Dubious Provenance: Art Auction Late to Spot Work from Beltracchi 'Collection' 

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The organizers of a prestigious art auction taking place in Dubai later this month were mortified to discover that one of the artworks in their catalogue originated from the "collection" of master forger Wolfgang Beltracchi. The work has since been removed from the sale.

Photo Gallery: Beltracchi in Dubai Photos
artfinding.com

It's billed as an art auction of the most exclusive sort: At 7 p.m. on Oct. 22, a renowned French gallery will be hosting a sale of artwork in the ballroom of the five-star Ritz-Carlton-Hotel in Dubai. The auction will see bidding on some 140 pieces of modern and contemporary art.

By Gulf standards, the price tags are relatively modest. With a small Monet up for sale at a starting price of $800,000 and a Kees van Dongen expected to fetch around $3-4 million, the event is likely to attract plenty of wealthy and art-loving sheikhs looking to find a bargain.

Alarm Bells

But one artwork that won't be going under the hammer is the oil painting "Bouquet varié" by Polish artist Moïse Kisling (1891-1953). Measuring 61 centimenters by 50 centimeters, it was allegedly completed in 1937 and was listed in the auction catalogue as Lot No. 11, going for $150,000-200,000.

Its provenance was there in the original catalogue for all to read: The Expressionist still life was apparently last sold by an anonymous collector at an auction at Sotheby's in London in 1994, with the authors listing the "Collection Jägers, Cologne" and the "Collection Beltracchi, Palma" as previous owners.

Those very names should have had the alarm bells ringing. Even the most cursory Googling of these names reveals that Wolfgang Beltracchi is one of the most notorious art forgerers in post-war history, and that he invented the "Sammlung Jägers" to supply his forgeries with a fake history.

In his first interview with the media, conducted by SPIEGEL in March, Beltracchi admitted that he had forged work by some 50 artists over a period of 35 years before his arrest in August 2010. Some of the fakes were so skilled that even international experts such as art historian Werner Spies were fooled into pronouncing them to be genuine.

A Berlin criminal police investigation is still ongoing, and it remains to be seen exactly how this dubious Kisling painting made its way to Dubai.

Alexandre Millon, the head of the Paris art auction house Millon, which is also participating in the organization of the Dubai event, told SPIEGEL that the dubious painting was withdrawn from the auction as soon as suspicions concerning its provenance were raised. He said the error had first been noticed after the catalogue had been sent to the printer and that both the print and online versions were immediately corrected.

When SPIEGEL asked Beltracchi if the piece is indeed one of his, he replied dismissively: "I have painted many bouquets in my career."

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