The Beltracchis: from expert art forgers to celebrities

Wed Sep 29 2021
The Beltracchi family.

Every once in a while a fantasy from a Netflix series or a top-selling mystery book becomes a reality. Such is the case with Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German art forger, and his wife, Helene, who tricked the art world for more than three decades selling fakes by emblematic artists like Max Ernst, Max Pechstein, Georges Braque, Heinrich Campendonk, Johannes Molzahn, Kees van Dongen, and Fernand Léger. Even after getting caught and serving time in jail, the Beltracchis continue to make headlines as Wolfgang's paintings are now sold and exhibited under his real name. This article uncovers the story of one of the most lucrative art forgers of our time and explores how this couple reinvented themselves following their downfall.

Wolfgang Beltracchi: the life of an art forger and his partner in crime

Before diving into the life of Wolfgang Beltracchi, one should keep in mind that Wolfgang is a very talented storyteller that has crafted a narrative about his life as a rebel, a free-souled man, and a self-taught genius. With that being said, let's begin our story. Wolfgang Beltracchi (b. 1951, Höxter, North-Rhine–Westphalia, Germany), whose original name is Wolfgang Fischer, is the son of a private tutor and an art restorer/painter. From a young age, Wolfgang learned the craft of painting through his father, who restored artworks in the region's churches and copied famous paintings which he then sold at flea markets. According to Beltracchi, he painted his first copy, a Picasso, at the age 14 and, at age 17, “I could paint anything,” he once stated in an interview with The Art Newspaper. Wolfgang briefly enrolled in an art academy in Aachen, but ended up skipping most of his classes and finally dropping out to pursue a hippie nomadic lifestyle, “like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider,” Helene said to Joshua Hammer from Vanity Fair, traveling in his Harley Davidson around Europe and elsewhere.

During these years, to get by, Wolfgang copied masterpieces and occasionally sold them at flea markets. He also created some works under his name which were part of a prestigious art exhibition in Munich, in 1978, and was once offered to sign a contract with a gallery. Beltracchi also worked briefly as an art dealer setting up a business with a partner and, parallelly, started selling forgeries of 18th-century Dutch landscape paintings. To produce them he bought landscape canvases from the time and then added ice skaters to the scenes after figuring out they were priced five times more than the regular landscapes. However, in the following years, Wolfgang shifted his attention to early-20th-century French and German artists, partly because it was easier to find pigments and frames from that period and also because they were popular in the art market.

Even if his biography is colored by Beltracchi's narrative, what is true is that his art forgeries escalated after he met his wife, Helene, in 1992. They got married in 1993, and soon after Wolfgang acquired Helene's last name and became partners in crime. Helene, who had some experience in the antiquities business, came up with the provenance behind Wolfgang's forgeries and oversaw the logistics of the operation. The pair set roots first in Viersen, Germany, and then in Southern France where they moved in 1995 following an incident where they were almost caught for selling a forged Molzahn painting that triggered an investigation. After spending some time in Spain, they finally settled in a luxury estate in Domaine des Rivettes, in Languedoc-Roussillon, and also bought a second home and studio in Freiburg, Germany.

For many years the couple enjoyed a lavish lifestyle frequently traveling around the world with their two kids, which they are careful not to mention in any interviews. To this date, the couple is still married and, at least in public, displays an aura of romance appearing in most pictures fully embraced. For this reason, many have named them the “Bonnie and Clyde of the art world.” Let's now uncover how this perennial hippie-looking couple got away with forging art for more than thirty years.

The Beltracchis millionaire scheme: a bulletproof forgery method?

Every forger develops a particular method for creating fakes. In our case, Beltracchi considered the materials, technique, and style of the artist he was painting and also, thanks to Helene, created a believable and compelling backstory for the provenance. Even if he presents himself as quite the self-taught and free-spirited genius, Beltracchi meticulously planned each element of his forgeries. The latter reveals a structured and organized mind, as well as a deep understanding of the art market, or as he calls it “the business of illusion.”Beltracchi summed up his vision in an interview with The Art Newspaper. He said a good forger, of course primarily referring to himself, “… [must be] an art historian who is a restorer, who is a painter and who has scientific knowledge.”

