To get maximum excitement – I waited to share this interview with you. I really did it because I asked Laney a lot of the same questions I’ll be posing to you tomorrow night, and I didn’t want her answers to skew your interpretations whilst you were still reading. So tonight it Part I and tomorrow morning will be Part II. I had to chop the interview up a little bit so I could ferret out the actual questions, and because of that it doesn’t read so much like a conversation now, but you’ll get the point.
Evanston Public Library: You said you and your husband were fascinated with the idea of the con-man. What was is about that type of person that made you go searching for this story?
Laney Salisbury: I think, for me, it’s always the reveal. You know how someone can be taken along so far and get so committed to this program that the con man is offering that even when all the signs aren’t being given, they still don’t see it. So in a way it’s also sot of this magician’s type trick. It’s the deception that kind of really got me and constantly asking myself, “Would I be fooled?” And I think the answer is “yes” I would’ve been. I was thinking about this today. I was thinking I had sort of one instance in my life where, I wouldn’t say I was conned, but I was in denial. And it wasn’t until I learned the truth that I saw everything in the past get pieced together in an instant and I was like, “Wow.” I didn’t want to see the signs. So it’s kind of those tricks of the mind that we are all capable of playing on ourselves to the point of where it’s damaging. I mean John Drewe, it’s not John Drewe’s fault in a sense, it’s Myatt’s fault that he was conned.
John Drewe got six years originally, but only served two for his art crime and forgery, which I find ridiculous, because he essentially ruined the cultural heritage of not only England, but whoever else bought those paintings and where they are now. Were you surprised by that original sentencing?
Well, I guess because it’s only for nine works, because they couldn’t make the connection for all of them even thought they knew it was much bigger. So in part they had to sentence him based on that. And also people acknowledge that forgery sentencing is pretty light when compared to other crimes. I don’t know if I agree. To me it felt like kind of a light sentence because he earned millions of dollars, but then again, it was just based on the earnings of those nine. And those nine weren’t very much. I think, just for Drewe too, that’s sort of where people got angry at the crime. He wasn’t just forging works, but he was messing around with our understanding of legacies and that’s what’s going to hurt, that’s always going to wreak havoc, so everyone’s art legacy gets diluted and whether we’re talking about art or history. He’s messing around with our perceptions of the past. So that as a philosophy, I would put him in prison for life because it’s the past that guides our future.
John Myatt is now a local legend. He has a gallery, he makes these “legitimate forgeries”, even the judge who sentenced him asked for one, and the police commissioner asked for one of his works after he was released.
John Myatt benefited from all of this, which sort of put me in an odd position sometimes because every now and then I was like, “Is he telling me the truth?” because it’s to his benefit that a book comes out. It would be good for his business. But he definitely profited off this, whether that’s ethical or not, I guess I will let everyone else make that judgment. Crime did pay for him and no one seemed to have a moral problem to go to him and have him paint works for them. It was by their asking for works after the trial that Myatt got it into his head that he could make a legitimate business out of it.
I watched these YouTube videos of his shows in the UK where he teaches people how to paint “in the style of” Van Gogh or Renoir. So it’s not even as if he’s hiding or ashamed of what he’d done.
No. He told me that was part of his punishment. He does come off as a very honest, open person. I actually liked him a lot. And I asked him why he was giving me so much of his time. I called him every day over a period of several months, every day at 10:00 and we would have a conversation. And then I went out and visited him. I think I saw him twice. And I asked him, “Why do you keep talking to me? What do you get out of it?” And he said, “I promised myself that when I was in prison that if anyone wanted to talk to me, part of my punishment would be that I would say ‘yes’.”
You mentioned that in the roundtable discussion that it was part of his “penance” to tell the truth. Yet in the latest article I read about him, he was quoted as saying that if he came across one of the forgeries Drewe had sold on the market that he, “wouldn’t let on because I would be losing an innocent person money.” Don’t you feel that he has an obligation to the truth? And shouldn’t his “penance” include exposing all parts of this fraud?
