by Drew Martin
With the art market being such a random and unregulated field of whims and speculations, the question of what is art and why certain works are worth millions of dollars gets turned on its head when a fake is introduced, especially when it takes a team of art experts, forensic scientists and chemical analysis to make the distinction between an original and a forgery.
A copy of a painting only becomes a forgery when the forger signs the name of the original artist. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a master forger who made millions by passing off works by great artists. His specialty was not an exact copy of something (that would be too easy to identify) but of works existing only in literature and not in catalogs.
There were many paintings by artists that were written about but never photographed and are not in anyone's collection. So Beltracchi, who boasts he can paint like anyone and in any style, filled that gap. When questions of provenance came up, Beltracchi's scheme sent the collectors down a rabbit hole of his game. He and his wife, Helene, turned her deceased grandparents into fictitious collectors, and even went so far as to fake photographs of Helene, posing as her grandmother with the works: all forgeries by Beltracchi. (Second picture from the bottom)
Beltracchi's father was an art restorer and a decorative painter who used the tricks of the trade to paint plastered surfaces in churches to look like wood and marble. The young Beltracchi was a quick study and learned all these techniques but this practical approach desensitized him to art. He says his emotions are devoted only to his family and not to art. That might sound shocking to a collector or curator, but is actually quite refreshing to hear. He explains that he never did the forgeries for money but rather for the rush.
Beltracchi led himself slowly to this art-crime career by way of restoration. He had the eye and skills to fake anything. So, he reasoned, why not take it to another level? Between 1970 and 2010 Beltracchi created at least 300 forgeries, sold as originals, which supported an extravagant lifestyle and was a means to raise his family in beautiful houses and locations in Europe and Morocco. He was meticulous about the details of the forgeries but his game was exposed when he did not mix his own white paint and the too modern titanium white was used for a pre-WWI forgery of Heinrich Campendonk. After he was caught and punished, and asked if he had any regrets he could only offer that he should never have used titanium white, and ponders where it came from.
He and his wife went to prison for several years when they were found guilty and charged with forgery of 14 works of art that sold in total for $45 million. Only 50 or so of Beltracchi's works have been identified. The balance of his faked 300+ drawings and paintings are still in museums and other collections, unidentified as forgeries, with the art world non the wiser. An interesting comment he made was that it is easier to sell a fake for millions of dollars than it is to sell it for thousands of dollars because people are less likely to question the authenticity of a painting with a higher price.
The bottom picture is of the Beltracchis moving out of their beautiful glass house in Freiburg, Germany. This piece of property and other real estate was liquidated to compensate the collectors who bought his forgeries. This is actually a really interesting business model for art: people invest in forgeries, that money gets invested in appreciating real estate, and when the work is identified as fake, they are compensated by the sale of the properties. Compared to a Ponzi scheme the investors could have done much worse than buying a Beltracchi copy. The couple is now living freely and making millions producing art again, this time not as forgeries.
This whole story unfolds in the documentary Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung, (The Art of Forgery), which I recently watched. While he has been vilified by many, I am in the camp that thinks he's more a genius than a criminal and have more respect for him than artists like Koons or Cattelan. For one thing, he has much more sheer talent than the aforementioned businessman and prankster. In many ways he is actually more honest than them. Also, his ability to replicate the work of any artist and fool the best eyes of the art world challenges the value we place on art, financially as well as emotionally.
If a painting-by-painting case study reveals his trickery, and exposes the experts' and collectors' naiveté, the totality of his influence questions if our interest in art is a delusion of our species. At a base level, there is also a kind of payback from an art world that too often undervalues artists while they are alive and then fans the flames of financial success among themselves when the creators are dead. Beltracchi cracks a hole into those coffers and takes what he thinks is his own value. When he is shown faking a piece by Max Ernst, an artist he does not regard as anyone special, he kicks back with his daughter, looks at the progress of the work and sighs that the real pity is that he cannot sell the painting for five million, as he could if his business was still under wraps.
The film is made during his and Helene's very loose prison years: they only needed to report to separate prisons at night but were allowed to spend their days working together in an off-site studio. Not only is Beltracchi very optimistic and cheerful in the film but he is also incredibly cooperative and takes the viewer through the whole process of forgery: going to flea markets to find old canvases, scraping off the original paint and integrating any remaining marks into the final piece. He even sifts early-20th Century dust between the stretcher bars and the repainted canvas, and tries to give a painting the smell of the place in which it would have been hung. He claims that he can tell which country a painting is from by its smell. He suggests you can hang it for awhile in bar to get the right odor, but then jokes at least your could when you were still allowed to smoke in bars.
The top picture here shows Beltracchi scraping the paint off an old, worthless canvas, which he picked up in an open-air market, as he prepares it to create a painting as if done by the hand and mind of Marie Vassilieff. The photo here under that, second from top, is the new/old painting underway while he talks to the camera, as he hides any trace of the original sub-par nude:
"I'll make the one breast into a little tree. And I'll make the second breast into a house. Voilà. Now she's gone."
If you are interested in other articles/documentaries about individuals who turned the art world upside down, check out my post Mona Lisa is Missing.