There’s a fine line between genius and madman. It’s tough to say where Wolfgang Beltracchi falls, but all we can say is that the man can paint. But here’s the thing: he paints other painters’ paintings (Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, to name a few) and sells them as originals. He’s made millions selling his forged artwork. One of his pieces hung in a show at the Metropolitan Museum, and even the actor/comedian Steve Martin bought one of his fake paintings.
Others have sold in the six figures. So what’s his story? How did a self-described German hippie (and his wife) pull off one of the biggest and most profitable cons in art world history? And, maybe even more interestingly, after nearly four decades, how did he get caught?
You should know that Beltracchi’s story is even more unusual than his hippy appearance would suggest…
The 69-year-old lives in a sort of duality, having been defined as both a genius painter and the forger of the century. His gallerist, Curtis Briggs, calls him the “Robin Hood of art.” A documentary about him came out in 2015, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you haven’t seen “Beltracchi – The Art of Forgery.”
So, who is Wolfgang Beltracchi? He wasn’t always a long-haired dude who looked like he rolled around Woodstock. He was born in 1951 in Höxter, Germany, and painting was just a part of his early life. In fact, his father was a muralist and art restorer. Wolfgang went to art school to pursue his lifelong passion.
Over nearly four decades, Wolfgang has produced around 300 copies of paintings by masters like Picasso, Gauguin, or Monet. But instead of signing his own name on the paintings, he would sign them with the original artists’ names. It goes without saying that that’s a big no-no. What he would then do is have his wife Helene sell them.
This is why the couple has also been deemed the “Bonnie and Clyde of the art world.” The criminal couple created an origin story for what were previously considered unknown paintings, which were part of a collection owned by the family. And they would even create old-looking photos as proof. “I made the glue for the collection’s labels myself, out of bones and organic materials so no one would notice,” Wolfgang revealed.
“I always found it exciting to go to a big museum, even the MoMa, and to see a work of mine there,” he said once, with a wink. Some 250 of his paintings are still, to this day, undiscovered, likely spread all over the world. Apparently, some of those who know they own one of his fake paintings still prefer to remain silent. Perhaps because millions of dollars are at stake.
The act may be criminal, but no one can deny the talent Wolfgang had. He was so good that even Max Ernst’s widow thought that Wolfgang Beltracchi painted her husband’s most beautiful forest. Even art experts thought the paintings were originals. But Wolfgang did things a little differently…
Rather than flat-out forge paintings that already existed, Wolfgang would make new pieces inspired by great painters. He imagined what these artists would have painted, and he sold his “homages” under the category of “lost” or “undiscovered” works. Was he channeling these legends or just looking for cash? Either way, profitability became his reality. The art world simply ate up his work.
Wolfgang and Helene made millions selling these “misplaced” paintings. They made such a living for almost 40 years, with his work being displayed in famous museums and exhibitions around the world. Wolfgang himself came from a family of artists, but his wife had her own history in the art world too.
Helene’s grandfather had to hide his art collection from the Germans, using his estate as protection and accumulating quite an impressive collection (at least, that’s the story she told). With this backstory, the couple had a good story that allowed Wolfgang’s work to become sustainable. The truth is nobody really asked any questions.
A good story and great paintings – why ask questions, right? After all, they managed to fool the art world for almost 40 years. Heck, they even tricked Steve Martin into buying one of Wolfgang’s works. He paid $860,000 in 2004 for a fake Campendonk called “Landscape with Horses.” He then sold it 18 months later at a $240,000 loss. Apparently, he was still unaware that he had bought a fake.
Anyways, every possible detail of the process was manipulated to fool buyers. For instance, flea markets were combed through for old frames. They also checked their sources thoroughly to avoid relics. They sent paint samples to labs to ensure they actually existed during the alleged artist’s time. This last detail will prove to be an important factor in their eventual capture.
Any old photos they took were made on pre-war paper, with the fake paintings in the background to support their claims. Wolfgang and Helene had to be finicky. They were criminals, after all. But even the most seasoned of criminals slip up. In fact, they almost always do.
And for this Bonnie and Clyde-style couple, it was their carelessness that finally exposed them. There would be two words that essentially ruined their four-decade-long escapade: titanium white. In the end, the downfall is always simple. It was this carelessness that finally exposed them. Then again, it could also be chalked up to a matter of time.
Either way, Wolfgang created a painting that was supposed to be a 1914 piece by Heinrich Campendonk. He used titanium white. Okay, so? Well, the paint didn’t actually exist at the time the original would have been painted – a previously important part of their process that fell through the cracks. And so, in 2010, the luxurious life of Wolfgang and Helene came to a sudden stop.
