Wolfgang Beltracchi – The Genius Art Forger

I can’t help but admire con artists who have an extraordinary talent and who are also willing and able to pull off elaborate and imaginative tricks, especially in this increasingly boring era.  My August and September posts are dedicated to a painter followed by a musician who both have extraordinary talents and perhaps a sense of fun.  Their cons seem to be games that went too far because they were simply too good at what they did.  I am well aware that some of the other con artists in my archives are blatant criminals who have hurt other people in order to get what they want.  However, some of my entries are good people, even admirable. I happen to admire my con artist for the month of August: Wolfgang Beltracchi.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, in front of one of his original paintings.
Wolfgang Beltracchi in front of one of his original paintings.

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a brilliant painter and perhaps an even more brilliant con man.  He and his wife, Helene, made millions of dollars and fooled everyone in a career that spanned four decades.  His forgeries made their way into the world’s most famous museums, galleries and private collections:  from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York- to Christie’s, the auction house,  where a Beltracchi fake was famously featured on a catalogue cover.   The actor Steve Martin unknowingly bought a Beltracchi painting – and one of the world’s foremost collectors of surrealist art, Daniel Filipacchi, paid 7 million dollars for a phoney Max Ernst in 2006.  In fact, that particular work was even authenticated by leading art historian, Werner Spies, who is also a close friend of Ernst’s widow.  When Wolfgang Beltracchi was eventually caught in 2010, his haul was estimated at 27 million dollars, though there were still hundreds of paintings unaccounted for at that time.
Beltracchi was able to fool art experts across the globe mainly because he is an exceptional painter.  He was able to copy hundreds of famous artists without raising any suspicion.   However, he was also an exceptional con man – and together, he and his wife, Helene, were brilliant partners in crime.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi
Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi

Beltracchi’s first step was to completely avoid copying originals. Instead, he and his wife would research artists, looking for any holes in their work…a missing painting, or perhaps a painting that could have been.  He would then immerse himself in the chosen artist to the point of obsession – much the same way an actor like Robert De Niro might prepare for a film role: if the painter was left-handed, then so was Beltracchi.

Beltracchi considered his paintings to be masterpieces – and the art world agreed.  Meanwhile, Helene would scope out flea markets and fairs to find period- appropriate materials, including the right frames.  The pair would take apart their newly acquired  flea market purchases in order to collect the antique dust- and carefully slip it into their forgeries.  They even made their own special oven which they could use to speed up the ageing process of Wolfgang’s paintings.
It didn’t end there, though. Helene would take the time to create elaborate fake photos in order prove a painting’s provenance.  Using period-appropriate cameras, film and photo paper, the duo would stage a perfect scene in their home:  Helene would dress up as “her grandmother” and wear accurate 1930’s clothes, with an accurate hairsytyle and pose alongside antique furniture. Positioned on the wall behind her:  a painting from the time.   It was by using one of these photos that Helene managed to sell a fake Ernst titled “La Foret” for seven million dollars to an esteemed New York art collector.

Beltracchi's forged painting "La Foret" by Ernst, which sold for over $7 million
Beltracchi’s forged painting “La Foret” by Ernst, which sold for over $7 million

By the time the Beltracchis were arrested, they had houses across Europe, an estate and vineyard in France, and a yacht.  They were selling hundreds of paintings and living the good life.

In the end, it was laziness that got them caught.   Beltracchi had failed to mix his own colours while forging a work of the modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk.  Instead, he had bought a tube of paint that didn’t list all of its ingredients on the label.  The company that bought the painting spent 3 million euros, making it the most expensive Campendonk ever sold.  However, the buyer then sent his new purchase to a forensic art scientist (and sworn enemy of Beltracchi) who discovered a titanium white in the painting…a pigment which wasn’t used in Campendonk’s time.  Beltracchi and his wife were charged – first in a civil case, then in a criminal one that stunned the art world.

Helene was sentenced to 4 years in a minimum security prison; Wolfgang to 6 years. He was released in January 2015 and continues to paint.  In fact, Beltracchi paintings now sell for thousands of dollars in their own right.

Forged Heinrich Campendonk painting, by Wolfgang Beltracchi
Forged Heinrich Campendonk painting, by Wolfgang Beltracchi