'The Art World Is Rotten': Giacometti Forger Tells All

By Michael Sontheimer

Robert Driessen is one of the most successful art forgers in the world. Over his 30 years of work, he came to specialize in creating forgeries of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Now living in Thailand, out of the reach of European authorities, Driessen wants his story told.

Roman Abramovich's luxury yacht is anchored out in the bay. We are sitting under coconut palms on a white beach, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is playing on the stereo and ice cubes clink in our glasses of white wine. Robert Driessen lights a cigarette. "I am trapped in paradise," he says.

Driessen has lived in Thailand for the last eight years. He owns a café that is close to the water but far away from Europe. They are after him in his native Europe -- especially Ernst Schöller, a detective from Stuttgart who specializes in art crimes. Driessen forged sculptures by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Two of his accomplices are in prison in Germany, after the gang raked in more than €8 million ($10.4 million) with its scrap metal. The only member of the gang still at large is Driessen.

The police believe he forged at least 1,000 sculptures. Driessen, holding a wine glass in his hand, says that it was probably more like 1,300. "But I never kept records."

Driessen, 54, spent more than 30 years forging art, including paintings and sculptures, and has lived well on the proceeds. He has probably made at least €3 million with his forgeries. Being a prisoner in the South China Sea isn't the worst thing in the world, and he has no regrets, says Driessen. But he thinks it's time for the world to know about him and his works.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, a painter from Germany's Rhineland region, forged at least 100 Expressionist paintings over a similar period of time, earning an estimated €30 million. He is something of a king of the art forgers, a hippie and a risk-taker who fooled the art world, and he has been a media star since he was caught three years ago.

Driessen could justifiably claim that after Beltracchi, he is Europe's second-most important art forger. The only problem is that no one knows who he is. Beltracchi sits in prison while Driessen is in Thailand. He pours himself a second glass of white wine.

The Most Expensive Sculptor

Alberto Giacometti was one of the great artists of the 20thcentury, and today, 47 years after his death, he is the world's most expensive sculptor. Three years ago, the widow of a Lebanese banker bought his sculpture "L'Homme qui marche" at a Sotheby's auction for the equivalent of €74 million. Exhibitions of Giacometti sculptures, like the one currently underway in Hamburg, are always a guaranteed popular success.

Giacometti went from his native Bergell, Switzerland to Paris when he was 20. He was a friend of Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, of André Breton and Man Ray, and of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Igor Stravinsky. A portrait of Giacometti, with large eyes, a wild shock of dark hair and a face furrowed with wrinkles, graces Switzerland's 100-franc note today. He was a member of the Paris avant-garde, a man obsessed with his art, a Bohemian whose breakfast, at noon, consisted of hard-boiled eggs and copious amounts of black coffee, along with several unfiltered cigarettes. He created an oeuvre of strange figures, delicate, elongated, emaciated, desperate-looking creatures, as recognizable as a Coca-Cola bottle.

The artist is believed to have produced no more than 500 unique pieces, although no one knows exactly how many there were. Even the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris, established by his widow, struggles with the task of bringing order into the chaos of Giacometti's life of an artist. He often had different foundries produce bronzes from the same design, after apparently losing track of which of his plaster models he had cast and which ones he had destroyed because he didn't like them. There is no catalogue of his oeuvre, only an incomplete database with images of his works on the Internet. He was a great artist who created a great body of work, leaving behind even greater disorder. In this sense, Giacometti made things very easy for Robert Driessen.

It was also relatively easy from a technical perspective. "Long, thin figures, and an amorphous, crumbly surface," says Driessen. "It isn't difficult to make Giacomettis." After a while, he says, he "literally had Giacometti in my fingers." According to Driessen, it took him 30 to 40 minutes for the small figures. But they weren't simply recast versions of the originals. Instead, Driessen just added to Giacometti's body of work. He made his own models, had them cast and stamped them with the stamps of the foundries Giacometti had used.

