Their forgeries of 20th century masters such as Max Ernst and Fernand Léger fooled the art world into parting with millions of pounds – until a modern pigment betrayed them.
Now, after serving long prison sentences, Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife Helene have told the story behind the hundreds of paintings that have fooled even the artists’ families.
In interviews with Zurich-based psychoanalyst and author Jeannette Fischer, the pair described their motivation to deceive what they believed to be a “fraudulent” art world.
Wolfgang said he never doctored images with compositions that would irritate the viewer. “I have to create something beautiful…I want to make people happy,” he said.
He called the tampering “almost incidental”: “We liked to sell the paintings. We feasted. We got rich,” he said. “I started painting, and we liked doing the research too. Counterfeiting was a way of combining all of these things. And I could sit around the pool for days, read, daydream, and sleep.
Helene added: “The more we were able to sell the images, the higher the bar we set and the more additional stories we offered, because we really enjoy this game. discovered. »
She remembers approaching an auction house expert with a fake painting by Georges Valmier, the French artist and early Cubist. “I was quite nervous. What if she rejected [it]? We made up a story to explain where the photo came from. I was amazed at how easy it all was. I had my heart in my mouth, but I also took a kick. The painting was auctioned as “the most important work of the Synthetic Cubism period”.
Such was their success that when they sold one of their forgeries of Ernst to a collector for $7 million, they learned that the artist’s widow had described it as one of his best forest pictures. They received nearly €2 million for a fake painting by André Derain, which a London gallery sold for more than $6 million.
Fischer’s research will appear in an upcoming book, A psychoanalyst meets Hélène and Wolfgang Beltracchito be published this spring.
Observing that “the Beltracchis see the art market itself as a fraudulent business”, she writes: “According to them, they deceived those who made their living by deceiving others”.
Beltracchi was born as Wolfgang Fischer in Hoxter, Germany in 1951 and learned his trade by helping his father restore paintings in churches. At 12, he copies a Picasso. By the time he met Hélène he had been forging paintings for 20 years – when they fell in love he confessed his secret and they became accomplices and married in 1993, taking his surname.
His talent extended to the imitation of many artists, including Heinrich Campendonk, the German Expressionist, and André Derain, the French Fauvist. Fake labels from galleries or collections reinforce authenticity. The Beltracchis spent months researching the artist’s life, creating paintings related to “lost” works or “gaps” in their oeuvre.
Wolfgang said: “Ernst was a very typical example. He always painted series, always in a specific way. In one series, for example, he paints crowds, and in the next forests. What was missing, then, was a painting featuring crowds and forests together. A transitional image, one might say. And this is the picture that I painted.
He spoke of having a “physical reaction” to the paintings. “I read the writing by seeing and feeling every movement of his body, by reading his state of mind from the brush strokes, because writing is made of movement and time.”
Hélène explained that they went to the places where such images were painted and at the same time of the year. “When you’re actually there you can really feel what it looked like and you can imagine how the painter stood, sat or lived and what influences he was exposed to.”
The couple recalled blazing a ‘shining path’ by faking a photograph of a still life exhibition held in Berlin in 1924 to make it look like their fake Leger painting had been on its walls.
Beltracchi said: “The exposure really took place, but there were no photos – and of course my doctored photo wasn’t really there.”
For him, “the icing on the cake” was a note he had forged between the gallery’s deceased former owner and a collector known to have bought it. The owner’s son recognized his father’s signature “immediately”.
Fischer writes: “The fact that everything has always gone so well may have made Wolfgang Beltracchi a little careless. For his last photo, he used the wrong white. It was the beginning of the end of the Beltracchi’s career as forgers.
In 2008, analysis of their fake Campendonk painting – Rotes Bild mit Pferden (Red picture with horses), which sold for a record price of €2.8 million in 2006 – revealed traces of titanium white, a pigment not used by the supposed painter in 1914. Beltracchi had run out of zinc , which he mixed with his coloring white himself, and he bought a pure zinc white from a Dutch manufacturer who had not disclosed that the paint contained traces of titanium white.
It was his “fatal mistake”. This sparked a police investigation. Panic spread through the art world, and in 2011 a German court sentenced Wolfgang and Helene to six and four years respectively.
When asked what surprised her most about the couple, Fischer said: ‘That they bought freedom and time off with the money they got together through the scam . No Ferraris, no Prada dresses, but free space to go to museums, take care of children, pursue their passion for research.