The first step of his process was to select the artist whose work he was going to fake. Beltracchi was smart in his choices since he targeted mainly modern European artists whose catalogue raisonées had illustration gaps and referred to paintings whose whereabouts were unknown. After finding those gaps, he carefully studied the style, working process, and materials used, and read a lot about the artist's work. Next came the selection and buying of materials and pigments that were similar to the ones the artist used. For example, he usually acquired old wooden frames and canvases at flea markets, removed the original pigments, and then painted over the new image with the pigments that were used at the time using similar techniques to that of the artist.

Importantly, rather than copying existing works, Beltracchi made a pastiche of the artist's style creating new paintings that would correspond to the gaps he had identified in the catalogue raisonée. To make sure his paintings had the right components, the couple frequently had the paintings analyzed by reputed and expensive art authenticators (who unknowingly would share if something was off) before offering them for sale. More often than not, Beltracchi's paintings were extended a Certificate of Authenticity, reported Widewalls. As an example, Beltracchi’s expertise was enough to trick Werner Spies, a 67-year-old renowned Max Ernst expert and former director of the Modern Art Museum at the Pompidou Center, who authenticated a good number of Beltracchi's paintings as works by Ernst.

Now, a crucial part of the success of the couple's scam was the provenance story constructed by Helene, which mixed reality with fiction. The story was based on the figure of her grandfather, Werner Jägers, who once was a neighbor to Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art collector and dealer with galleries in Düsseldorf and Berlin that fled Germany in 1933, months after Hitler came to power. Allegedly, before his departure, Alfred sold many paintings at bargain-basement prices to Jägers, who hid them in his country home in the Eifel mountains, near Cologne, referred Art Critique. As explained in a worth-watching episode of Scammer 2.0, the couple even created an old looking stamp displaying Flechtheim that was placed on the back of each canvas. Next to the stamp, Beltracchi also created fake 1930’s photographs portraying Helene's grandmother (in reality Helene posed for those pictures) sitting in a room full of precious paintings.

As time went by, the Flechtheim collection became well known among auction houses and collectors. Next to an inventive mind, Helene's provenance story reveals her understanding of the workings of the art world where dramatic provenance stories and artworks that are “discovered” are extremely popular. For the selling transactions, the couple frequently relied on Otto Schutte-Kellinghaus, as their frontman, and sometimes on Helene's sister.

Over the years, the Beltracchis Ernst's, Braque's, Léger's, and others turned out excellently, and were largely accepted as long-lost treasures that sold for millions at top auction houses around the world. Wolfgang stated to The Times Magazine that around 300 of his works by more than 80 artists made it to the art market and that only a handful of them have been returned as fakes. Some of the buyers may not be aware that they own a fake and others simply decide to ignore the warnings. The total amount the Beltracchis earned throughout the years is unknown, but some have ventured to say it surpasses €100 million.

Next to several articles on the topic, Beltracchi's forgery method is displayed in the 2014 Documentary Beltracchi: the Art of Forgery, which elevated even more his status as one of the top con artists of our times. While this documentary is in some parts entertaining and reveals Beltracchi's mastery of materials and techniques, as Artnet News explained, it is not by all means impartial since the director of the film is close to the couple and is also the son of the couple's lawyer.

Beltracchi's downfall: from art forger to celebrity and artist

Wolfgang Beltracchi painting in his studio.

Beltracchi's downfall began in late 2006, when Helene’s sister brought a fake painting by German artist Heinrich Campendonk (Rotes Bild mit Pferden) to Lempertz auction house who resold it to r a Malta-based company, Trasteco Ltd, for €2.8 million. Unexpectedly, the buyer demanded a certificate of authenticity, and the auction house called Andrea Firmenich, a Campendonk expert who had previously assembled the comprehensive catalogue of work by Campendonk and had authenticated some of Beltracchi’s fakes in the past. However, this time Firmenich demanded further analysis which revealed that the work contained a pigment, titanium white, that did not exist in 1914. Beltracchi had made a fatal mistake he later said to be the fault of a painting tube that was wrongly labeled. After this discovery, the fake “Flechtheim” labels were also uncovered and all the works displaying that stamp were deemed as fakes.

