18 February, 2016

Does Crime Pay in the Art World?

Art forgery is the "white-collar crime" of the art industry. While less sensational in that it, for the most part, eschews violence, a single forgery can victimize dozens or hundreds of people.

And where an art thief may steal a single painting, a successful forger may flood the art market with hundreds of fakes. A skilled art forger may be able to perpetrate their crime for years before being caught, if they are even caught at all.

Take the case of Wolfgang Beltracchi, alternately labeled the "forger of the century," and the "Robin Hood of art."  Beltracchi created chaos in the art market with his prolific fake paintings. In a career that spanned nearly 40 years, Beltracchi produced over 300 paintings in the style of great masters such as Picasso, Gauguin or Monet.  They have made their way into museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world. Even collectors who know they own one of his fakes prefer to remain silent. His forgeries alone account for millions of dollars, money no one wants to forfeit.

How did he get away with it? For one thing, he is a brilliant artist.  After creating a forgery, he and his wife, Helene, would create a provenance story for what were considered previously unknown paintings: "they were part of a collection owned by the family," "they were discovered in an old barn," and so on. They even created old-looking photos as proof of their previous existence and ownership. And then they would sell them.

There is no denying Beltracchi is a master forger — Max Ernst's widow said that Beltracchi painted her husband's most beautiful forest. Experts also thought the paintings were originals and true masterpieces. The piece below, La Horda, long thought to be an Ernst original, is actually a Beltracchi forgery. Beltracchi gave it a fake year, 1927, to make it seem more authentic.

One owner of a $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it's one of the best Max Ernsts he's ever seen.

Beltracchi's carelessness eventually exposed him when he mistakenly used titanium white on a painting supposed to be a 1914 work by Heinrich Campendonk. Titanium white was not invented until 1916 and experts believe it was not used in paintings until many years later. Oops!

At his trial in 2011, prosecutors said Beltracchi had created 36 fakes which were sold for $46 million, although almost 300 forgeries are thought to exist (German police have uncovered 100 so far and the numbers keep climbing). He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2011, but released in 2015. His wife got a four-year sentence.

Ironically, he is now famous in his own right. While he continues to borrow from others such as Kandinsky, Campendonk, Dürer and Gauguin, now he signs the paintings himself: W. Beltracchi. An exhibition of his art last year included 24 works. Even before it opened, collectors were calling the gallery from all over the world, vying to purchase a "real" Beltracchi.

His most expensive work costs 78,000 euros ($88,500). Unfortunately for him, he needs to pay back 20 million euros to his creditors by 2017, and a liquidator is collecting all his revenues.

Asked in a 2016 CBS Sixty Minutes interview "Do you think you did anything wrong?"
Wolfgang Beltracchi replied, "Yes, I use the wrong titanium white, yeah."

So does crime pay or doesn't it?

"Homage to Mussorgsky": A W. Beltracchi.

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