By Sven Röbel and Michael Sontheimer
Lothar Senke, the Count of Waldstein, carried two cardboard boxes into a conference room at the Hotel Steigenberger at the Frankfurt Airport. Inside were five bronze sculptures -- originals by Alberto Giacometti, according to notarized documents.
In exchange, the count received a black leather briefcase containing 338,000 ($478,000) in cash from the buyer and began to count the money. He planned to take the payment, the first installment in a multimillion-euro deal, to a business partner waiting in the parking lot. But Senke didn't get far -- in fact, he only made it as far as the hotel lobby before the handcuffs clicked shut, a police officer recalls. A mobile special response unit of the German police had struck.
The operation, which took place on August 11, 2009, marked the end of a large-scale deception. The count was not a count; the buyer was no art lover, but rather an undercover officer with Germany's criminal investigation department; and the Giacometti sculptures were not actually made by Giacometti. Police arrested not only Senke, but also his partner Herbert Schulte -- an art dealer in Mainz -- as well as Schulte's wife and another accomplice.
World's Most Expensive Sculptor
The same day, police detectives in Mainz searched a 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) storeroom rented by Schulte, where they found rows of thin statues in Giacometti's iconic style. Some of the figures were just 10 centimeters (four inches) high, others larger than life, and most were bronze. The agents discovered a total of 1,000 sculptures -- more than the master created over the course of his entire life (1901 to 1966).
Giacometti, who lived in Paris and counted Picasso and Matisse among his friends, along with authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, has become the world's most expensive sculptor. The widow of a Lebanese banker purchased Giacometti's work "L'Homme qui marche I" at a London auction last year for the equivalent of 74 million.
There is hardly a more lucrative field for art fraudsters. The "Count of Waldstein," Schulte the art dealer and their accomplices seemingly focused on Giacometti for seven years, raking in over 8 million, police detectives specializing in art crimes later determined.
It has now been revealed that the band of forgers sold more than 200 fake sculptures, making it the largest scam, volume-wise, ever carried out on the German art market.
Believing his own Myth
A district court in Stuttgart is expected to hand down its sentence on Senke next week, marking the conclusion of a major criminal case. Schulte, his wife and two other art dealers in Wiesbaden, near Mainz, have already been convicted of continued fraud by a criminal organization. Schulte received a prison sentence of seven years and four months, while his accomplices were sentenced to two years on probation. But Senke, 61, still denies everything, insisting the sculptures are in fact originals. The man with the ponytail seems to have come to believe the myth he himself created.
"The Count, as everyone called him, drove up in a Rolls-Royce," recalls a lawyer in the northeastern German city of Schwerin. Senke formerly worked as a locomotive stoker for the state railway in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), until he was jailed for political offenses. Officials in West Germany then bought him out of jail in the mid-1970s.
Contact with Schulte, the art dealer in Mainz, provoked a major change in Senke's life. Schulte had already come to the attention of police detectives in Stuttgart years before. A comparatively small case of Giacometti forgery landed him in court in November 2008, after he and a used car dealer from Greece tried to sell 13 forged Giacometti sculptures.
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