Tag Archives: Helene Beltracchi

Forging ahead…

When it comes to self-deprecating turns of phrase, there’s one I don’t know if I like.

“When it comes to art, I don’t know much, but I know what I like” has always seemed a perfectly honourable way of decrying any special knowledge, without simultaneously declaring total antipathy toward art in general.
But I can’t help thinking that certain species of art snob will always mentally insert “..and I only like what I know.” into that sentence, presuming that we – the uninitiated – couldn’t possibly get our heads round something as cerebral as “Art” and should stick to our airbrushed fantasy posters and Jack Vettriano prints instead.
Like most clichés and truisms however, the statement is largely true of most of us, although I’d like to think that those of us that who appreciate art in a more “casual” way still go to the trouble of discovering some background to our favourite artists and get some idea of how they work, at the same time remaining open to new genres and media we have yet to stumble upon.

I personally love the work of Jack Vettriano, the Scottish artist’s strikingly real yet somehow dreamlike works, ranging from bright and airy beachscapes to dark and sensual bedroom scenes, are easily accessible and populist so of course the art cognoscenti look down their collective disdainful nose at him.


Vettriano’s Dance me to the end of love – “Who are you calling populist darling?”

But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be a massive fan of child prodigy, genius draughtsman and artistic perspective mangler, M.C. Escher, whose extraordinarily complex drawings, wood and lino cuts have fascinated me from an early age…


Escher’s Print Gallery, not somewhere to go with a hangover.

…or indeed be continually astounded by the surreal, hallucinatory visions of Salvador Dali, the one-of-a-kind mad scientist of the art world, his paintings loaded with Freudian innuendo, mystical symbology and double meanings, both visual and philosophical.


Dali, by himself, in more ways than one.

I know what I like and I like to know about what I like, but I’m unburdened by the expectation of expertise, unlike the art establishment who are meant to know what they’re on about.
So it’s rather nice when someone comes along and spectacularly takes them for a ride.

Born in Germany in 1951, the son of an art restorer and muralist, Wolfgang Fischer was already painting at the age of 14, lived the bohemian lifestyle in the ’60s, experimenting with both LSD and opium, and by the early eighties was the owner of an art gallery.
After a falling out with his business partner however, Fischer began work on probably the most audacious art forgery scam ever.

Leonardo Da Vinci lookalike and self-styled “world’s greatest art forger”, Wolfgang teamed up with two others for the scheme, his friend Otto and future wife Helene, (whose surname he would take, giving him the now-infamous name, Wolfgang Beltracchi) which involved forging not only supposedly “lost” paintings of up to 50 different artists, including French and German Expressionists such as Max Ernst, Andre Derain and most famously, Heinrich Campendonk, but also faking the various documents required for provenance and authentication.


Wolfgang Beltracchi – Da Vinci’s “look” was clearly an influence.

At one point in the elaborate ruse, Helene actually dressed up as her own grandmother, posing in front of a number of her husband’s fakes for a photograph that was then artificially aged to give added credibility to the story.


They even set up fictitious art collections, in which the miraculously unearthed masterpieces had supposedly been buried all these years.
Otto claimed to have had a grandfather called Knops who had bequeathed him a large collection of artwork that had previously been hidden away during Nazi rule and Helene’s grandfather was also implicated in providing a front for their fraudulent business venture.

Maybe it was the high profile nature of some of the gang’s victims that was their downfall though, Hollywood star and comedian Steve Martin being a prime example.
In 2004 Martin bought a Heinrich Campendonk painting entitled “Landscape with horses” for €700,000.


Or did he ?

Apparently not, and when he came to sell it on just two years later, he took a hefty loss, only raising €500,000.
The painting is now known to have been one of Beltracchi’s copies and Martin is currently awaiting compensation.

In fact it was another Campendonk forgery that sealed the fate of Wolfgang’s multi million pound cottage industry.
In 2008 a previously unquestioned work from 1914 by the relatively obscure German expressionist (originally sold by the gang for €2.88m) came up for auction at Christies, an auction house whose rigorous vetting procedures had confirmed other Campendonk’s as genuine in the past, and was made the subject of considerable scientific analysis.
What the art-boffins found was an almost immaculate early twentieth century lost masterpiece called “Red picture with horses”


almost immaculate being the operative words in this case.

What the analysts found when they peered at the paint through their high-tech gizmos was pretty much what they’d expect to find in a sample from a hundred years ago.
Except Titanium White.

That particular pigment wouldn’t have been available to Heinrich, back at the start of the first world war, therefore the painting couldn’t possibly be genuine.


Uh-oh. Busted.

The estimated losses to collectors, auction houses, galleries and museums who were duped by Beltracchi and his cohorts (including subsequent “good faith” sales) runs to somewhere in the region of €34.1m, and that’s only the 14 paintings that he’s admitted to.
There could be literally hundreds of “confirmed originals” out there, hung on gallery walls or locked away in strongrooms, but one thing’s for sure; Wolfgang isn’t saying a word.

Indeed, part of the deal (the same one that keeps him in a low-security open prison, free to visit a studio in which to continue his work, 50% of the proceeds of which will go towards his €8m and rising damages bill) requires him to remain silent on a variety of subjects, including the secretive world of the art trade itself.

Wolfgang Beltracchi says part of his work has always been “Showing a mirror to the art world”, but when drawn on what he has been asked to keep quite about he will only laugh and say;
“Sure, I know secrets, I worked in that world for a long time. Everybody who works in that business has secrets”

And if he did it again, would he do anything differently?
A twinkle in his eye, he says;
“One thing is for sure, I never take the titanium white”

But for now he seems reasonably happy with his lot, creating “new” masterpieces by day and retiring to his comfortable cell at night (he got 6 years, his wife 4 and Otto 5) and his star seems set to to carry on rising, as his work, both original Beltracchi’s and his “reimaginings” of paintings that “fill the gaps” in artists’ fictional back-catalogues, are now selling for thousands of euros.

So when he’s finished paying off his legal obligations, The World’s Greatest Art Forger could find he’s finally got his first proper job…

{All artwork naughtily pinched from Google images}


Posted by on April 21, 2014 in Arts, Blogging, Humour, News, Personal anecdote


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