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Artists fake it up at London exhibition

By NBC News' Emily Wither
LONDON – At first glance, it looks like any typical art collection on display at London's famous Victoria and Albert Museum.

But what makes this exhibition unique is that all the featured artworks are fakes and most of the artists on display have served time in jail.

Curated by the Metropolitan Police, the exhibit showcases everything from forged works to the tools used to create them. The police hope the exhibit will raise awareness about art crimes and educate professionals, collectors and enthusiasts alike on what to keep an eye out for. 
 
Detective Sgt. Vernon Rapley, from Scotland Yard's art and antiques unit, gave me a tour around the exhibition.  

Image: A fraudulent relief scuplture
A fake Assyrian relief sculpture at the exhibition.

He explained that the issue of art forgery isn't just a topic for historic consideration or only for the rich and famous – but something that potential art buyer should be watchful for.

"There is a clear shift from the very high-value items, the sort of Hollywood perception of art forgery that it's always Rembrandts and Van Goghs that are being forged," Rapley said. "You've got to look right down the market for things you're trying to buy for only a couple thousand [dollars], things that you're looking to invest in, as it's actually these things that criminals are targeting at the moment."

Forgers' handiwork 
The popularity of art forgery was reflected in the art on display, which featured not only items sold to museums, but also works purported to be by modern artists such as British graffiti artist Banksy that are sold to the general public.
 
It's hard not to appreciate the forgers' handiwork and skill wandering through the exhibit. But the police are quick to point out that while the artists here may be talented, what they did was highly illegal. 

Most of the forgers featured have never tried to sell art work of their own, so you might think that  having their creations on display at a national museum would be a proud moment.
 
"Honestly, for me it's a little embarrassing, it's a time in my life that I'm not particularly proud of,"  former con artist John Myatt told msnbc.com.
 
Not only are Myatt's forged paintings on display, but so are the tools that his business partner John Drewe used in order to create the false history of the paintings' provenance. Items such as forged receipts, 60's typewriters, faked museum letters and tea-stained documents are all display. Both men served time in prison for their crimes.
 
Work by the most prolific forger in British history, Sean Greenhalgh, is also on display. The arguably multi-talented Greenhalgh produced everything from Roman silverware to Egyptian statues with the help of his elderly parents.

Image: Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley
Det. Sergeant Rapley inside a model of Sean Greenhalgh's forgery workshop.
 
A model of the garden shed they used to make their modern-day masterpieces has been re-created for the exhibit, providing visitors with an insight into the tricks of the trade. 

Taking commisions 
Myatt, whose nickname in prison was "Picasso," said that he now takes commissions to create legitimate fakes.

He says it's very easy to make something authentic, as opposed to the sloppy work he did on the fakes. "I took no trouble at all, which is why I'm embarrassed. I used household emulsion paint mixed with self-rising flour and KY Jelly."
 
The art industry says that the forgeries are inspired by criminals trying to get a piece of the multi-million dollar art business. The fact that a life-size bronze sculpture by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was sold for $104 million at auction last week – setting a world record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction – will surely inspire a many more would-be art forgeries.

 "As long as huge sums of money continue to change hands it's going to be worthwhile for people to come and make forgeries," said April Alexandria, a retiree who viewed the exhibition.
 
Due to popular demand the display's run has been extended for another two weeks. Myatt, for his part, said he's hoping to go visit next week, maybe he'll sign a few autographs of his own while he's down there.
 
Fakes, Forgeries and the Law, Victoria & Albert Museum, London runs till Feb. 21.