One of the Greatest Art Frauds in Postwar History

His paintings have sold at auctions for millions of dollars, one of his forged paintings even hung at the Met, and nobody caught on to his highly lucrative fake-art scam for years. So just how did the self-proclaimed hippie Wolfgang Beltracchi do it? And how did he get caught?

Photo via Vanity Fairwolfgang beltracchi art fraud

Wolfgang Beltracchi (born Wolfgang Fischer) has admitted to producing hundreds of fake paintings along with his wife, Helene, and two other accomplices. The group sold the forged artwork, passing them off as original works by world famous artists including Max Ernst, Heinrich CampendonkAuguste Herbin and Fernand Leger.

Wolfgang BeltracchiBeltracchi’s method was not to copy known paintings, rather he filled in the gaps in the artists’ bodies of work. He would study the artists in great detail, even travel to where they lived, then he would either invent new paintings and link them to creative phases in the artists’ lives, or create paintings whose titles were known but believed to be lost, and so no previous image had ever been seen.

To make their story of how they obtained the “original paintings” more believable, Beltracchi and his accomplices fabricated stories about their grandparents, saying that they had been art collectors in the 1920s.

According to Vanity Fair, “One phony Max Ernst had hung for months in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Steve Martin purchased a fake Heinrich Campendonk through the Paris gallery Cazeau-Béraudière for $860,000 in 2004; the French magazine-publishing mogul Daniel Filipacchi paid $7 million for a phony Max Ernst, titled The Forest (2), in 2006.”

The authorities were tipped off to Beltracchi when a painting he sold was submitted to a chemical analysis that determined the painting was counterfeit because it included a pigment that did not exist in 1914, the year it was apparently painted. He was always so careful as to the pigments he used, but he slipped up. After that, there was a domino effect and authorities discovered numerous fakes exposing Beltracchi and his wife.

Wolfgang BeltracchiIn an interview with German magazine Spiegel, Beltracchi said “I never decided to become an art forger. I was aware of my talent at an early age, and I used it foolishly. This developed over the years. In my heart, I don’t see myself as a criminal.” He goes on to say “I did enjoy painting my own subjects, and they sold well, but it was much more fascinating to paint the unpainted pictures of other artists”.

What shocked the art world the most about this entire scandal, and what is perhaps the most enlightening about it, is how Beltracchi managed to fool the entire art market, and as a result exposed a flawed system in which millions of dollars are paid for paintings whose authenticity is extremely difficult (if possible) to determine.

In the end, Beltracchi and his accomplices were arrested and him and his wife were sentenced to 6 years in jail on October 27, 2011. The courts included 14 paintings in the case (though there were many more sold fakes). The 14 paintings allegedly brought Beltracchi and Helene roughly €16 million ($21 million) in earnings, although they’ve made far more than that over the years.

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