“BELTRACCHI: THE ART OF FORGERY”— Forty Years of Forgeries



Forty Years of Forgeries

Amos Lassen

For nearly forty years, Wolfgang Beltracchi tricked the international art world by forging and selling paintings of early 20th-century masters. A larger-than-life personality who was responsible for the biggest art forgery scandal of the postwar era. Here is his story and it is mesmerizing, thought provoking and surprisingly amusing. He is an expert in art history, theory and painting techniques and he tracked down the gaps in the oeuvres of great artists—Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Campendonk, André Derain and Max Pechstein and filled them with his own works. He and his wife Helene would then introduce them to the art world as originals. What makes these forgeries truly one-of-a-kind is that they are never mere copies of once-existing paintings, but products of Beltracchi’s imagination, works “in the style of” famous early 20th-century artists. With his forgeries, he fooled renowned experts, curators and art dealers. The auctioneers Sotheby’s and Christie’s were hoodwinked, just like Hollywood star Steve Martin and other collectors throughout the world.


We see Wolfgang and his wife Helene Beltracchi wittingly and charmingly chat openly—and with great wit and charm—about their quixotic adventures in an overheated art world that was ruled by blind greed, and in which apparently no one has an answer to the question as to what is an original, and what is a forgery… Beltracchi is an engaging man who is a warm-hearted husband and father, and an impossibly self-confident artist. His dialogues are full of bright wit and he has incredible talent as a painter. The film reveals his expertise in forging paintings from the early 20th century, which were so masterfully done that art experts, museums and auction houses around the world were duped and exposed.


Claiming these pieces had been part of private collections, Beltracchi and his wife, Helene were able to make millions. The con couldn’t last forever, and Beltracchi was eventually discovered. He was arrested and sentenced to a rather lenient prison term, that allowed him and his wife to leave prison during the day to work together. Beltracchi has never revealed how many forgeries he actually made. The film sheds some light on his process, his arrest, and how Beltracchi’s fakes may be even more popular than his own work.


The first thing that a viewer will notice about Wolfgang Beltracchi is the almost total lack of appreciation for art. He is not impressed by those, many call masters of the craft. It’s a strange counterpoint to the way that art dealers seem more concerned about what they’ll earn and not what they’re selling.

Perhaps that is part of his reason for his forgeries— it was a way to ‘stick it to them’. Whatever the reason, Beltracchi is obviously talented, but may be more known for his fakes instead of his real work. The documentary does not go as deep into the life and crimes of Beltracchi as one may like, but it does give a great overview of everything, including the piece of art that finally caught up with him.


The film is very interesting but one that doesn’t dig too deeply, which is a little disappointing. It’s still worth watching, but don’t expect anything too revealing.“Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” finds the untrained German artist and his wife and accomplice, Helene, in the midst of serving a perversely lenient prison sentence, allowed as they are to work in his home studio by day before returning to jail at night. Constructed around protracted scenes of Beltracchi working on new faux-masterpieces, Arne Birkenstock’s documentary allows us to observe his immensely meticulous process, such as his accounting for the amount of dust within the borders of his canvases. The modest depiction of the man and extends to the interviews, as discussions with art historians and auctioneers are sparingly used to fill in contextual gaps. They also tell us of a systemic complacency within the art world and the increasingly record-breaking auction sales that made it very easy for Beltracchi to convince dealers and gallery owners that the forgeries he sold were genuine.


At times, it appears as if the film doesn’t hold Beltracchi accountable for his crimes and seemingly celebrates the spoils they brought, especially coming after an ill-conceived, rapid-fire montage of home movies (set to blaring pop music) that show Beltracchi and his family in their then-new mansion of a house and the highly extravagant lifestyle that came with it. Director Birkenstock gives great freedom to viewers to form their own opinions about his subject. Rarely do the interviewees express their own thoughts on Beltracchi the man, as Birkenstock lets him speak for himself, for better and for worse. We, on one hand, see him behaving tenderly with his wife and then speaking about his own genius. He tells us about the thrill he has when he signs a painting in another artist’s name. Because the film admirably downplays his reputation, the man emerges less like a con man and more like a flawed individual who has a talent for fooling people.

The Beltracchis look like two aging hippies (he’s now 61), with long flowing hair and go-with-the-flow nonchalance. (He was already painting fakes when he met Helene in February 1992.) Together, hand in hand, they show how they would search flea markets for old, anonymous canvases and frames with historical gallery identification to paint over. They then would go home to a beautiful modern villa or to his studio. Their elegant surroundings were not just a benefit but also a convincing cover for her family’s fictional art collection.


They are very well informed about art and the market and came across as credible collectors. Wolfgang grew up going with his father on his rounds as a church conservator and restorer. Wolfgang would keep busy sketching and he soon surpassed his father’s skills. Wolfgang learned that the Old Masters took too much time to copy properly. After dropping out of art school, he kept up with the field and gradually realized that there tended to be a pre-World War I gap in the oeuvres of hot-selling painters.

Sometimes works were known by name and even description but had been missing over the years of wars. Specialists sometimes figured that gifted artists were probably prescient about the changes that would overtake the continent, and scholars were hot to find the works with those hints of premonitions. Wolfgang casually demonstrates how he would go to the locales the artists were known to frequent and paint from the same scenery, adding in touches that pointed toward the future. In effect, he gave the art historians what they were looking for, and these authenticators, called in by auction houses and institutions, were pleased to confirm their own theories, with the benefit of earning a nice commission on the sales.


His downfall came when his interpretation of a long missing Heinrich Campendonk known as Red Painting with Horses, 1914, sold for a record 2.8 million Euros at an auction in 2006. It attracted new verification analysis that caught his rare error. The cheated purchasers are surprisingly philosophical (they did receive restitution). The Beltracchis’ adult children are still stunned and mystified by the source of their parents’ comfortable lifestyle and luxuriant vacations (shown in a lot of family photos). Some details are left vague, such as the wife’s negotiations with a dealer who helped them (and who was also arrested) and their final sentences. Other than the 14 paintings that were the subject of the 2011 court case over the $21 million they were paid, Wolfgang has still not identified all of his fakes that are probably hanging on moguls’ and museum walls.


Interview with Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi

Interview with Filmmaker Arne Birkenstock

Art Authenticators Visit Beltracchi’s Studio

Leave a Reply