Next to the pigment and stamp, Professor Jennifer Mass, President of Scientific Analysis for Fine Art, shared other mistakes Beltracchi made in a presentation. For instance, Campendonk normally painted around the edges of the canvas, and Beltracchi's work only covered its surface. Mass added the wormholes the con artist fabricated for the painting were too big and the canvas was way too dirty for his age. Finally, Beltracchi's drying process created a different distribution of fatty acids than the one obtained with the normal drying. All this was only revealed after a careful lab analysis which, at the time, was not so frequently conducted.

As reported in a New York Times blog, in 2010, Beltracchi and his wife were arrested in a high scale police operation. However, from the start, the Beltracchis charmed the media and courted public opinion. To make matters worse, the prosecution struggled to present decisive evidence, and, in October 2011, the judge overseeing the case announced the two sides had reached a deal. Even if the police had identified more than 58 fakes, Wolfgang and Helene plead guilty to having forged and sold a mere 14 paintings by Max Ernst, one of which sold for 7 million, and by Heinrich Campendonk, Andre Derain, Kees van Dongen, Fernand Léger, and Max Pechstein. In return, they were forced to give back €6 million and received light sentences: incarceration for just six and four years, respectively, with time off for good behavior. What’s more, the pair were allowed to serve out their time in a so-called “open prison” which allowed them to leave during the day to work together in a studio. Their accomplices, Otto, got 5 years, while Helene's sister, who also contributed to the scam, got 18 months.

During his time in jail, Beltracchi continued to paint and grant interviews. While behind bars he also had his first gallery show at Galerie Christine Brügger, in Bern, reported Artnet News. He is hardly the first forger to successfully go legit. For example, John Myatts, once called “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century,” is now producing “legitimate fakes.” Next to selling Wolfgang's paintings, the couple has diversified their business, they have published two books, including a collection of love letters which Wolfgang and Helene wrote to each other while they were imprisoned, and starred in the documentary mentioned above.

Upon his release, in 2015, Beltracchi had other exhibitions such as the one titled "FREIHEIT" (FREEDOM) in Art room9, an art gallery in Munich, reported DW. Also, in 2018 and 2019, some of his paintings were included in the traveling exhibition KAIROS. The right moment, put together by Christian Zott, founder of Kunsthalle. The intention of this exhibit was “to take a look at the unseen in art, at forgotten works, and at those which never were created.” For this show, Beltracchi reconstructed some of the styles of Art History with his interpretations of untold events or beliefs that the artists by themselves never targeted. This somewhat bizarre approach to Art History rekindled the interest in his work and life.

Stylistically, Beltracchi's paintings are highly influenced by a mixture of the styles he once forged and of others alike. In the artist's words, his work explores "the connection to all paintings from the past already created, paintings currently being created and ones to be expected in the future." On his website, Beltracchi includes some of his oil paintings and drawings. For example, the painting titled Quatre Fauves à Collioure displays a landscape of the small fishing village of Collioure mixing the styles of different Fauve artists like Derain, de Vlaminck, Marquet, and Matisse. As of his market, Beltracchi's paintings have sold in the $30,000–45,000 range, however, some of them have been sold for much more, revealed Artnet News. Of course, this is far less than what he made when he was a forger but he has managed to make a living out of it.

While there is still much to be said about Beltracchi, all in all, he is a controversial and mediatic character that has triggered polarizing opinions: some view him as an egocentric, despicable thief while others view him as a clever and charismatic con artist to be admired for his success. One thing is for sure, no one remains neutral when dealing with his story. In the following years, we can expect the Beltracchis life to be reenacted in a movie or tv series. In the meantime, this scandal contributed to making art authentication a risky business, made art experts rely even more on strict scientific analysis, and made us all wonder how many Beltracchi's are really out there.