Wolfgang Beltracchi: the notorious art forger

At the beginning of this decade, the art world was turned upside down. A master forger was unmasked who had made many well-known works. Much of his work had been traded through major auction houses and art dealers, and was indistinguishable from real. There seem to be hundreds of these counterfeits in circulation, but nobody knows exactly which paintings they are. This counterfeiter was Wolfgang Beltracchi.

From painter to forger

Beltracchi painted his own paintings during his student days to earn some extra money. He also bought up and resold old works. He noticed that the paintings of landscapes sold better if there were people in the painting. He started to add people to the landscapes that he bought and resold. The small forgeries slowly led to larger forgeries, and ultimately to the painting of entirely new paintings that were forgeries.
Beltracchi made its counterfeits so good that they were hard to distinguish from real. He bought old canvases from the time of the painters he forged. He cleaned it completely, and then painted over it. He did his homework well and collected and forged the stamps from old art galleries to add them to his fakes.
He mixed all his paint himself, and only with the products and colors that were also used by the forger. Then he had all kinds of techniques to make the paint and the painting not look like he had just painted it. Because the canvases, the frames and the paint were authentic, it is also difficult to see with all modern technology that they are counterfeits.

The Beltracchi family

Beltracchi was born as Wolfgang Fischer on February 4, 1951 in Germany. His father was a restorer. He restored old murals and paintings from churches, and to do odd jobs, he copied famous works and sold them as copies. So the young Beltracchi received painting, restoration and copying from childhood onwards.
In 1992 he met his wife Helene Beltracchi, and he took her last name when they married. Together they have two children, a boy and a girl. His wife worked with him in his studio for years and posed as an art dealer selling his counterfeits. His children knew nothing, they only found out what their parents were doing when things went wrong and the police stopped them. Beltracchi earned millions with his counterfeits, and the family had a great lifestyle, with villas in several countries, including Freiburg in Germany.

Known counterfeits

Beltracchi appears to have forged more than three hundred works, from more than eighty different painters. They hang in museums and with private collectors. Nobody knows the exact number, and that adds to the mystery surrounding Beltracchi. His counterfeits brought in millions together.
Beltracchi and his wife had developed a good strategy for forging works. Beltracchi did not copy works by famous painters, but he made new works in their style and then signed them with their names. He searched for works that were described in literature, but were never photographed and whose original had been lost in history. With the clues from literature, he then made a painting in the style of the original painter. He also regularly painted entirely new works in the style of an existing painter.
To explain where all these new works came from, Beltracchi and his wife took the deceased grandfather of his wife, Werner Jager, and said he was an art collector and the works came from his legacy. They then created old photos of the works as if they had been hanging on a wall for years.
Beltracchi forged works by Max Ernst, Kees van Dongen, Auguste Herbin, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Campendonk, André Derain, Louis Marcoussis, and Max Pechstein, among others. There are a total of 58 works that the police and experts think may have been forged. Beltracchi itself claims that there are many more in circulation, but does not say which works they are.

How he was unmasked

He finally ran into the lamp due to a minor and stupid mistake. His counterfeit of Heinrich Campendonk, called 'Red List of Horses', was auctioned in 2006 for three million euros. The final buyer wanted it checked for authenticity. Beltracchi's works had previously passed authenticity checks, and his wife was closely involved in this. However, the 2008 audit found that the white paint contained titanium, and this type of paint did not yet exist at the time of Heinrich Campendonk. Another pigment also gave doubts. This made the ball roll and it slowly became clear that Beltracchi was behind the counterfeit. Beltracchi and his wife were arrested in 2010 and his studios were searched. There the police found the paint tube in question with the white titanium paint.

His punishment

A forty-day lawsuit followed. He was eventually sentenced in 2011 to six years in prison for fourteen fakes that were sold together for sixteen million euros. His wife Helene did not stay unharmed either. For her role in selling the counterfeits, she was sentenced to four years in prison. The couple also had to pay millions in damages. Hand-mate Otto S. K. also got five years.
Beltracchi and his wife were allowed to serve their sentences in an open prison. That meant that during the day they were allowed to go to a photo studio of one of their friends to work together. Beltracchi created a number of mixed media works during this period. Helene was released in February 2013 and finally Beltracchi was released in January 2015 after being detained for three years. He had to promise to make his own work.

What are they doing now

The Beltracchi couple wrote two books together. An autobiography and a collection of the letters they write to each other when they were in prison. Both were published in 2014. Beltracchi still paints, but now he signs everything with his own name. The paintings are often based on the styles of various old grand masters. With this he also exhibits regularly, and he still sells well, but then under his own name, and no longer for the millions he earned with the counterfeits.

Documentary

If you would like to know more or see Beltracchi in action, a documentary about the master forger was made in 2014. The documentary is called 'Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery. The documentary contains interviews with Beltracchi, his wife, his children and some victims and art connoisseurs. In the documentary you can see Beltracchi painting and working in his studio, and that gives a nice picture of him. Because Belltracchi and his family are German, the documentary is often in German, but there are also some French and English speaking. Fortunately everything is subtitled. Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery is on Netflix.

Video: The Art Forger - SRF (February 2020).

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