Wolfgang Beltracchi: The great fraud

How do you define a master? Wolfgang Beltracchi is considered to be a gentleman in possession of skills befitting such an attribution, a first-rate painter with complete control of his art.
However, his reputation is less than admirable. The German is a somewhat successful conman, having, over a period of nearly 40 years, produced hundreds of works of art that were sold to be by greats like Max Ernst and Georges Braque.
Jailed in 2011, along with his wife Helene, Mr Beltracchi is considered to be the greatest forger in history. He was so good that the imitations he executed were sold for millions of dollars, affording him an enviable life of luxury.
That was until he was found out. These days, the couple are serving out their sentence in an open prison (most of the time they effectively still live at home in Cologne), a leniency some of his victims naturally feel aggrieved about.
After all, irrespective of how good he was at manufacturing what were sold as undiscovered originals, his motives were also deceitful. He was duping those who either saw value the artistic integrity of the work or were making what they thought to be a savvy investment.
His story is fascinating and distinct because, as he revealed in an interview with the CBC News correspondent Bob Simon on the show 60 Minutes, the work he created was original insofar as the paintings were not duplicates of existing work.
Mr Beltracchi explains, somewhat pretentiously, that his inventions are potential possibilities that the artists he mimicked may have achieved during their lifetime, fitting complements to their respective oeuvre.
As a viewer then, with hindsight, you’re left in a peculiar emotive state of uncertainty, guilty for enjoying what is presented. The style and concept are suggestive of the artist they are said to by, so it is all too easy to respond in this way.
Without this knowledge however, i.e. the works are to all intents real, your response is more instinctual. Something grabs you and though subconsciously there may well be some sort of unease, you can put this down to sheer excitement. It is only retrospectively that you begin to question what art is.
Speaking to Jeff Taylor, assistant professor of arts management at Purchase College, Mr Simon asked how good Mr Beltracchi was as both a forger and conman. He was one of the best, the expert responded without hesitation.
“He combined all the nefarious techniques of everybody who came before him and made very important innovations in exactly what is essential,” said professor Taylor, who has previously referred to Mr Beltracchi as an “evil genius”.
The colour white would eventually lead to his downfall and the collapse of a scam that was so well thought out that it is no surprise that so many establishment figures and seasoned experts and scholars were easily duped.
In his fake renderings of the surrealist supremo Ernst – a true master, it has to be said – he had been using a tube of paint from a Dutch manufacturer that was absent of some essential compositional detail – it contained elements of a pigment known as titanium white. This did not exist in Ernst’s day. The dream was over.
When Mr Beltracchi was tried, prosecutors determined that he had authored over 32 paintings, selling in total for around $46 million (approximately £27.6 million). Some vindication is that the works have been identified and the couple – his wife was complicit in the pretence – prosecuted, however, the story is not over.
There are thought to be hundreds of fakes pottered throughout the world, in galleries and private collections, documented as the real deal in critically acclaimed books. To say that he has upset the art world is an understatement. He has distorted history and then, without care, allowed it to spiral out of control.
Cadogan Tate has extensive experience in shipping fine art all over the world.