Beltracchi Working on a Fake Max Ernst (Vanity Fair)
This past Sunday, 60 Minutes did a segment on a German artist named Wolfgang Beltracchi. I would be surprised if you had heard of him unless you know this story. But you probably have seen his paintings if you have been in many of the great museums of the world. You see, Beltracchi is an art forger who has dozens of fakes still hanging in many venues around the world.
There was a brilliant twist in his scheme to bring fake paintings to the public and especially to the big money collectors. Rather than merely copy existing paintings from the masters, Beltracchi would more or less channel the artists, making paintings that he felt that they themselves might have painted if they had had the time to move in a given direction. They are labeled as lost masterworks. He would do great amounts of research into the artist’s body of work and biography as well as studying the materials and tools of the time periods so that everything gave it a genuine appearance. His research was so meticulous that his paints often matched the chemical profile of the originals, making the fake almost impossible to detect with even the most sophisticated of scientific tools.
Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother in front of fakes
This genuine appearance made validating the work as original much easier. But Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, completed the deal with a detailed backstory that made complete sense and was seldom challenged. They claimed that the paintings were owned by Helene’s grandparents there in Germany and were hidden from the Nazis before World War II . To make the illusion complete, they would make up Helene as her grandmother and take photos on old period photo paper in front of the paintings.
It was deviously clever deception that stumped the art world for many years. Museums and high profile collectors (Steve Martin was duped by one of Beltracchi’s fakes to the tune of around $850,000) ate up his works, some being included in books of the best paintings of the last century as well on the cover of a high profile Christie’s Auctions catalog.
The deception was perfect.
Except for one tiny mistake.
On one of his paintings Beltracchi used a tube of white paint that did not disclose that it included a bit of titanium. Titanium white was not available as a pigment until 1921 and his use of it made the work instantly detectable. The house of cards crumbled and both he and his wife were arrested. They lost everything– the cars, the yachts, the plush homes and the huge stacks of cash that their con had provided. They are both serving terms in an German open prison, meaning that they go out each day to work and return at night.
Most of the works , which Beltracchi claims to be well over 1000 and maybe as many as 2000 by over 50 different artists, still hang in many museums around the globe. It will probably take some time and effort to detect these fakes, if they do it all. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been conned.
Bellini’s “Saint Jerome Reading” at the National Gallery, DC
It’s an interesting story. I was immediately intrigued by Beltracchi’s claim that he could paint in the style of anyone except for perhaps Bellini. I love Bellini’s work and was glad when this master forger thought it was beyond counterfeiting. But I wondered how an artist who had this kind of ability, this technical prowess, could have no voice of his own. The money and the thrill of the ruse were surely big factors in discarding his personal aspirations. For me, painting and art is all about personal expression and emotion. To see someone with so much obvious talent to be without any personal expression that he would call his own is somewhat sad.
Perhaps he views this whole thing as some sort of performance piece in itself, in which case he may be the greatest artist of our time. But I doubt it.