16 Apr 2014

Portrait of the artist as a conman


Until he was exposed by using an incorrect pigment, Wolfgang Beltracchi was the world’s most successful art forger. Channel 4 News meets the man whose forgeries are now valuable in their own right.

Wolfgang Beltracchi

We have until dusk with the world’s most successful art forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, and the clock is ticking, write Nanette van der Laan and Paraic O’Brien. By nightfall he has to be back in an open prison. Just enough time for him to paint us a “Max Ernst” and for us to get inside his head.

We meet in his studio and home outside Cologne. A beautiful, airy space full of canvases and expensive-looking furniture – a picture of Bohemian chic. Then you spot the police evidence bags pinned to the wall alongside sketches, kept as souvenirs.

The scale of the fraud he and his wife, Helene, committed is breathtaking. It went on for four decades. He says he can “do” any artist – Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Van Gogh. You name it, he can do it.

He says he can ‘do’ any artist: Rembrandt, Carvaggio, Van Gogh. You name it, he can do it.

He produced hundreds of forgeries, made millions of pounds. Fooled everyone. Christie’s famously featured a Beltracchi fake on a catalogue cover. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was among a host of famous galleries that were had. The actor Steve Martin bought a Beltracchi, and the French media mogul Daniel Filipacchi paid $7m for a phoney Max Ernst in 2006.

Everyone fell for it, and this self-proclaimed hippie went on a spending spree: houses across Europe, an estate and vineyard in France, and a yacht. He called it Voodoo Child!

When they were eventually caught in 2010, the civil and criminal case sent shock waves through the art market. For the 14 fakes that the Beltracchis were eventually charged with selling, their estimated take was around 16m euros. There are still an estimated 300 paintings out there, so their real haul must have been far more.

Beltracchi says he “never counted his money, but we had a good life”. Banking had Lehman Brothers, the art world the Beltracchis.

Beltracchi painted this Picasso forgery (above right) when he was just 12. The Picasso original is on the left

Very good conman

So how did he do it? Beltracchi is very good painter. He brags that if an artist like Raoul Dufy was left-handed, he’d paint his “Dufy” left-handed, too. He’s knocking out a pretty convincing looking Max Ernst for us, as we speak.

But he’s not just a good painter, he’s a very good conman. He tells us he never copied originals. That would have been too easy.

What he did was something much more complicated. He found a hole in the artist’s body of work and filled it, a missing painting, or a painting that could have existed. He would then immerse himself in that painter’s life. It was method acting on canvas. In Beltracchi’s head, his forgeries were masterpieces. And before the art world knew any better, they tended to agree.

In Beltracchi’s head, his forgeries were masterpieces. And before the art world knew any better, then tended to agree.

His wife helped source period-appropriate materials, scouring flea markets to find the right frames. They would then take apart the frames, carefully collect the decades-old dust inside, and later slip it into their own forgery.

They even made art gallery labels, ageing them with tea and coffee. Once finished, the work would be placed in a special home-made oven to speed up the ageing process.

Then they went further. They created fake photos to prove provenance. Helene shows us an old 1930s photo of her grandmother. The hair is right, the clothes are right, the furniture is right, and behind her, four paintings from the time.

Except they’re not. It is, in fact, Helene posing as her grandmother. The paintings are, in fact, Beltracchi forgeries. They constructed the whole scene in their bedroom, used an old camera, period-appropriate photo paper, and pretended they’d inherited the paintings. The art world believed them and they made a killing.

When they were eventually caught, Helene was sentenced to four years, Wolfgang to six.

The painting that exposed Beltracchi – it uses a pigment not yet discovered at the time the painting should have been painted

Beltracchi’s nemesis

What undid them was a forged modernist painting by Heinrich Campendonk. It ended up being sold for nearly 3m euros, the most expensive Campendonk ever sold. Except, of course, it wasn’t a Campendonk.

It was bought by a company who sent it to one Professor Nicholas Eastaugh, aka Beltracchi’s nemesis, a forensic art scientist based in London. His analysis found titanium white in the painting, a pigment which wasn’t being used when Campendonk was alive. Beltracchi had made a mistake.

Above: Beltracchi paints a “Max Ernst” especially for Channel 4 News

He explains it was sheer laziness – he had failed to mix his own colours and had used a tube of paint from a manufacturer that he not listed all its ingredients on the label. Prof Eastaugh’s report concluded it had to be a fake. It first triggered a civil case, then a criminal one.

Back at his studio, Beltracchi explains that he is now paying back half of all his present earnings to the people he conned. It’s part of the reason he’s doing the interview – there’s an autobiography to sell.

There’s more to the deal that was done with claimants, though. Part of the contract means there are certain people and things he can’t talk about it. “Everyone has secrets in this business,” he says, then turns to put his own signature on the “Max Ernst” he’s painting for us.

One last twist in the tale. Beltracchis are now valuable in their own right. The one he painted for Channel 4 News will fetch a few thousand – so he’s not giving it to us.