The strokes on his canvas imitate the techniques of artists from eras past. Pick any style and he can mimic it. Wolfgang Beltracchi is known as the world’s most successful forgery artist of all time. He’s notorious for causing havoc in the art world—sending out fake paintings that aren’t replicas of past works, but new ones, which he imagines the artists could have made. Incredibly talented at taking on another artist’s style, for nearly 40 years he’s produced work under their names, rather than his own. He’s made millions.
Beltracchi is one of the few artistic geniuses that could mimic nearly any period, and any style: Rembrandt, Leonardo, Cezanne, Max Ernst—pretty much any well-known artist other than Giovani Bellini he says. The German painter says he’s sold about 300 works, pretending they were the works of some of the most renowned names in the art world. He sold them off to major galleries, auctions, art dealers and collectors, and made millions of dollars doing so. It all came to an end in 2010.
HOW HE DID IT:
How did Beltracchi get away with it for so long? He was incredibly detailed in cooking up his lies. And he had an accomplice: his wife, Helene. They came up with a story together and backed it up so carefully that the experts couldn’t spot any errors. Beltracchi says the experts are no fools though—these are people who are known for their meticulous attention to detail. “Their main problem was that I was too good for them,” Beltraachi said in an interview with 60 Minutes recently.
The story they told was that Helene’s grandfather hid his art collection in a summer home in Germany to keep it hidden from the Nazis. When he passed away, Helene said that the collection was passed down to her. They did the research and paid attention to every minute detail. They shopped at art shows looking for antique canvases from the right period, which they would then wipe completely clean. They replicated old German art labels, staining them to look aged and sent paint pigments to be analysed, making sure they were available at the time each painter would have used them. They even dressed Helene up as her grandmother and took photos with an old camera with the paintings displayed in the background. Photos go a long way in proving a piece’s authenticity during an expert’s articling process.
Helene Beltracchi posed as her grandmother, Josephine Jaegers, in this fake photograph
THE HIGH LIFE:
Beltracchi’s plan worked well for many years, and they took full advantage of it. One painting could make seven million dollars alone and Wolfgang could complete it in a matter of days. They lived in mansions, partied like Gatsby, and travelled the world. They even owned their own yacht. It was a great 40 years for Beltracchi. He and Helene married in 1993 and lived this way until they got busted in 2010 thanks to a foolish mistake.
THE DEMISE OF BELTRACCHI:
With all of that careful attention to detail, how did Helene and Beltracchi get caught?
It came down to a tube of white paint that contained traces of titanium, which wasn’t used in paint during the time period Beltracchi was claiming it was from. When paintings are analysed to determine whether or not they’re the real deal, even minuscule pieces are removed to be tested. That’s how a man named Jamie Martin found out that Beltracchi’s was a fake. He even said that the artist’s fakes were the best he’d ever seen in his career.
From there on, it was downhill for Beltracchi and Helene. He says he only noticed he was in trouble once he was already in prison. Beltracchi got six years in prison, his wife got four.
Though his trial proved that he had produced 36 fakes—making $46 million—German police and art experts have uncovered 60. But Beltracchi and others say he’s created 300.
WHEN FRAUDS HIT THE MARKET:
Experts in the art world expect they could be uncovering his fakes for decades to come. Some who bought his fakes even sued the galleries that sold them—even though experts had approved them as the real deal. In one case though, a New York art collector decided to keep the work, even though it was a fake.
Fake pieces have a way of popping up on the market generations later—even after they have been discovered to be phoney.
The Beltracchi story has an interesting ending. Right now, he is one of the most exhibited artists in the world. That means that his work is displayed more than the artists he’s been posing as all along. After serving his jail time, he thinks it’s time to finally start painting under his own name. His studio is still as busy as ever.
$7M Max Ernst forgery
The painting that got him caught, “Heinrich Campendonk”
Helene Beltracchi and Wolfgang Beltracchi