SPIEGEL Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi Confessions of a Genius Art Forger
Part 4: 'No One Wants a Painting to Be a Forgery'
The Beltracchis can rant at length about the art market. They're a little like bicycle thieves who accuse the victims of not having locked up their bicycles effectively enough. There are certain things they would prefer not to see described in print, such as how rich they became as a result of their fraud, how much commercial talent was involved on top of artistic talent, and how well they understood the mechanisms of the market.
Nevertheless, the Beltracchi case does paint a fairly accurate picture of the global art market and its players. It involves reputable galleries in Paris, Zurich, London and New York, as well as prestigious dealers like Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. There are dubious companies in the Virgin Islands or Hong Kong that provide cash-strapped gallery owners with bridge loans. There are museums that exhibit the fakes, like the MoMA in New York, the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne. Finally, there are the international auction houses like Christie's, which ultimately auction off the paintings at record prices to collectors who can afford to pay them. Beltracchi's fakes ended up in various places, including a discreet company in Malta believed to be backed by Eastern European investors, the collections of German entrepreneur Reinhold Würth and Hollywood actor Steve Martin, the art foundation funded by drill manufacturer Hilti, the Surrealism collection of former Paris Match publisher Daniel Filipacchi, and the collections of the families of other industrialists in Paris and investment firms in Switzerland.
None of the people who were involved, those through whom the paintings reached the art market, seems to have had any real doubts about their authenticity. They include Henrik Hanstein, head of Kunsthaus Lempertz and a buyer of some Beltracchi paintings, as well as Werner Spies, the former museum director at Centre Pompidou in Paris and an expert on Max Ernst, who declared seven Beltracchi fakes to be genuine. Doubts are bad for business.
A dealer who buys a painting for 100,000, but knows that he can sell it for 200,000 or 300,000, possibly doesn't want to ask too many questions about its origin. In most cases, a conservator also examined the paintings, but Beltracchi's forgeries were so good that no one noticed anything. And once a painting has been shown in a museum and bought by an important collector, this chain becomes a perfect provenance -- especially when the chain begins in major galleries from the beginning of the 20th century, with Flechtheim and the Der Sturm Gallery.
There were doubts along the way, but they had nothing to do with the authenticity of the paintings. The Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim had to leave Germany in the 1930s. A restitution fight has been raging for years over what happened to the works in his collection. Paintings that had been owned by Jews and were seized by the Nazis would have posed a problem.
SPIEGEL: Does everyone want a painting to be real?
Beltracchi: It also helps if it looks great and there is nothing unusual about it. No one wants a painting to be a forgery. They all think very positively.
SPIEGEL: You and Otto S.-K. parted ways for a short time in 1989. Why?
Beltracchi: Well, we had differences over business matters. I wrote a screenplay for a road movie with a lot of music, which takes place mostly in Morocco, where I lived for a year in the early 1980s. We even received official funding for the screenplay. But in the end the film wasn't made because of a lack of financing.
SPIEGEL: You didn't paint anymore?
Beltracchi: There were still enough paintings in storage. Besides, the art market collapsed in 1990. I painted almost nothing for one or two years. Then I met Helene, in February 1992.
SPIEGEL: When did you tell her how you made your money?
Beltracchi: After a week. Normally you have to be careful. Most forgers are caught because they tell the wrong person about what they do.
SPIEGEL: How did you react, Mrs. Beltracchi?
Helene Beltracchi: Oh, I thought, I've never heard of anything like this. It sounded cool. And, of course, I was impressed, and I still am, that he can paint a better Max Ernst than Max Ernst himself. Nevertheless, you do ask yourself: What sort of a person is this? But when you're really in love and know that he's the one, you just have to accept it. If he had said he was a dentist now that would have been bad.
SPIEGEL: You took over responsibility for sales.
Beltracchi: Sales sounds a lot more businesslike than the way we lived at the time. The problem was that I didn't want to involve my wife. One could see where that would lead. I started working with Otto again in 1997.
SPIEGEL: And then you produced a steady flow of paintings?
Beltracchi: Not at all. We lived in a motor home for years. We spent months in Asia and Guadeloupe. It was never our idea to continuously increase output.
SPIEGEL: Was there a point at which you thought it would be better to stop?
Beltracchi: Not until the very end. I painted a Derain and a Léger, but I already sensed that they might be the last two.
- 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'