This is how it all went down…
In 2006, Helene’s sister had brought a customer a fake Campendonk painting that Wolfgang had made. For some reason, the customer demanded a certificate of authenticity. But it didn’t exist. Ultimately, a thorough investigation was undertaken to determine the authenticity of the painting. In 2008, the painting was submitted for chemical analysis.
In a Munich laboratory, chemists were able to determine that the painting contained a pigment, the dreaded titanium white, which didn’t exist back in 1914. Immediately, a civil suit was launched. The customer demanded their 2.8 million euros back. Wolfgang claimed that he always went to great lengths to make sure the pigments he used were not outdated, but “it was impossible” not to slip up sometimes.
“We were shocked,” Wolfgang said of that moment. “We thought the game is over.” Helene chimed in: “Yes, yes, certainly. It was finished.” And then Wolfgang said, “Then came the domino effect.” Within two weeks, 15 more paintings were discovered with fraudulent labels. One was “The Forest” by Max Ernst, which was openly displayed in the Manhattan apartment of publishing magnate named Filipacchi.
According to Filipacchi, he “couldn’t believe it at first,” when he read about the fraud in a newspaper article… “I loved this painting. It was one of the best Max Ernsts that I have seen, and since Werner Spies provided a certificate of authenticity and said it was good, I was very surprised.”
He then placed the fake Ernst in a storage unit in New York. But the German police called him, and they said that he should sue “these people who sold the painting to me, that if I don’t sue, I will look like an accomplice.” The Berlin Landeskriminalamt’s art fraud division, the largest of three police units in Germany that specialize in art fraud, began receiving clues that pointed to a major fraud going on across Europe.
The first hint was from a Paris-based expert who phoned in with a tip: she heard about a “group in Germany” selling paintings tagged with suspicious labels. The division’s chief inspector, René Allonge, said, “We had all the pieces of a puzzle, but nobody had put them together.”
They were on to “something big.” Allonge had identified five or six fake paintings bearing “Flechtheim Collection” labels. A name was added to the suspect list: Helene Beltracchi, a name gallery owner, had identified as the woman who sold several of the suspicious works. At this point, Wolfgang was still in the shadows and not yet on the art fraud division’s radar.
The police began tapping the telephones of suspects, including the Beltracchi home in France. On the morning of August 25, 2010, Berlin’s art fraud division launched its biggest operation ever conducted, with police teams sweeping Germany. Investigators eavesdropped on a conversation between Wolfgang and his son Manuel, then 22. Sounding rather calm, he told his son to destroy two of his computers that were full with evidence.
“We were conducting video surveillance, and we watched the son… go out the door with two computers under his arm,” Allonge stated. Manuel stashed the computers at his friend’s home, where they were later recovered by the police. Manuel later gave the police a confession regarding his attempt to conceal evidence. The charges against him were eventually dropped.
On August 27, the Beltracchis were planning to turn themselves in, they said. “We have children. We couldn’t flee,” Helene admitted. “We wanted to tell the truth.” According to them, the police ignored their phoned-in offer to surrender. That evening, at 7:30 p.m., as they were on their way to dinner with Manuel and Franziska, their daughter, five vanloads of police surrounded their car.
Lights flashed, police dogs snarled, and agents with automatic weapons ordered the couple to step outside of the vehicle. “They told me to stand by the car and put my hands up,” then 16-year-old Franziska recalled. She knew nothing about her parents’ criminal activities. “It was like Miami Vice. Real American style,” Wolfgang said of that moment.
“They left us standing out in the pouring rain. I got completely wet,” Helene complained. Wolfgang and Helene were then arrested and taken away, leaving Manuel and Franziska to drive back home alone. “We went back to the house and called a lawyer,” Franziska said. “I had no idea what this was about until I saw the news on television and read it in the newspapers.”
The Beltracchis were transported to Cologne’s regional prison. They were then separated and held without bail in separate solitary cells for 23 hours a day. After four months in these conditions, they were allowed a single half-hour visit every two weeks. Helene had been diagnosed with breast cancer and said she “suffered greatly” in prison.
Meanwhile, Allonge seized paintings and got scientific proof of the fraud. The “Flechtheim Collection” labels had been artificially aged with coffee and tea. According to Allonge, Beltracchi “excelled at artificially aging his works; the frames, the nails, the color. In the end, though, science caught up with him.” The Beltracchis’ trial started on September 1, 2011, in Cologne.
