Forger 'fooled art galleries for 10 years'

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The Independent Online
AN EXPERT conman masterminded an art fraud of such complexity that it took in some of Britain's leading galleries, collectors and experts, a court was told yesterday.

Sometimes styling himself professor, sometimes doctor, John Drewe allegedly created histories for non-existent works by famous modern artists, then paid a skilled painter pounds 250 a time to create them.

The court was told that John Myatt, a struggling artist, copied the styles of artists such as Ben Nicholson, Marc Chagall, Graham Sutherland and Alberto Giacometti, and that one of his creations fetched more than pounds 100,000.

John Bevan, QC, for the prosecution, said the two men met after Mr Drewe spotted an advertisement the painter had placed in Private Eye magazine in 1986. He said: "Myatt, a skilled but impoverished artist, was then induced to practise on and perfect the copying of the style of famous artists."

Mr Bevan said although the artist went into the fraud with his eyes open, "Drewe used him to his own advantage and made far more money out of Myatt ...than Myatt."

Using old wood to make the frames and carefully forged artists' signatures to perfect the paintings, Mr Drewe created elaborate stories to lure unknowing acquaintances to sell the paintings to galleries and collectors. Dealers they approached included Sotheby's and Christie's, Southwark Crown Court was told.

While Mr Drewe, 50, of Reigate, Surrey, was driven primarily by a desire for money, his efforts over a 10-year period suggested "an intellectual delight in fooling people", said Mr Bevan. Mr Drewe's actions also showed contempt for the entire art world, the archives of which had been severely damaged. "He was a consummate and expert operator," Mr Bevan said.

At the heart of the case was Mr Drewe's ability to create histories or "provenances" that showed whether a painting was genuine. He even gave pounds 20,000 to the Tate Gallery in London, to "convince them of his benevolence", and gained access to its archives, which he altered.

"He realised that if works by famous 20th-century artists could be faked and the archive material corrupted, he could sell worthless paintings as originals for large sums of money," Mr Bevan said.

Mr Drewe went to great lengths to create such provenances. At one point he entered into lengthy correspondence with an order of Roman Catholic priests - the Order of Servite Mary - to try to add to these histories.

He also wrote to the families of the artists he was faking, hoping to glean extra information. They in turn became increasingly concerned as more and more faked paintings, attributed to their relations, flooded the market.

Described by the prosecution as clever, intelligent and articulate, Mr Drewe - whose real name is John Cockett - had chosen to create paintings by important but not universally known artists. "We all can tell a beautiful Rembrandt just by looking at it. It is not so easy with modern art, some of which ... verges on the downright peculiar," said Mr Bevan.

"As a nation we are fortunate to possess an invaluable collection of all kinds of works ... The vast majority, including paintings by modern artists, can, particularly if they are abstract works, be copied or imitated by a skilled painter."

The court was told that Mr Drewe then tricked other people into selling the faked works to collectors and galleries.

He told one "salesman" - who happened to be Jewish - that he was a member of a syndicate that was selling the paintings to fund a project which would destroy the revisionist theory of the Holocaust. The salesman, Clive Bellman, saw it was a "worthy cause and was completely taken in".

Mr Drewe and an alleged accomplice, Daniel Stoakes, 52, of Exeter, Devon, deny a charge of conspiracy to defraud. Mr Drewe also denies three charges of forgery, one of theft, one of using a false instrument and one of false accounting.

The court was told that Mr Myatt, from Staffordshire, admitted his involvement.

The trial continues.