Wolfgang Beltracchi and the Biggest Art Scandal

wolfgang beltracchi

Not only could Wolfgang Beltracchi paint, but he could paint like a master. He duped art experts for years in an art scandal that earned him, his wife Helene, and two associates millions of dollars. Although experts hate him, many concede that he is unparalleled and the most successful art forger, possibly in history.

He inherited his father’s painting talents, and by age 14, Beltracchi had painted a satisfactory Blue Period Picasso, Mother and Child in one day. Beltracchi, by his own admission was the person who wished to be “out and about” and for him, “life is on the outside, not the inside.” As a painter, Beltracchi submitted three of his own works to a Munich art exhibition in 1978. However, in 2012, he disclosed to Vanity Fair that he was “more drawn to the outlaw life.”

It began with two winter landscape paintings by an unheard of 18th century Dutch painter. He enhanced the existing paintings by rendering ice skaters into the landscape. Then, he resold the paintings, making a sizeable profit. Beltracchi considered those two canvases as an important step.

It is said that Wolfgang Beltracchi painted artworks by Raoul Duffy, Max Ernst, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger, along with other 20th century Surrealists and Expressionists. Beltracchi did not copy the paintings but passed off his own paintings in what he believed the real artist might have painted. These paintings became “newly discovered masterpieces” by 20th century artists. He expertly forged the artist’s painting style so flawlessly that no one was the wiser. In hindsight, according to modern art expert, Ralph Jentsch, it was due to the formidable desire to believe. Jentsch affirms, that in the world of art, connoisseurship and origins can go astray in the “frenzy of excitement over a new find.”

Beltracchi also created artwork that once existed but had been missing for years. He conned even the finest art connoisseurs by working with paint and canvases from the appropriate period. In addition, he went so far as to produce realistic, time-worn dealer labels.

Then, came the story to accompany the forged artwork. His wife, Helene claimed that her deceased grandfather, Werner Jägers had hidden his fine art collection away prior to World War II in a country home near Cologne. Subsequently, the collection was bequeathed to her, and according to Beltracchi, that is how he came into possession of the undiscovered artworks by renowned artists. To add integrity to the story, the Beltracchis presented a credible old black and white photo of Helene personating her grandmother, posed in front of canvases from the alleged “Jägers collection.”

These extraordinary counterfeits ended up on museum walls like the NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were sold in auction houses of Christies, and Sotheby’s, placed in catalogs, and in homes of the wealthy and private collectors like Steve Martin.

The counterfeits sold for millions. They are said to be some of the best and most profitable counterfeits in art-world history. Ultimately, Wolfgang Beltracchi’s con caught up with him. It began in Munich with a buyer who after scientific analysis determined that three paintings were fakes.

For example, one questionable canvas, Linear Color Composition, was supposed to have been painted in the 1920s. However, the tested pigment was developed in 1957. Beltracchi had used the wrong titanium white that had not been available at the time the canvas would have been purportedly painted.  He went to great measures to check that the pigments were not outdated, but he admitted, it was possible to slip up now and again.

In August 2010, Berlin’s art fraud branch conducted their biggest operation, and police teams seized paintings, the Beltracchis and their accomplices. However, with the lack of evidence at their trial, the judge terminated the proceedings, and the Beltracchis jail terms were reduced.

A top forensic art analyst, Jamie Martin, is one expert that acknowledges that Wolfgang Beltracchi’s fakes are very credible, and some of the best counterfeits he has seen in his profession. He believes that if forensic analysts had inspected the paintings more thoroughly that maybe Beltracchi would have been exposed much earlier.

However, that does not raise the spirits of those who have been prosecuted, including auction houses, galleries and experts, for selling Beltracchi fakes. At Beltracchi’s trial, the prosecuting attorney stated that he had produced 36 counterfeit artworks, bought for $46 million.

Spanning four decades, it has been estimated that Beltracchi, Helene and their accomplices made $22 million on their art fraud. Even though authorities have charged Beltracchi with 36 works, he claims that there may be over 300 counterfeit paintings still in circulation. In truth, what is considered the “biggest art scandal of all time is not finished. German police have only uncovered 60 fraudulent paintings of Wolfgang Beltracchi since the trial, with an undetermined quantity amount still in circulation.

by Dawn Levesque


CBS News

Money Week

Vanity Fair

One Response to "Wolfgang Beltracchi and the Biggest Art Scandal"

  1. andy roth   February 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Having been to art school myself, I have met many talented artists who could paint as well as any of the artists Beltracci forged. Talent is not as rare as the public believes; an understanding of aesthetics/design/art-history and some good training along with lots of practice can very often produce a really good artist. The irony is that few artists are paid well while they are alive because they don’t have an agent to push their work. It’s only after they die that the value of some painter’s work goes astronomical. The real con artists are not forgers but the dealers who sell “status” and “investments” to wealthy suckers who don’t have a clue about the merchandise or what it took to produce it.


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