From the beginning, the media portrayed the criminal couple as fun-loving hippies and admirable renegades: a pair whose only crime was hoodwinking the wealthy and the famous (hence the Robin Hood reference). Helene, frail from her (successful) cancer treatment, and Wolfgang played to the crowd. They would embrace each other lovingly at the beginning of each day’s court proceeding.
The prosecutor’s case was weakened by their lack of evidence proving Wolfgang had actually painted the fakes. On October 27, 2011, both sides reached a deal and terminated the proceedings, meaning almost 200 prosecution witnesses were dismissed. It only outraged police investigators. And then, Wolfgang gave his long and theatrical confession.
Wolfgang’s confession detailed his youthful indulgences in “drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” and that he attacked the “greed” and “arrogance” of the art market. He even admitted that the deception was “great fun.” In an interview after the trial, he gladly confessed to creating many of his multi-million-dollar fakes in “three or four hours, and sometimes even faster.”
During his 2011 trial, in addition to the 14 fakes he admitted to, he claimed that nearly 300 more of them remain in circulation as authentic works by modern artists. But in return for admitting to forging 14 paintings, Wolfgang and Helene received their sentences. Wolfgang received six years, and Helene got four.
On the basis of good behavior, and providing they stayed gainfully employed, they were to be confined to prison only at night. Yes, it’s definitely a light punishment for a crime of this magnitude. And so the Beltracchis smiled and hugged each other after receiving their sentences, making sure to thank the court.
“What they did was criminal; it’s a fact,” Franziska said of her parents. “But I think they didn’t really hurt anybody. They took money for pictures that people wanted. Maybe now they’re not worth anything, but they still got the picture. I don’t think it’s fair that they went to jail.” And Wolfgang spent his time productively. During his pre-trial detention in a Cologne prison, he still created art.
But at this point, he didn’t have any masterful originals to copy. So what did he do? He painted portraits of the other prisoners. And this time, while still channeling the greats, he added his own twist and his own name. During this time in the minimal supervision prison, Wolfgang painted obsessively.
Meanwhile, Allonge was irate. “A German court judged these people, and I’m not at liberty to comment…All I can say is that I don’t find it good when someone walks out of the courtroom so sure of victory. Some similar criminals faced much more severe punishment, who have to spend a lot longer time in jail. I don’t think this leaves a good impression.”
His sentence was ultimately shortened to four years, matching his wife’s, and he was released on January 8, 2015. And as it turned out, he was notorious among the prisoners. Wolfgang now got to be the famous one – the one whose name is recognized. What a twist of events, right? Who would have thought that the art forger would become the master artist himself?
In the end, his own paintings raked in millions. And it’s not because they are faux Picassos, not anymore. Even after serving time, Wolfgang is still making boatloads. Why? Because everyone wants a piece of the biggest art forger of all time.
After all, he has to pay back the whopping 20-something million he owes in lawsuits. It’s hard to say if Wolfgang and Helene ever expected that the public would reward them for their ploy, and not only monetarily, but out of pure interest. Recently, an art gallery in Munich, Germany, put on a showcase of Wolfgang’s work called “Freedom.”
Then, the documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” opened in New York City. Who knows – maybe his release from all his masks was a trick to achieve his own greatness? Now that he served time for his decades-long scheme, Wolfgang has the freedom to paint the way he wants (hence the title of his exhibition).
But his paintings are still reminiscent of the greats. He freely borrows from artists like Kandinsky, Campendonk, Dürer, and Gauguin. He can also paint with both his right and left hands, depending on the brushstrokes that the original artists used. But, at least now, he signs the paintings as “W. Beltracchi.” According to Wolfgang, there is no artist he can’t reproduce.
Wolfgang explained that he just needs to study the artist well. “But Renaissance painters are more difficult than modern artists,” he said. Modesty is not one of his strong suits. His gallerist, Curtis Briggs (the one who called him the Robin Hood of art) added: “He can immerse himself in the soul, in the mindset of an artist.”
The “Freedom” exhibition included 24 of his works. Before it even opened, collectors were already calling the gallery from all over the globe, saying they definitely wanted “a real Beltracchi.” His more expensive works cost 78,000 euros ($88,500). Wolfgang made room for himself in the art establishment – in a legal way, finally.
But that’s not to say that Wolfgang doesn’t face criticism. Many critics will snub him, saying that he is not an artist but a criminal. “I served my time. Whoever criticizes me just wants revenge – or they are jealous,” Wolfgang claimed. One gallerist in Bern, Switzerland, was expelled from the association of gallery owners after having organized an exhibition of Wolfgang Beltracchi’s paintings in 2014, which was while he was still in detention.
