When giving an interview, the art forger
Wolfgang Beltracch displayed "a healthy
amount of what the Germans call
Selbstgefälligkeit, or self-satisfaction."
...He enjoyed some early success as a painter in his own right, contributing three works to a prestigious art exhibition in Munich in 1978. But, by his own admission, he was more drawn to the outlaw life. One day during his wanderings, he bought a pair of winter landscapes by an unknown 18th-century Dutch painter for $250 apiece. Fischer had noticed that tableaus from the period which depicted ice skaters sold for five times the price of those without ice skaters. In his atelier, he carefully painted a pair of skaters into the scenes and resold the canvases for a considerable profit. Thirty years ago, fakes were even harder to detect than they are now, he tells me. “They weren’t the first ones I made, but they were an important step.” Soon he was purchasing old wooden frames and painting ice-skating scenes from scratch, passing them off as the works of old masters.Eventually, after years of creating forgeries, he was caught, and received a light jail sentence. How was he able to get away with it for so long?
Today, critics are divided about how good a fraudster Beltracchi was. Daniel Filipacchi says he remains impressed by Beltracchi’s talent. “He’s a genius. The Forest (2) is very, very well done, and the other ‘Max Ernsts’ that I’ve seen are all amazing paintings.” Werner Spies agrees: “They can only be described as the work of a brilliant forger.” But Aya Soika thinks Beltracchi’s greatest talent is as a self-promoter. She notes that his use of a projector suggests that at least some of his work was the result of meticulous duplication rather than artistic creativity. Ralph Jentsch dismisses the bulk of Beltracchi’s forgeries as “rubbish” and “crude fakes.” Scoffing at Beltracchi’s self-portrayal as a brilliant role player who inhabited the minds of great artists, Jentsch says Beltracchi approached painting like “someone decorating a Christmas tree. Add some lights here, some balls there. An artist doesn’t work like that.” So how did so many art experts fall for Beltracchi’s rubbish for so long? Jentsch traces the failure to sloppiness, laziness, and in some cases, a powerful desire to believe. The Beltracchis cleverly exploited the blindness and gullibility that pervades the high-stakes world of art, where connoisseurship and provenance can get lost in the frenzy of excitement over a new find. They also took advantage of the particular circumstances in Germany, where the Nazi past can perversely be used as a sort of shortcut to legitimacy—tapping, as well, into deep reservoirs of German guilt and loss. The Beltracchis, Jentsch says, were “very clever . . . from a psychological standpoint. They thought, How can we make people believe our story?” And, he concludes, “they carried it off brilliantly.”Read the story: The Greatest Fake-Art Scam in History? One of his forgeries hung in a show at the Met. Steve Martin bought another of his fake paintings. Still others have sold at auction for multi-million-dollar prices. So how did a self-described German hippie pull off one of the biggest, most lucrative cons in art-world history? And how did he get nailed? Vanity Fair>>