives for taking part in approximately 200 forgeries
1999 Sentenced to a year in prison but is released after four months
2011 Presents Fame in the Frame, new series on Sky Arts in September (

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold