SPIEGEL Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi Confessions of a Genius Art Forger
Part 2: 'I Worked as a Waiter in a Strip Bar'
One of the most famous art forgers of the 20th century is Han van Meegeren of the Netherlands. He had tried his hand as a neoclassical artist, but he hated the art critics and began painting pictures in the style of the famous Jan Vermeer, who, to the astonishment of the art world, had left behind almost no Christian motifs. Van Meegeren closed the gap. He invented the motifs, even if the hairstyles of his figures were sometimes more suited to the 1930s than the 17th century. In his villa on the Côte d'Azur, he perfected the artificial aging of canvases with the help of a drying furnace he had developed. He sold a Vermeer ("Christ and the Adulteress") to leading Nazi Hermann Göring in 1942. He was arrested for collaboration after the end of the war. He made a confession and, before the investigators' eyes, painted a Vermeer in his prison cell.
As the art market became more and more commercialized after World War II, forgers increasingly sought to profit from it. They included Lothar Malskat from Königsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad), who forged the works of Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall and Edvard Munch and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1955, and the Hungarian Elmyr de Hory, who forged works by Derain, Matisse and Picasso, and who committed suicide before he could be turned over the French authorities in 1976. British art forger Tom Keating claims to have produced more than 2,000 paintings in the style of the Old Masters throughout his career. In a fake Rembrandt, he painted a drinker holding a glass of Guinness. After he was exposed, he became a folk hero of sorts, and he went on to host a TV show.
"If the counterfeit were a good one," Picasso reportedly once said, "I should be delighted. I'd sit down straight away and sign it."
SPIEGEL: Why exactly are you so good at forging art?
Beltracchi: I think that the most important requirement is to capture the essence of a piece of art. You look at it, essentially absorb it, and you have to be able to understand it visually without having to think about how it was done. I was already able to do that as a child.
SPIEGEL: There is a man in England who, after flying over London in a helicopter, can draw a panorama of the city from a bird's eye perspective, down to the last detail. It's astonishing.
Beltracchi: He has some sort of autism. I don't have that.
SPIEGEL: When did you start painting and drawing?
Beltracchi: At the age of 10 or 12. My father was a church painter and conservator. We lived in Geilenkirchen, near Aachen. I helped him often. When he painted copies of old masters, the hands weren't very good sometimes, and I would ask him: Dad, what happened there? My sister claimed that, when I was a young child, I acted as if I was disabled. That Wolfgang, she said, he would just sit there and stare. The interesting thing is that in everyday life, I fail to see the most ordinary things. I often stumble and sometimes I even fall over. But when I draw or look at a painting, I go into a sort of overdrive and just see things differently than other people.
SPIEGEL: In court, you said that you once copied an early Picasso for your father.
Beltracchi: I was 14, and my father had given me a postcard. I was allowed to use my father's oil paints for the first time. I didn't like the original. I thought it was too sad. So I changed it, omitting a piece of material and making the picture less monochromatic. The painting took an afternoon. My father didn't touch a brush again for the next two years.
SPIEGEL: Because it was painted so well and so quickly?
Beltracchi: The time it takes to create a painting like that, as well as the movements, that's what constitutes the style. If it took the original painter two or three hours to do a small canvas, you can't finish it in only an hour or, conversely, in four hours. Then something about the style won't be quite right.
SPIEGEL: You were expelled from school at 17.
Beltracchi: I worked as a waiter in a strip bar in Aachen at the time, a place called the Cortis. I supplied the other boys in school with certain publications.
SPIEGEL: Publications that weren't necessarily available at the newsstand in those days?
Beltracchi: You could put it that way. My math teacher caught me in a private room in the bar. He said to me: Fischer, what are you doing here? You're much too young. And I replied: I'm making money, but what are you doing here? My mother made sure that I got my high-school diploma. Then I passed an examination for the highly gifted at the school of applied arts in Aachen, and that was when the problems began. One of the instructors claimed that the work I was turning in wasn't my own -- it was much too good. My former high-school art teacher had to confirm the authenticity of the work. That was in 1969, but I wasn't overly interested in going to university. I spent most of my time in a café on Südstrasse. I liked sitting in that coffeehouse.
SPIEGEL: How did you support yourself?
Beltracchi: By painting.
SPIEGEL: Were you already doing forgeries at the time?
Beltracchi: A little.
SPIEGEL: What, for example?
Beltracchi: The unpainted works of Old Masters at first, and later Art Nouveau and the Expressionists. It was for flea markets. I think the buyers were aware that the paintings weren't originals. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time on the road -- going to music festivals, traveling. I went on my first trip at 15.
SPIEGEL: Where did you go?
Beltracchi: Europe. I painted on sidewalks in downtown areas, which was still very unusual at the time. My first trip took me all the way to Barcelona. Sometimes you could make 100 deutsche marks (around 50) a day there. It was a huge amount of money. My father was making 800 marks a month at the time.
SPIEGEL: Let's go back in time for a second. You painted the old masters when you were that young?
Beltracchi: Yes, but it was too much work.
Beltracchi: Too time-consuming. They used to paint on wood, but that doesn't work with forgeries. How can you ever get the paint to dry without the wood warping? And then there's the glazing technique of the old masters. You would spend weeks working on a painting, and in the end you might make 5,000 marks on it.
SPIEGEL: Were you politically active?
Beltracchi: I once went to a demonstration in Aachen against fare increases on public transport. A police officer pulled out a bunch of my hair, and there were a lot of violent beatings. That's when I thought to myself: You'd better leave it alone.
SPIEGEL: Did you take drugs at the time?
Beltracchi: Mostly hashish, starting in about 1968. Sometimes I smoked opium. And I also took LSD -- for a while, quite a lot of LSD, in fact. But I never had any bad experiences. I stopped in 1985. I'd had enough, and I don't miss it, either.
SPIEGEL: You weren't interested in a middle-class life and a career?
Beltracchi: No. I just painted and lived my life. The period from 1970 to the early 1980s was like one big film. I lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam for a year. It was intense, and it's possible that I even had a few blackouts.
SPIEGEL: Did you paint in Amsterdam?
Beltracchi: Not a stroke. I went to the flea market in the morning and charged tourists money to take pictures of me. I looked pretty wild, with hair down to my waist, Indian robes, a floor-length fur coat. There must be lots of photos of me out there.
SPIEGEL: Sounds fantastic. But was it really? Drugs can do terrible things.
Beltracchi: The really hard drugs weren't that common back then, in the early 1970s. It was easy living. You could get a job anywhere, there was no pressure and money wasn't a problem. Nothing was a problem.
SPIEGEL: One could say that you kept up that approach to life for a very long time, perhaps even to this day?
Beltracchi: I stretched it out as long as I could.
SPIEGEL: Since when has it been over?
Beltracchi: Since prison, I would say. But I'm working on getting it back. When I was in pretrial detention, they used to say to me: Man, you're in such a good mood! I happen to be a happy person, and I thought to myself: Now you're here, and there are reasons for that. That was clear to me. Of course, living in an open prison won't be child's play, either. The houses are gone, and the money's gone. For any normal person, that would be a big deal.
SPIEGEL: And for you, as well, surely.
Beltracchi: Not really.
Helene Beltracchi: Something new is about to begin, and it doesn't necessarily have to have a monetary value. We're at an age at which most people say: OK, now I'm not going to do anything anymore. But we're starting all over again.
SPIEGEL: One doesn't have the impression that you are completely indifferent to material things, though. You invested almost 1 million in your 28-hectare (69-acre) vineyard in France, and your villa in Freiburg cost 5 million. The swimming pool alone cost 1 million.
Beltracchi: That's not true. The pool cost 700,000. The money wasn't important. It was all about how much fun it was. I considered it to be art.
SPIEGEL: And what about when the money was gone, back in the 1970s?
Beltracchi: Then I went back to painting. I also did my own paintings at the time: acrylic on canvas, extremely detailed, almost photo-realistic, and very time-consuming.
SPIEGEL: Your paintings were even exhibited at the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich in the 1970s.
Beltracchi: Yes. Suddenly, doors had opened up. I was approached by collectors and gallery owners. One of my paintings went for 11,000 marks, and two others sold for 5,000 apiece. It was a lot of money.
SPIEGEL: Is it true that you even bought back your paintings at some point?
Beltracchi: There's a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann that takes place in 17th-century Paris, about a jeweler who makes wonderful jewelry. Each time he sells a piece of jewelry, the ladies are murdered and the jewelry disappears. I didn't murder the owners of the paintings, of course, but I can understand that. I wanted my paintings back, and I never really wanted to sell them.
SPIEGEL: Do you still have the paintings today?
Beltracchi: Not all of them. One is in Freiburg, and another one is in France.
SPIEGEL: How many of your own paintings did you paint in the 1970s?
Beltracchi: Maybe 10.
SPIEGEL: So few?
Beltracchi: Yes, what of it? Vermeer only did 40 paintings in his entire life.
SPIEGEL: And how many forgeries did you paint at the time?
Beltracchi: I can't tell you that, or else my attorney will have a fit.
SPIEGEL: That would certainly be interesting.
Beltracchi: Well, it's pretty easy to figure out. Just take
Helene Beltracchi: Stop!
Beltracchi: I only painted when I felt like it and needed money. But it never really became a professional thing, even though the dealers would have liked that. The art market was going crazy here. You could have easily sold 1,000 or 2,000 paintings.
SPIEGEL: You also had an art gallery in the early 1980s, together with a real estate broker from Düsseldorf.
Beltracchi: Not for long. I had to sit in the office, which wasn't for me. Suddenly I had a guy breathing down my neck who was mainly interested in making a lot of money fast. He gave me a quarter of a million marks to spend on paintings. I went to London, to Christie's and Sotheby's, and I went shopping: a (David) Teniers, a (Lucas) Cranach, a beautiful Joachim Beuckelaer from the 16th century. He never understood how it works. He thought that you buy a painting and sell it for a profit two or three weeks later. In fact, you have to give it a few years to make it work.
SPIEGEL: The real estate broker later claimed that you had burglarized him and stolen paintings that later turned up at an auction.
Beltracchi: A break-in? Ridiculous. That's what you reported in SPIEGEL, too. The article even said that paintings had been cut from their frames. What nonsense! I would have forged a painting like that, but I would never have stolen it.
- Part 1: Confessions of a Genius Art Forger
- Part 2: 'I Worked as a Waiter in a Strip Bar'
- Part 3: 'I Painted Because I Wanted To'
- Part 4: 'No One Wants a Painting to Be a Forgery'
- Part 5: 'The Whole Thing Was Discovered Because of an Incorrectly Labeled Tube'
- Part 6: 'Nothing Is Easier Than a Pollock'