HE’S spent three years behind bars, conned some of the country’s savviest art dealers and been hounded by the fraud squad over a breathtaking criminal career.

But Max the Forger has no regrets.

“I’d do it all again,” he said.

He sits in an armchair at his Burgess Hill home surrounded by his paintings. There are gold rings on his fingers and an Art Deco watch hangs on his wrist. There’s a Lowry by the mantelpiece, a Coolidge on the wall and a Banksy by the fireside – all Max’s own work.

On an easel in the middle of the room stands a Caravaggio. Max clutches a mahl stick and looks up as he adds the final touches.

“I get obsessed with it,” he says. “I’m following the same strokes, the same lines that this old master laid down hundreds of years ago.”

The Argus:

Max – real name Max Brandrett – is brimming with admiration for the artists he copies. But by passing their paintings off as his own, complete with fake signatures, he has done more than pay homage to their work.

He’s found a way to make it pay him. He estimates he has made hundreds of thousands of pounds from selling forged artwork.

The Argus:

Growing up in Brighton in the 1950s, he could never have imagined such money.

He started out as a Barnardo’s boy and his family were desperately poor. Max spent most of his childhood in foster care.

“I thought Weetabix was a main meal,” he said.

Max dabbled in petty crime from a young age. He was once looked after by the owners of a sweet shop, and recalls selling stolen sherbets in the playground.

He remembers his time in foster care fondly, but it wasn’t easy. There are still Christmas decorations up in Max’s living room.

“I love Christmas,” he said, looking off into the distance. “We had awful Christmases at Barnardo’s.”

When he was 15, Max left home for London. He remembers convincing a hotel concierge he was an orphan in need of a room for the night – then leaving the next morning with pocketfuls of coins pinched from the gas metres in guests’ rooms.

One day, he was reading the The Evening Standard and spotted an advert calling for circus hands.

He joined up and travelled the country looking after a troupe of performing elephants. He would sleep beside them and can still reel off their names.

His big break came when he returned to London. He set up a stall selling landscape paintings in Portobello Road.

The Argus:

They were spotted by a criminal with connections in the art underworld, who took a shine to the young Max Brandrett.

Together, they worked as a father-and-son team, pretending to be furniture removal men. They would visit the capital’s top dealers and auction houses with bundles of paintings they claimed to have removed from old houses. They would slip Max’s forgeries into the pile, and watch in delight as prices rose under the hammer – and works they had forged just weeks earlier sold for thousands of pounds.

At the height of his career, Max knew master forger Tom Keating, met the Kray twins and took on his most nerve-racking commission – painting a portrait of their mother.

“I hit the big time – but it was getting too much,” Max said. “Once, I went for dinner at a country house and one of my paintings was on the wall.

“Soon, the fraud squad were on to me.”

The Argus:

Max found himself behind bars. He did time at prisons in Dorchester, Winchester and Exeter, but managed to keep forging on the inside.

“By god did I paint a lot in there,” he said.

He would sneak out fake drawings from his cell, handing them over to his collaborator – who would slide fresh paper from under his sleeve as he and Max shook hands.

Max said he was treated “like a celebrity” inside – forgers, he explained, are top of the hierarchy in jail and commanded respect.

Max stepped out of jail for the last time in 1968.

He is in his seventies now, and says he’s given up on a life of crime. But he admits it’s been difficult.

“It’s like drugs,” he said. “If I see an old canvas, I can’t leave it alone. I go all twitchy and I get withdrawal symptoms. I told the judge as much.”

The Argus:

He says he was banned from eBay two years ago after touching up collectable ceramic ducks and trying to pass them off as originals.

But deep down, Max believes his crimes were justified. He says he took from the rich and has always been generous with his talent.

“I gave my neighbour a bloody Vettriano the other day,” he said. Max has also been teaching senior citizens on the South Coast how to paint.

Last year, he began signing his work with his own name. But that’s not been without its problems.

“People have started passing off their work as mine now,” he said. “The cheats are signing their paintings ‘Max Brandrett’.

"Bloody forgers.”