Still, she managed to sell all the paintings within three weeks and for 650,000 euros (over $737,600). Yet for many people, Wolfgang’s work is still seen as just a bunch of copies of famous painters. The way they see it, he hasn’t settled into a particular approach.
Even his signature is different on each painting. If you ask him, it’s because he hates monotony and predictability. “It’s simply no fun to always paint the same thing,” Wolfgang said. He purposely combines paintings of the past, present, and future. And really, when it comes to art, is there such a thing as wrong or right? Well, you know, aside from the crime of forging paintings, of course.
Wolfgang now has the appeal of a cool pop star. Celebrities have been lining up to get their portrait painted by him. The post-prison couple has been busy too. Wolfgang and Helene have written two books and worked on documentaries. Even American writers are sending him scripts for potential series on his life.
Wolfgang paints continuously in his home studio in Montpellier, France. He has now found glory after years of painting “undercover.” But there is an air of nostalgia when he looks back at some points of his former life. “It was fun to stay in the background, with a rich and quiet life. Now being almost poor and with no tranquility, that’s not so good.”
He says “poor,” and that’s because he had to pay back 20 million euros to his creditors by 2017. He also had a liquidator collecting all his revenues. But luckily for him, the market is interested in what he has to offer. As it turns out, the demand is higher than the supply.
The demand for his paintings goes beyond the actual number of paintings he can physically make. And that only drives up the prices of his work. Gallerist Curtis Briggs explained: “He’s just like someone who switched labels from cheap bottles to expensive ones at a wine tasting. Now those who see his art can decide if it’s worth it or not.”
The Beltracchis’ deal left a number of intriguing and embarrassing questions unanswered. How many works did Wolfgang actually forge? What happened to the fakes that have yet to be located? To date, police in Berlin have identified 58 suspected forgeries of his and say the total number could be double that.
Both Wolfgang and Helene essentially held up a mirror to the out-of-control art market. At the press conference for the “Freedom” exhibition, a British journalist asked Wolfgang if he could guarantee that he would never do it (the forgery) again. Wolfgang’s reply: “Yes. I would certainly never use titanium white again.” Everyone had a good laugh. And in the end, the joke’s on us. Right?
Wolfgang spoke to “The Art Newspaper” about ethics, the market, and basically how to be a good forger. He was asked who buys his paintings. Wolfgang then explained how, as a rule, his paintings are already sold before they are even finished. He doesn’t really have a market because the major auction houses want to stay away from him.
“Even if I’ve had good business relations with them for 20 to 30 years,” they want to stay away, he said. He also said that his paintings are hanging next to Richter or Warhol “or who knows who.” What about Jeff Koons? Wolfgang said how those artists are “factories” and that you must always use quotes when saying “great” artists. The interviewer then said, “And yours was a factory, of fakes.”
“No, it was not a factory,” he rebutted. Why? Because, according to Wolfgang, he painted individual works and never replicated them – that they were always individual pieces with a certain context, a certain period, and a certain technique. In Wolfgang’s eyes, the bad thing is that the regular Joe is made to believe that these “great artists” make rare, unique art.
The way he sees it, that’s not true at all. “People are deceived, swindled, and invest their money in a very vague matter.” But, as the interviewer pointed out, he benefited from this system for 40 years. Wolfgang admitted to making a profit off this type of system, but he doesn’t want to be a “part of that game anymore, under any circumstances.”
Besides a total immersion into the artist and the painting, what are the qualities of a good forger? Wolfgang described how a good forger must be an art historian who is also a restorer – a painter with scientific knowledge. His father was a church painter, and from the age of 12, Wolfgang went to church with him after school.
Together, they would restore paintings and murals. At 17, Wolfgang learned how to paint pretty much anything. He also studied anatomical drawing and sculpture. He was then asked about the dreaded titanium white and the downfall of his entire ploy. “That day, I didn’t have white zinc, and I took a white already made, in which there was a little titanium.”
When He said that the titanium wasn’t indicated on the label. “But the truth is that I am one of the greatest forgers that ever existed,” he stated. He considers himself a part of the history of art. There are many of his works in Japan, for example, because at the end of the 80s, the Japanese purchased many artworks in Paris and London.
His paintings were included. As for those who bought his paintings, Wolfgang said he only sold to around 10 or 12 big dealers and auction houses. He never sold to individuals. After the trial, they informed their buyers, and they, in turn, either did or didn’t inform their customers. Wolfgang and Helene even offered to have them send the paintings back for a refund. They ultimately told their buyers: “Everything you bought from us was false.” They never had even one painting returned.