How Wolfgang Beltracchi fooled the art world

Wolfgang Beltracchi doesn’t look much like an international criminal, says Der Spiegel, but he knows better than most that appearances can be deceptive. Once described as a cross between a hippy and an Albrecht Dürer Christ figure, he seems harmless enough. But this master-faker is responsible for the “biggest art forgery scandal of the post-war era”.

At his trial last year, Beltracchi, 61, admitted to creating and selling 14 fakes, which he sold for an estimated €16m, says Canada’s National Post. His speciality was early 20th-century French and German Expressionists: notably Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, André Derain and Heinrich Campendonk. He has since admitted that a further “1,000 or 2,000” fake paintings are still out there – and many of their owners are none the wiser.

Art experts describe Beltracchi’s near-perfect forgeries as “gold standard” (see below). They certainly fooled the industry’s best connoisseurs – the New York Met hung a phoney Ernst in a major retrospective and in 2004 the American actor collector Steve Martin was sold a fake Campendonk for $860,000 by the swanky Paris gallery, Cazeau-Béraudière.

Beltracchi was born Wolfgang Fischer in Westphalia in 1951. His father was a house painter who also produced cheap copies of well-known paintings, says Vanity Fair. Beltracchi took that skill to a new level. “At 14, he astonished his father by painting a passable Picasso in a single day.”

Beltracchi enrolled in art school, but skipped most of his classes – and spent much of the 1970s and 1980s drifting round Europe. He produced his first commercial fake in Amsterdam, where he bought a pair of 18th-century winter landscapes for $250 each. Noting that those featuring skaters sold for five times the price, he painted in a few – and resold the canvases at considerable profit.

Beltracchi might have continued in that small-time vein, but for the inventive skills of his wife, Helene Beltracchi, whom he married in 1993, taking her name. It was her idea to introduce the art world to the “collection” she claimed to have inherited from her grandfather, Werner Jägers.

The story was that he had hidden the collection of a well-known Jewish art dealer named Alfred Flechtheim during World War II to keep it safe from Nazi plundering. The tale was plausible enough – the two men had actually been neighbours – and the details were never questioned by art-world experts. The fictional collection soon became a licence to print money.

For nearly 20 years, the Beltracchis lived the high-life. Their downfall was titanium white paint, traces of which were found in an Ernst piece that had been sent for testing. The pigment didn’t exist when the picture was supposedly painted. Beltracchi was shocked at his slip-up. So was the painting’s owner, the French publishing mogul Daniel Filipacchi, who’d paid $7m for it. “I loved this painting. It was one of the best Max Ernsts that I have seen.”

Confidence trickster – and the greatest painter of the age?

Wolfgang Beltracchi has a friend who is a pathology professor. “He would like to examine my brain. He believes that he would find something completely different there.” There are many other people who’d like to take a look inside Beltracchi’s head, says Der Spiegel – not least his victims.

“Beltracchi has all the things that a master forger requires: knowledge of art history and science, the command of painting techniques and… considerable artistic talent.” But he also has the “callousness of a gambler” and the “self-confidence and hubris of a man who believes he’s a genius”. He’s convinced “he has a better understanding of the worlds of the artists he forged than most experts”.

In fact, critics are divided about how good a fraudster Beltracchi was, says Joshua Hammer in Vanity Fair. The world’s foremost Ernst expert, Werner Spies (who certified seven of Beltracchi’s fakes), describes him as “a brilliant forger”, but others maintain his real talent is self-promotion and psychology.

The art historian Ralph Jentsch dismisses the bulk of Beltracchi’s forgeries as “rubbish” and “crude fakes”. The Beltracchis’ real talent, he says, was exploiting “the blindness and gullibility” that pervades the art world in the frenzy of excitement over a new find. They thought, “how can we make people believe our story… and they carried it off brilliantly”.

Within Germany, there’s much sympathy for the Beltracchis and their two accomplices, who were sentenced to a combined total of 15 years in prison, says Julia Michalska in The Art Newspaper. “There is a general sense of schadenfreude about the art market.” Some believe the Beltracchis have shown it up for the sham it is.

I’m one of them, writes blogger Andis Kaulins on Artpundit.blogspot.com. At a time when “many imposters of no talent have laid claim to be artists” – only to be hugely rewarded by ignorant investors – Beltracchi stands out as a huge talent, possibly as the “greatest” painter of our era. At least he could paint.