I don’t think Myatt felt guilty about what he’d done because he had broken the law and because he’d done something dishonest by selling something that wasn’t what it was purported to be, but on the other hand, he’s very much of a socialist and he believes that art should be public. He doesn’t believe in the private ownership of art. He doesn’t believe that people should make money off art, but that it should just be celebrated as art. So I think on that side, he doesn’t want anyone to suffer because of his mistake and he doesn’t care so much if it dilutes the work of the artist; people should just like art because they like it, whether it’s a Monet or a fake or a Giacometti or something that your neighbor did. So I think that’s why this crime was sort of perfect for him. He used to do public murals and was never part of the gallery scenes. But he is talented. If it wasn’t against the law, he would probably do this again, if he could somehow confine the damage to someone who could afford it.
In your research, did you get an inkling of how much of the world’s art is forged?
I found various statistics. I think I saw something that said almost 50%. It was a lot more than we realize. And part of it is that it’s not just an outright fake, but there are people out there who might change a signature or they might think it’s by a certain artist and add a signature on. So there are various degrees. A restorer might redo a work so much that it looks a lot better than it is. And I remember after reading that thinking, “Boy, I’ll never buy artwork from a dealer.” And it also begs the question why do we have a fascination with old masters? Why not just buy new works by new people?
Your book brings up a lot of questions about what art is and what it is worth. I was wondering if you have any art at home and what type?
My mother-in-law was in the art business. She focused on Latin American Art, so I do have a couple of things. I had a sculpture which I got rid of. They’re not high-priced pieces. That sculpture I just got rid of, I never liked it. I was holding on to it because it belonged to my husband and then when he died I was like, “I don’t like it.” I have no attachment to it. It’s gone and I never even miss it. I do have a poster that’s maybe worth 10 cents and it’s huge and I love it. And I can’t imagine getting rid of it. It comes down to how you view art; whether you view it as art or as a collectible that you can make money off of. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I guess that people tend to forget that the art world is a business. Yes, there’s expertise in it and it comes from long study and practice and skill but at the heart of it, it is business. And I guess that’s why the skepticism gets lowered when people shop for artwork because they think it’s all about love and colors and trust because we are all talking about beauty, but behind it is the dollar. I think that’s why so many people get duped.
You mentioned briefly that the art market is unregulated. One of the most interesting parts, and one that played a big role in the book, was the notion or rule of “droit moral,” that someone living can judge a work and say unequivocally if it is authentic or not. How are you to say that they haven’t been corrupted in some way, which is totally possible, correct?
Yes. Exactly and that’s the law for France. I don’t know how much influence “droit moral” will have in US courts, but it has been used. I don’t know how heavy they weigh that evidence. For many of these estates, if you want to have a work authenticated and you received a stamp from that estate, you pay for it. So it’s a conflict of interest. It is in their benefit to say yes because they’ll get like $300 or whatever. And if you also cry fake in the US and in Europe too, you can also get sued for damages. So a lot of dealers might see a fake and just shrug their shoulder and pass it off or send it back and say they don’t like it. Because to say it’s a fake and pull it off is too much work.
Who are the real victims in this case? Because the way you write the book, it seems that you aren’t really that hard on Myatt and he comes off as this great guy and you make it seem like he’s a victim as well. So who, in your opinion, are the actual victims of this crime, or John Drewe?
John Drewe is definitely not a victim. I think everyone that fell for him seemed like a victim to me. Just based on the one experience I had with him and talking to these people, their own confidence in themselves has been shaken, they’re just so surprised that their minds led them down this road that it just made them more; I wouldn’t say paranoid but, a lot more fearful of the world. And, to me, that just seemed really cruel. And while they didn’t lose money, I think they lost a part of themselves in this. I know his ex-wife has had a hard time after hooking up with him and her children didn’t really turn out to be great citizens. They could have accomplished a lot more than they have and it’s because they had a father like that.