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The marriage of forgers who deceived the art market... and managed to take millions of dollars


After decades of painting forgeries, falsifying evidence and diligently covering their tracks, it was a simple oversight that exposed the Beltracchi hoax.

(CNN) --

After decades of painting false pictures, falsifying evidence and diligently covering their tracks, it was a simple oversight that exposed the Beltracchi deception.

The husband of this German couple, Wolfgang Beltracchi, had run out of the zinc he used to create the white paint for his forgeries.

Instead, he bought a zinc pigment from a Dutch manufacturer that did not mention that it contained titanium.

The following year, after one of Wolfgang's creations ––"Red Box with Horses," which he had passed off as the work of Expressionist artist Heinrich Campendonk––sold at auction for a record $2.8 million. euros (then US$ 3.6 million), the inconsistency was revealed.

Analysis of the paint found traces of titanium, a substance that began to be used in white pigment from the 1920s.

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The work in question was supposedly painted in 1914.

This discovery triggered a series of events that would unravel a multi-million dollar plot that deceived buyers and galleries around the world.

Wolfgang's paintings had entered auctions and private collections, such as that of actor Steve Martin.

The Beltracchis even duped expert art appraisers or, as they have since alleged, paid one of them a fee large enough to buy their silence.

In 2011, after more than 30 years in the business, Wolfgang and Helene were sentenced to six and four years in prison, respectively, although they were released early.

They were also ordered to pay 35 million euros (US$38 million) in damages.


A woman looks at the forgery "Zwei rote Pferde in der Landschaft" ("Two Red Horses in the Landscape"), which Wolfgang Beltracchi created in the style of artist Heinrich Campendonk, at the Moritzburg art museum in Halle, Germany, in 2014. Credit : Peter Endig/picture alliance/Getty Images

Rather than forge existing paintings, Wolfgang produced hundreds of original works that skillfully imitated the styles of late European artists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Kees van Dongen, and André Derain.

His wife Helene sold them as unpublished works, sometimes for seven-figure sums.

The couple claimed to have inherited their art collection from Helene's grandfather, who they claimed had acquired it from a Jewish gallery owner fleeing Hitler's Germany.

The story of how their operation worked has been extensively detailed in reports, a documentary and the couple's 2011 trial. But in a recently published book, psychoanalyst Jeannette Fischer delves into why.

Through a series of in-depth conversations, held over coffee and wine in the couple's studio in Switzerland after their release from prison, she explores their motives, artistic processes, and family histories.

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The result is a complex and compelling portrait of a man (the book focuses largely on Wolfgang, at his wife's request) for whom forgery was a creative art form, and for whom deception became a kind of game.

The duo made millions of dollars, but the money was only part of the appeal, Fischer says.

Although the Beltracchis lived comfortably, traveled extensively and bought a house in the south of France where they raised their children, they avoided many of the excesses one would expect given the enormous wealth they had acquired, he adds.

"The forgery was almost incidental," Wolfgang told Fischer.

"We enjoyed selling the paintings, we had fun, we got rich... I could paint and we also enjoyed researching. Forgery was a way of combining all these things."

The disappearance of your identity

The couple, along with two partners, were convicted of forging 14 works of art.

Dozens more were excluded from the trial for having prescribed.

But they claim to have produced some 300 fakes, many of which have never been conclusively identified.

His success was based on meticulous research and an obsession with detail.

On what they called "cultural tours," the couple traveled to places where the artists they emulated had painted, or to see original works in museums around the world.

They also immersed themselves in the artists' letters and journals, as well as studies of their work.

These studies served as the basis for the false stories that both created for their works.

Although the paintings came largely from Wolfgang's imagination, they were often given titles of known but lost works (and those for which no paintings existed), thus filling gaps in the artists' oeuvre without arousing suspicion. .

The duo bought vintage frames and canvases at flea markets, and even used a 1920s camera to take vintage-looking photos of their creations as proof of historical provenance.

During the Beltracchi trial, the presiding judge said the fraud had been organized "with military precision," according to comments published at the time by The New York Times.

"They're storytellers, together, and so they did a lot of research," Fischer told CNN in a video call.

"They knew everything about the painters who forged."

"I think this is part of Wolfgang's creativity," he added.

"He had to know so many things before he started painting, and also (he produced artworks) that could have taken place in the sequence of (the careers of) these artists."

Art by Wolfgang Beltracchi photographed in a court in Cologne, Germany, where the counterfeiter and his wife were tried in 2011. Credit: Paul Hahn/laif/Redux

Speaking to the German outlet Der Spiegel in 2012, Wolfgang claimed that he had mastered the styles of "about 50" deceased artists.

