October 14, 2012


The Greatest Fake-Art Scam in History? : One of his forgeries hung in a show at the Met. Steve Martin bought another of his fake paintings. Still others have sold at auction for multi-million-dollar prices. So how did a self-described German hippie pull off one of the biggest, most lucrative cons in art-world history? And how did he get nailed? (Joshua Hammer, October 2012, Vanity Fair)

Helene Beltracchi tells me that she discovered the truth about Wolfgang's secret career "the first or second day" of their relationship. They were at his home in Viersen, and she noticed the paintings of a number of famous 20th-century artists hanging on the walls. "I asked him, 'Are these all actually real?' . . . . And he said, 'They're all mine . . . I made them.' I said, 'So you're an art counterfeiter?' And he said, 'Exactly. That's my work. That's my métier.'"

Shortly after the revelation, Wolfgang asked Helene to become his accomplice. It was 1992, and after three years of art-market stagnation, prices were rising again, fueled by an influx of money from Japan. Wolfgang had decided to sell some fakes, and--having fallen out "over business matters" with his former partner Schulte-Kellinghaus--he needed a new go-between. "My husband said to me, 'Do you want to do something?'" Helene recalls. "I thought, Wow. Let me think about it. I knew what it was, that it was illegal." But she said yes. Soon afterward, she notified Lempertz, a high-end auction house in Cologne, that she had a painting for sale by the early-20th-century French Cubist Georges Valmier. "It was hanging on the wall [in Viersen], and they sent their expert," Helene remembers. "She looked for a few minutes, said it was wonderful, and then asked 'How much do you want for it?'" They settled on 20,000 deutsch marks. It was a modest amount, but as the art market heated up, the Beltracchis watched the pseudo-Valmier's value soar; a few years later it sold at auction in New York for $1 million.

Helene found her foray to the dark side exciting, and craved more. "The first time, it was like being in a movie," she says. "It was like it had nothing to do with me. It was another person--an art dealer, whom I was playing." She couldn't believe how easy it had been to dupe the auction house. "Normally, a person would think that these experts would study the painting and look for proof of its provenance. [The authenticator] asked two or three questions. She was gone in 10 minutes." (An attorney for Lempertz disputes Helene's version of events, but confirms that the auction house did indeed sell the painting.

Three years later, Helene introduced the art world to the "collection" she claimed to have inherited from her recently deceased industrialist grandfather, Werner Jägers, who had been born in Belgium but made his fortune in Cologne. Jägers was indeed Helene's maternal grandfather; he had abandoned her grandmother after World War II, Helene says, and she had only a single brief encounter with him, shortly before his death in 1992 at age 80. The story she told gallery owners and collectors was that one of Jägers's friends in the 1920s and 30s had been a well-known Jewish art dealer and collector named Alfred Flechtheim. In 1933, months after Adolf Hitler came to power, Flechtheim fled into exile in Paris, and the Nazis seized his galleries in Düsseldorf and Berlin. But just before this, according to Helene, Flechtheim sold many works at bargain-basement prices to Jägers, who hid them in his country home in the Eifel mountains, near Cologne, safe from Nazi plundering.

In fact, though Jägers and Flechtheim were prewar neighbors in Cologne, their paths almost certainly never crossed; Jägers was 34 years younger than Flechtheim and would have been just out of his teens when he allegedly amassed his art collection; moreover, according to Helene, he was a member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s and was thus unlikely to have been an admirer of "degenerate" art and good friends with a Jewish art dealer. But those details were never questioned by art-world experts. Helene says that she came up with the fake history on the spot after a Christie's expert asked her to explain the provenance of Girl with Swan, purportedly by Heinrich Campendonk. "I hadn't planned anything," she insists. But the Jägers story "made sense. My grandfather had his business in Cologne. Flechtheim had a gallery in Cologne. My grandfather lived in Krefeld, and so did the artist. So I could easily say they were all connected." To lend her account credibility, Wolfgang staged a black-and-white photograph of Helene impersonating her grandmother, Josefine Jägers. Wearing a black dress and a strand of pearls, "Josefine" posed in front of several paintings from the "Jägers collection." The photo was slightly out of focus, and printed on prewar developing paper.

