Art Around the World

Michael Douglas to Play Art Conman

By Tom Gross, September 12, 2000

Michael Douglas is to star as a charismatic English conman who fooled the global art establishment for nearly a decade, masterminding the sale of 200 forged paintings, including works “by” Picasso, Braque, Klee and Matisse. The fakes – in fact painted by John Myatt, an impoverished, amateur artist from a small town in the British midlands – are so good that only 73 have been recovered. The rest are still being displayed or offered for sale as genuine in collections and at auction houses around the world.

A key to the success of this daring scam was the skill and plausibility of Myatt’s partner in crime, John Drewe, who Douglas will play in the movie. The fakes were so good, and Drewe’s charms so persuasive, that hundreds of experts and collectors were fooled over a nine-year period.

Drewe paid Myatt to rapidly dash off “original works” based on the style of masters that were then sold as genuine all over the world for large sums. On one occasion, Myatt painted a canvas in the style of Alberto Giacometti in just four days. Working from the attic of his modest home, he used household emulsion and powder paint, old brushes and glue. The work was subsequently sold in New York for $175,000.

However, the “driving force behind the scam,” according to the judge that last year sentenced Drewe to six years in prison for conspiracy and theft (and Myatt to one year), was Drewe’s hypnotizing effect and the care with which he forged declarations of authenticity from previous owners in order to make the paintings seem legitimate. Leaving nothing to chance, Drewe slipped into the archives of leading museums, including London’s Tate Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum, and inserted fake documents which he had typed out on old paper using an old typewriter to give the “lost” works a false history.

Drewe also emptied dust from vacuum cleaner bags on to the canvasses to give them an aged feel, and dampened the nails on the backs of frames, so they would rust. He kept most of the money from the fraud himself, passing only small amounts on to Myatt.

Douglas – the Oscar-winning son of screen legend Kirk Douglas, who gave a memorable performance as the emotionally disturbed painter Vincent van Gogh in the 1956 classic Lust for Life – is himself is a collector of modern art.

Michael, who originally made his mark playing not a thief, but a cop, in the cult ‘70s police show The Streets of San Francisco, says he is looking forward to the part. He wants to spend time in England with his fiancée, the British actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, and their new baby son, Michael Dylan.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.