Driessen is a Dutch citizen from Arnhem in the eastern Netherlands, but he speaks fluent German. At 16, he left home and dropped out of school, and began painting for a living: windmills, canals, anglers, boats and the sea. He churned out typical Dutch scenes, 30 by 40 centimeters (about 12 by 16 inches), which were especially popular in Germany. The dealer who sold his paintings eventually asked him if he could copy the works of the Dutch Romantic painters: Paul Gabriel, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, Hendrick Willem Mesdag. Driessen bought old paintings at flea markets, removed the paint from the canvas and got started.

No one was interested in his own paintings. After two or three years, Driessen began painting variations on the works of Expressionists like Emil Nolde, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Sometimes he simply painted mirrored versions of originals, and sometimes he created a new painting from several others -- an old forgers' technique.

Business Booms

Soon a number of dealers were buying his paintings. One of them was Michel van Rijn, who would eventually acquire the reputation of being the most successful art smuggler in the world. He lived in a villa in the Spanish resort town of Marbella, was shot at by competitors and eventually cooperated with Scotland Yard. For a fake Schmitt-Rottluff painting, for example, Driessen was paid €500 to €700. The dealers also ordered motifs from him. He remembers that he once painted 15 Nolde watercolors in a single day.

Driessen estimates that he must have done more than 1,000 paintings in total. He has no interest in knowing what happened to them. "One or two of them are probably hanging in a German or a Dutch museum," he says. He remembers that a dealer had paintings he had made sold at auction at Sotheby's and Christie's. "I knew that I was forging art. The dealers knew that they were buying forgeries. But we didn't talk about it. I assume that they sold the forgeries as authentic paintings."

It was the 1980s, and business was going well. Driessen rented a villa with 11 bedrooms, six bathrooms and three studios on the top floor in Arnhem, only 10 kilometers (six miles) from the German border. His BMW 7 Series was parked outside.

He lives in a more modest house today, which is made of wood and stands on stilts, two kilometers up into the green mountains. It has only two rooms, and in the living room is a stack of pages with Chinese characters that he recently painted for a friend. He has written down his story as an art forger in a large sketchbook.

Moving on to Sculpture

In 1987 he began casting sculptures, a craft he had learned from Roel Maaskant, a caster in Brummen, near Arnhem. Bronze sculptures are expensive and complex, and the path from a wax or plaster figure through a latex mold to the finished sculpture is a long one. "You never know if it's going to work," says Driessen. "It's exciting."

The market for sculpture is even shadier than the market for paintings, because recasting is easier than painting. Cases have repeatedly come to light in which heirs have had castings made after the sculptor's death. For instance, there are 80 castings of a famous sculpture by Berlin artist Georg Kolbe. It is difficult to verify how many castings of a sculpture exist, partly because foundries often make copies or cast more sculptures than the artist commissioned. As a result, there are real and fake originals that are indistinguishable from one another.

Dirk Grosman was considered the best bronze caster in Arnhem. Driessen bought a number of latex molds from Grosman, which he had used to produce bronzes by artists like Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Lehmbruck, Barlach and Kollwitz -- in fact, by almost every well-known, modern sculptor. He recast two bronze sculptures and brought them to the foundry that had worked for the artists in the 1920s and 30s. "They are authentic," he was allegedly told. Driessen sold the pieces for a total of 17,000 Dutch guilders (about €7,700) to an art dealer in The Hague.

It was much more difficult to forge bronzes when no mold or casting was available. Driessen went to Duisburg more than 10 times to take more than 200 photos of Wilhelm Lehmbruck's famous "Kneeling Woman" in front of the Lehmbruck Museum there. To sell the finished bronze, which weighed 150 kilos (330 lbs.), he bought an ad in the art journal Weltkunst. The first prospective buyer arrived in Arnhem by helicopter.

The second was Cologne art dealer Michael Werner, one of Germany's great gallery owners, who represents artists like A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and Jörg Immendorff. Werner drove up in a Jaguar and paid €42,500 for the Lehmbruck copy. Today it stands in the garden of the Werner Gallery in Trebbin, south of Berlin. Werner was very enthusiastic about the piece at the time, says Driessen, but today Werner calls it an "atrocious forgery."

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