A famous art forger is our new ‘neighbour’

Saturday, October 31, 2015

I’ve been debating whether or not to mention this intriguing story but can’t help myself. 

A hugely successful art forger couple have recently settled in the historic centre of Montpellier. He is Wolfgang Beltracchi, and forged masterpieces for over thirty years with the help and collusion of wife. They recently completed prison terms in Germany, and love the south of France so are now making a new life for themselves here.

Making mileage out of people’s mistakes and miseries is not my thing, but seeing the couple are doing their best to create their own publicity in order to drive up the prices of the new (unforged) works I guess I am helping them. Their tale is compelling. It’s a fable about the contemporary art market – how works sold at major auction houses are not properly checked out, how the buyers themselves prefer to conceal the existence of forged works, and how a bit of good marketing and story telling will get you everywhere.

In a nutshell, Wolfgang wasn’t forging existing paintings, but making works in the style of late nineteenth century masters. The main mistake was signing them with Ernst, Dufy, Derain, and Van Dongen instead of as himself. There’s nothing new about his methods, it’s just that Beltracchi, with the help of his wife, were better at both making the art and doing the marketing. A winning combination for any artist, past or contemporary.

They sorted out the provenance of these new paintings by reinventing missing works.

Now missing paintings were described in old catalogues of the dealer Alfred Flechtheim who fled Berlin in 1933 and died in London in 1937. Beltracchi dreamed up replacement works that matched the text descriptions and looked like they were done by the original artist, and his wife Helene came up with the story that she had inherited these works from her grandfather. Voila, the paintings entered circulation via major auction houses.

How did the couple get caught? Because experts found titanium white pigment present in the works, which only became available for artists after 1920. How could Wolfgang be so stupid you may ask, especially as the couple scoured flea markets and bought authentic old canvases and stretchers from the correct period which they scraped back and reused? (The extent of Beltracchi’s research was truly mind blowing, and he emulated every facet of his targeted artists’ methods.) 

Blame the respected paint manufacturer Old Holland. They didn’t mention on their label that their Zinc White contained a small proportion of titanium pigment. My old friend and art materials expert Maureen says that any self respecting art forger should be grinding their own paints. This being said, I have seen photos of Beltracchi doing his own grinding, so maybe it was actually the powdered pigment that he bought from Old Holland…?

Now Wolfgang has a brand new studio at his home in a spacious hotel particulier in town. He is painting flat out for a series of exhibitions throughout Europe, where his new works supposedly sell for between ten thousand and a hundred thousand euros. His shows are sell outs, which they need to be, because he has to pay back all the collectors who lost out by buying his fakes and has a debt of around thirty million to fulfil. He is confident that it will be paid off within two years. Try to do the math… 

Actually I just did the math – thirty million divided by one hundred thousand (taking the most optimistic position) means he has to sell three hundred paintings to come up with thirty million. But then there is the gallery commission of fifty percent (unless he has negotiated a better deal) so that takes the required total to six hundred paintings. One per day. I guess it is actually possible that he could do it. But he has to sell them at one hundred thousand, not ten thousand. 

By the way, I would love to be invited for a studio visit, but first I’ve got to meet them. I guess he’ll be too busy in his studio now to attend local exhibition openings…

 

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