Girl with Swan featured prominently in a Christie's auction of German and Austrian art in October 1995. In the catalogue, Campendonk expert Andrea Firmenich praised the artist's use of color and Christie's notified its customers that Firmenich had confirmed the work's authenticity. To bolster his hoax, Wolfgang Beltracchi had pasted on the back of the frame, for the first time, a label from the "Sammlung Flechtheim"--the Flechtheim Collection. The label displayed a caricature of Alfred Flechtheim, the Jewish collector who had supposedly provided Jägers with so many paintings. Christie's dutifully identified in its auction catalogue the provenance of Girl with Swan as "Alfred Flechtheim, Düsseldorf; Werner Jägers, Cologne." It was sold for £67,500--at the time, more than $100,000. "This was a highly unusal case," Christie's responded when asked about this incident and the Beltracchi case more broadly, adding "We have taken all appropriate steps to resolve this matter."'

In 1995, the past threatened to catch up to Wolfgang Beltracchi. As subsequently reported in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, a scientific investigation initiated in Munich by the buyer of a purported Molzahn called Erigone und Maira had determined that that painting, and two others, were counterfeit; one, called Linear Color Composition, supposedly painted in the early 1920s, contained a pigment invented only in 1957. Police suspected that Beltracchi and Schulte-Kellinghaus had been involved in selling those fraudulent works. Because the five-year statute of limitations had run out, however, they could summon them only as material witnesses in an investigation that focused instead on the Berlin art dealer who had handled the sales of the bogus Molzahns. In mid-1996, the police brought Schulte-Kellinghaus in for questioning, and began looking for Beltracchi.

That July, the Beltracchis abruptly sold their house in Viersen for $1.7 million, purchased a Winnebago, repainted the interior pink and turquoise, and headed for Spain, then the South of France. Years later, Wolfgang claimed he'd made the move because he and Helene's then two-year-old daughter, Franziska, was ailing and needed a change of air. "We weren't running away," he tells me, although conveniently, they informed hardly anyone of their final destination. A neighbor in Viersen told the police only that they had gone "to travel around the world." As far as the German police were concerned, Beltracchi had vanished.

The Beltracchis parked their Winnebago at a campground in Marseillan, beside the Bay of Thau, famed for its oyster beds, and quickly drew around them a circle of artists, writers, and other creative types. Michel Torres, a teacher in Marseillan, met Wolfgang for the first time at the local school. "He showed up in an enormous camping car, and he said, 'My son doesn't speak a word of French. Can you help him out?'" Torres recalls. "I knew all the painters in the area, and I started introducing him around." Two years later, Beltracchi purchased a dilapidated 1858 farmhouse and hired Pierre Malbos, a carpenter, blacksmith, and furniture restorer, to make doors and windows. Malbos was entranced by Wolfgang's roguish charm. "He had a hat and a flowery shirt and long flowing blond hair. . . . He told me stories about smoking dope, riding around on a Harley, hanging out with the U.S. troops," Malbos says. "He struck me as a person who had always lived . . . on the borderline."

The Beltracchis clearly had a lot of money, though they remained vague about its origins. They spent much of their time browsing in local galleries and antique shops, landscaping their garden, and entertaining in restaurants or on the terrace of their villa. "I think his attitude was, I don't want to work too hard, but I want to be rich," says Malbos. "They knew how to live well, and they were generous. . . . We would take weekend trips to Barcelona, visit museums, buy antique furniture." Michel Torres sometimes joined the family on vacations--including a stay in an 18-room rented villa with an Olympic-size swimming pool, nestled on the slopes of a jungle-covered mountain overlooking the sea, on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The Beltracchis remained there for six months, says Torres, sailing, scuba diving, and sunning themselves on the beach.

Their French estate, Domaine des Rivettes, became the Beltracchis' passion. On a windswept February afternoon, Torres took me around the property, in the heart of the wine country of Languedoc. We wandered through neatly planted rows of cypress trees, vineyards, and olive groves--and stopped to admire a sculpture garden and a pond filled with Japanese koi. "When they moved in here, this was all a swamp, a big mess," Torres said. Beltracchi had installed a small mausoleum on the property because, he told his friend Pierre, "I want to be buried here." We entered the main house through a cobblestone courtyard and walked into the couple's sunlit master bedroom, tiled with pink and beige Burgundian sandstone. Nothing had been disturbed since the Beltracchis' last visit, in the summer of 2010, with German translations of Patricia Highsmith, a Led Zeppelin CD, and DVDs of Ice Age and Ocean's 13 strewn across nightstands beside a four-poster bed. On the walls hung large, colorful canvases by a local artist named André Cervera, whom Beltracchi had helped promote. Two flights up was Beltracchi's atelier, where he painted his forgeries. "I never saw him do any of them," Torres insisted. The wood-beamed studio was dominated by a work in progress, signed by Beltracchi himself: The Fall of the Angels, reminiscent of bad underground comic-book art, which depicted a blood-soaked seraph plummeting to Earth, against a sea of tortured faces. "It's an enormous project; it took him two years to do this," Torres told me, gazing with admiration. I found the painting almost impossible to look at.

