At some point during the two-day interview, Wolfgang Beltracchi talked about a friend in Freiburg, a pathology professor. The two men know each other well. Beltracchi, sounding almost proud of himself, said: "He would like to examine my brain. He believes that he would find something completely different there."
There are many people who would like to take a look inside Beltracchi's head. First there are the collectors, the gallery owners, appraisers and museum officials who fell for his forgeries. Then there are the investigators with the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation, who hunted him down but with whom Beltracchi refused to speak. Finally, there are the enlightened art lovers who admired this hippie-like desperado, because he pulled the wool over the eyes of the art world and, in doing so, exposed a system in which millions are paid for paintings whose authenticity is very difficult to determine -- a system that makes erratic decisions about which art is worth a lot and which is worth nothing at all, and that doesn't even seem to know exactly what art is.
The meeting with Beltracchi and his wife Helene took place in a suburb in the south of Cologne, in the house of attorney Reinhard Birkenstock, which looks out over the meadows along the Rhine River. In late October, a Cologne court sentenced the couple to prison terms of six and four years. The investigators, specialists in art forgeries, had zeroed in on 55 dubious paintings that had appeared in the art market since the early 1990s.
In the end, the court case involved 14 paintings, which allegedly brought the couple a total of about 16 million ($21 million) in earnings. The total loss, calculated on the basis of all subsequent sales of the works, amounts to 34 million. If the judge had not agreed to a deal with the attorneys, the court would have had to determine whether Beltracchi painted each individual work, a difficult task given the lack of direct evidence. The agreement also required the Beltracchis to make a detailed confession before the court.
The Beltracchi case is the biggest art forgery scandal of the postwar era, in terms of both the scope and perfection of the works, as well as how the paintings were marketed. The forgeries were sold as works by Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Campendonk, André Derain, Max Pechstein, classic modernist paintings, most of them by French and German Expressionists. During the two days of interviews, Beltracchi said several times that he had forged paintings by more than 50 artists, although he was unwilling to cite the exact number. Under German criminal law, serious cases of fraud fall under the statute of limitations after 10 years, but injured parties can file civil suits relating to cases much further in the past.
Beltracchi's principle was not to copy the paintings of the Expressionists, but, as he says, to fill the gaps in their bodies of work. Either he invented new paintings and motifs, tying in to specific creative phases in the artists' lives, or he created paintings whose titles appear in lists of the respective painters' works but which were believed to have been lost -- and of which no images existed.
Beltracchi has all of the things that a master forger requires: knowledge of art history and science, the command of painting techniques and, most of all, considerable artistic talent. But he also acted with the callousness of a gambler, taking advantage of the greed of an overheated art market. He has the self-confidence and hubris of a man who believes he is a genius -- and he could be one. He believes that he has a better understanding of the works of the artists he forged than most experts.
In the 1980s Beltracchi and his friend Otto S.-K. from Krefeld, north of Cologne, who was sentenced to five years in prison in the same trial, devised a perfect back story to explain where the paintings came from. The tale went like this: Otto had a grandfather named Knops, a master tailor from Krefeld, who had left his grandson a large art collection when he died. Knops had bought the works in the 1920s from art dealers like Alfred Flechtheim in Düsseldorf, and then hid the paintings during the Nazi era.
Beltracchi invented the Jägers collection in the 1990s. Werner Jägers was a real person, a businessman in Cologne. More importantly, Jägers was also the grandfather of Beltracchi's wife Helene, who Beltracchi married in 1993 and whose name he took (he was born Wolfgang Fischer). Jägers, according to Beltracchi's story, had also bought the paintings of well-known Expressionists from Flechtheim and other galleries in the 1920s. The two allegedly knew each other well.
The Beltracchis have never spoken publicly about their actions, neither before the beginning of the trial nor after making their confessions. Beltracchi is currently writing a book about his life and is also working on a documentary film. The couple will begin their sentences this month, Helene Beltracchi in the Ossendorf district of Cologne and her husband in the town of Euskirchen, west of Cologne. They will be incarcerated in open prisons.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Beltracchi, just how large are your debts today?
Beltracchi: They are 6.5 million, I think. Or maybe even 8 million? But we don't know who else is going to sue for damages.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a plan for how you intend to satisfy the claims?
Beltracchi: We own properties in France and in Freiburg (in southwestern Germany). They are up for sale. And then there is also the money in the bank.
Helene Beltracchi: We also work every day.
Beltracchi: We have to, in order to have a place in an open prison. We work in a friend's photo studio. My wife worked there in the 1980s, and she now deals with customer acquisition, while I handle the artistic aspects.
SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say that at the age of 61, this is the first time in your life that you have had a regular job?
Beltracchi: Yes, the first time.
SPIEGEL: You've managed to do it just before reaching retirement age.
Beltracchi: But that wasn't my intention.
SPIEGEL: Did you imagine everything would turn out differently?
Beltracchi: No one imagines ending up like this.
SPIEGEL: But you did have an inkling that it wouldn't end well, didn't you?
Beltracchi: For some time, yes.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Beltracchi, you are celebrated as an exceptional talent who has exposed the absurdity of the art market. But there are also those who say that you got off far too easily with your prison sentence. For them, you're a criminal.
Beltracchi: One is a criminal to some people and an artist to others. I can understand that. In a legal sense, I am a convicted criminal.
SPIEGEL: Have you thought about whether what you did is right?
Beltracchi: Of course. But I never decided to become an art forger. I was aware of my talent at an early age, and I used it foolishly. This developed over the years. In my heart, I don't see myself as a criminal.
SPIEGEL: You are one, though, from a legal point of view as well as morally. You deceived people and made millions through fraud.
Beltracchi: In my 14 months of pretrial detention, I met real criminals: murderers, child molesters, people convicted of manslaughter. I didn't injure anyone, nor did I steal from or rob anyone.
SPIEGEL: So the penalty you received is too high?
Beltracchi: Well, it's tough but justified, because I did forge paintings, after all, and have done so for a long time. In a certain sense, it's also a relief. Now I can do all the things openly that I've always liked doing: writing, making films, sculpting, painting my own subjects.
SPIEGEL: In the past, you had a lot of money but no fame. Now you're famous, but you have no money.
Beltracchi: Fame never interested me. I could have exhibited more of my own works in the 1970s, but I didn't want to. It's sort of like being a child. When you're finished with school, you have only one thing on your mind: to get out and experience life. Did I want to spend all my time working on a painting? No, I wanted to have fun, travel, meet women and live life.
SPIEGEL: Were you never tempted to tell the world: Listen, people, it was me?
Helene Beltracchi: If that were the case, he could have marked the paintings. There are forgers who have done that.
Beltracchi: With one Max Ernst, it did briefly cross my mind to incorporate a Mickey Mouse into the painting. But the people who did that sort of thing usually didn't remain in the business for long. I did enjoy painting my own subjects, and they sold well, but it was much more fascinating to paint the unpainted pictures of other artists.