His intense practice in the studio led him to become completely immersed in his worlds, to the point of losing his very identity, Fischer came to believe.

"I make the connection between the disappearance of the Beltracchi name and the emotion that flows to another person," he explained, citing Wolfgang's apparent belief that, through his work, he was assuming the identities of the artists he was copying.

"He says of himself that he can feel the feelings of others."

In doing so, Fischer argues, Wolfgang demonstrated a remarkable capacity for empathy.

He described how he felt so close to the 17th century painter Hendrick Avercamp, the first artist whose work he forged, that he felt like his brother.

The forger saw himself filling a gap in the artist's catalogue, as if his creations contributed to his original work.

He told Fischer that he felt at home in the landscapes he painted.

As he explains in his book: "The disappearance of his identity allowed Wolfgang Beltracchi to ensure his existence."

trail of victims

Arguably, this same empathy did not extend to those he deceived.

In addition to private collectors, an unknown number of galleries and museums fell victim to the fraud, some of which may still display works by Wolfgang.

Several experts saw its reputation damaged, and a historian was sued for damages (albeit unsuccessfully, according to The Art Newspaper) after wrongly authenticating a forgery as the work of Max Ernst.

Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's were also fooled, even using one of the forgeries on the cover of an evening sale catalogue.

But, according to Fischer, the Beltracchis considered their crimes to be victimless.

Wolfgang told him that he only produced paintings that he considered beautiful, and he believed that the owners enjoyed them as much as the art market benefited from them.

Today, his personal website describes his story as a "Robin Hood tale."

(But unlike the folklore hero, Wolfgang does not appear to have used the proceeds of his crimes to help the poor, he tells Fischer: "I would sit around the pool for days on end, reading, daydreaming, and sleeping. I just faked a painting from time to time when we needed the money").

"They ripped off the art trade, which in their view was itself a fraud," Fischer said.

"Everyone coveted the sale, and everyone gained from it: the experts, the auction houses, the couple. And in the end, we just have to say that everyone was happy, including the buyer. If (the Beltracchis) hadn't been unmasked, everyone would have continued to enjoy themselves."

However, they were unmasked, and given the limited scope of their trial, the owners of many suspected counterfeits were left with no answers and no option to seek compensation beyond costly civil lawsuits.

In 2014, Wolfgang told CBS's "60 Minutes" that, in addition to court-imposed damages, he had settled lawsuits worth $27 million.

Fischer has remained in contact with the couple as friends.

(She refrains from making moral judgments and describes her role not as that of a journalist holding them accountable, but as that of a psychoanalyst delving into the subconscious forces at play.

In particular, it explores the role Wolfgang's upbringing may have played in his decision to become a master forger.

He had developed his painting skills while helping his father, who was also an artist, restore church murals as a child.

At 12, he convincingly copied a Picasso painting, then added his own elements to it, soon surpassing the skills of his father.

From his conversations with Wolfgang, Fischer concluded that his parents were "severely traumatized" by their experiences during World War II.

Her mother had been evacuated with her children to the German camp, while her father had fought at Stalingrad and on the Western Front, before spending four years as a prisoner of war in France.

"All this suffering, trauma and pain, and also anger, was there, and all this is passed down to the children," Fischer said, explaining that Wolfgang's parents never spoke openly about their experiences with their five children, whom he he was the youngest.

"In these circumstances, it is almost impossible for children to grow up carefree, not to take on all these stresses that are not talked about."

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What can emerge, Fischer explained, is a form of "survivor guilt," whereby children feel that enjoying life is a betrayal of their suffering parents.

By assuming the identities of others, specifically those of dead artists, whose signatures he also forged, Wolfgang was able to rid himself of this emotional burden.

"He disappears, but he can continue to be himself... He remains autonomous, creative, rich and innocent," Fischer writes in his book.

"The guilt he feels towards his parents dissolves with the disappearance of his name. A 'nobody' can't be guilty: he doesn't exist, so he can't do anything."

In the years since his release, Wolfgang has created works under his own name while continuing to capitalize on his sensational history.

He frequently appears at conferences and in 2021 he published an NFT series titled "The Greats", in which he reimagined Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvador Mundi" in the style of famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Vincent van Gogh.

A promotional video for the project suggests that far from regretting it, the master forger is finding new ways to cash in on his past.

"Armed with over 60 years of experience... he is the only person who has the crucial knowledge and skills to pull this off," the video's narrator says, adding that NFTs will see him "become part of the history".

The book "Psychoanalyst Meets Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi", published by Scheidegger & Spiess, is now available.

Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2023-02-07

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