The Beltracchis lived like country squires at the Domaine des Rivettes. The art market was booming, and Wolfgang needed to sell only two or three forgeries a year to support the couple's extravagant lifestyle (though sometimes, in a burst of activity, he would dash off five paintings in a week). Beltracchi would typically spend a couple of hours on a painting, he told me; sometimes "two days," if it was a large canvas. Then Helene, her sister, Jeanette Spurzem, or Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, who had rejoined his old friend, would deliver the paintings to Christie's, Sotheby's, Lempertz, and other houses for the spring and fall auctions.

Wolfgang, says his wife, had an almost "autistic" sense of how to imitate an artist's technique. But he also, she insists, prepared himself. "He reads about the artist, travels to where he lived, steeps himself in the literature. He's like an actor." Wolfgang explains: "You have to know about the artist's past, present, and future. You have to know how the painter moved and how much time it took him to complete a work." However, it seems that Beltracchi sometimes employed a simpler method. Aya Soika, a Berlin-based specialist in the German Expressionist Max Pechstein, says that Beltracchi used a projector to cast images of Pechstein watercolors and ink drawings onto canvas, then traced larger copies, using oil paint. (Beltracchi disputes her claim.) "He altered the size, but the proportions were exactly the same," says Soika, who examined two fake Pechsteins, Seine Bridge with Freight Barges and Reclining Nude with Cat.

By the early 2000s, Beltracchi's fakes were selling at auction to collectors for the high six figures, sometimes more. Steve Martin paid $860,000 in 2004 for a counterfeit Campendonk called Landscape with Horses, then sold it through Christie's 18 months later at a $240,000 loss, still unaware that he'd been in possession of a fake. In 2007, a French gallery sold Portrait of a Woman with Hat, a semi-nude allegedly by the Dutch Fauvist painter Kees van Dongen, to a wealthy Dutch collector, Willem Cordia, for $3.8 million. Other forgeries wound up in the hands of galleries, museums, and private collectors in places as far flung as Tokyo and Montevideo, Uruguay. In addition to imitating the works of second-tier Expressionists and Cubists such as Louis Marcoussis, Oskar Moll, and Moïse Kisling Laurencin, Beltracchi embarked on a more dangerous business: forging the works of great artists such as Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and Max Ernst. While they would command higher prices, these paintings also ran the risk of inviting closer scrutiny. Beltracchi says he was especially drawn to Ernst, because "physically, he resembled my father."

Despite the higher stakes, or perhaps because of them, art experts eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. Indeed, the Beltracchis often prophylactically secured statements of authenticity from leading authorities to quell potential doubts before offering the paintings to auction houses and galleries. Werner Spies, now 75, the former director of the modern-art museum at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the world's leading Max Ernst authority, made a pilgrimage to Domaine des Rivettes in early 2004 to inspect The Forest (2). The large canvas depicted a sun of concentric circles of red, blue, white, and yellow, rising over a coppice of cypress trees. Beltracchi had painted the large work in two days, employing the same method that Ernst often used: rubbing a spatula over blocks of rough wood, seashells, and other found objects that he had placed beneath the painted canvas. With Wolfgang making himself scarce--he never revealed himself to potential buyers or experts, he says--Helene escorted Spies into the couple's bedroom. The phony Ernst hung on the wall behind the bed. "Spies came in, took one look, and was overcome with excitement," Helene says. He declared that there was no doubt The Forest (2) was authentic.

Spies--who did not return e-mails or phone calls asking for comment--quickly put Helene in touch with a Swiss art dealer, who triumphantly sold Max Ernst's long-lost The Forest (2) to a company called Salomon Trading, for about €1.8 million, or $2.3 million. The painting passed to a Paris gallery, Cazeau-Béraudière, which sold it in 2006 to Daniel Filipacchi for $7 million. "The widow of Max Ernst [Dorothea Tanning, who died this past January] saw the painting and said that it was the most beautiful picture that Max Ernst had ever painted," Helene gloats today. She and Wolfgang were amazed by the gullibility of those they had duped, says Helene. "We're still laughing about it."

Posted by at October 14, 2012 8:14 AM

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