Copying the Expressionists: Germany's Mega-Forgery Scandal Gets Even Bigger

By Sven Röbel and Michael Sontheimer

It was already thought to be the biggest art forgery scandal in Germany since World War II. Now, documents show that Wolfgang Beltracchi may have been copying early 20th century expressionists since the mid-1980s. He may even have sold one forgery to the artist's widow.

Photo Gallery: Following the Forgery Trail Photos
Sven Röbel / DER SPIEGEL

The establishment known simply as "Das Café," in the western German city of Krefeld, celebrated an anniversary a few weeks ago. The city's bohemian community, its artists, hedonists and students -- and those aspiring to join them -- have been getting drunk there for the last 30 years. Photos of popular guests adorn the walls. A prankster has written the word "Wanted" on the portrait of one former regular.

It is a photo of Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, one of the bar's original guests, who once dreamed of becoming the Andy Warhol of the Lower Rhine region. He is now in detention awaiting trial at a prison in Cologne's Ossendorf district. He has been charged with commercial and organized fraud.

This is the fourth arrest in one of the biggest art forgery scandals in postwar Germany. Also imprisoned in Cologne-Ossendorf are Wolfgang Beltracchi, another former regular at "Das Café" in Krefeld, and his wife Helene. Her sister Jeanette was arrested and then released on bail in November.

Investigators suspect that Schulte-Kellinghaus, Beltracchi and the two women have sold at least 44 apparently forged paintings since the mid-1990s. The accused attributed almost all of the paintings to artists from the first half of the 20th century, including Heinrich Campendonk, Max Pechstein, Fernard Léger, Max Ernst and several others. Most of the works were sold with the story that they were part of the art collection of Cologne businessman Werner Jägers, who was the grandfather of the two suspected sisters. Jägers was said to have bought the works from the renowned art dealer Alfred Flechtheim and hidden them on his estate in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany during the Nazi years.

Turmoil among Auctioneers

The investigators accuse Schulte-Kellinghaus of having placed 14 of the 44 presumably forged paintings on the market, many of them via galleries in France. They included works by Max Ernst that were apparently so expertly forged that even Werner Spies, an art historian and Ernst expert, declared seven of them to be authentic. And the story Schulte-Kellinghaus used to market the paintings is remarkably similar to Beltracchi's story. He claimed that the paintings, which were supposedly lost, were from the collection of his grandfather, the master tailor Knops from Krefeld.

The Beltracchi's attorneys are not commenting on the charges at the moment. Rainer Pohlen, Schulte-Kellinghaus's attorney, has likewise remained silent.

But the scandal has already caused turmoil in the world of auctioneers, gallery owners and art historians. The trade in works by the classic artists of the 20th century was considered a lucrative business, especially after the end of the boom for contemporary art. The works are scarce, prices are rising and values seem to be stable. All that's missing is an adequate supply of new works. It is certainly possible that, when it came to works with unclear origins, people involved in the trade were not always interested in the whole truth.

Until now, investigators believed that the accused had been active since 1995. But SPIEGEL has learned that Beltracchi's career as a presumed master forger began much earlier -- in the 1980s. Based on files from former investigations and statements of his acquaintances, it appears that Beltracchi provided at least 15 additional paintings, starting in 1985 -- bringing the number of suspicious works up to 59. Beltracchi's attorney refused to comment on this development too. The documents also show that Beltracchi could have been caught in 1996, when the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation was on his trail. But the agents were unable to catch him.

In Search of Paintings

Wolfgang Beltracchi was born Wolfgang Fischer in 1951, later taking the name of his wife Helene. He grew up in the small city of Geilenkirchen near Aachen in western Germany. His farther worked as an art restorer and church muralist until business became so erratic that he was forced to paint houses to make ends meet. His son Wolfgang was also a very talented painter. After finishing school, he completed an aptitude examination and, in 1969, was accepted at the Aachen School of Design, where he apparently acquired basic training in the Graphics and Illustration Department.

Although three of Fischer's acrylic paintings were featured in the Grand Art Exhibition in Munich in 1978, the young painter was only moderately successful working under his own name. At the time, he wore John Lennon glasses and drove a Harley-Davidson. At an antique show, Fischer met a wealthy Düsseldorf real estate agent and, in 1981, the two men founded an art marketing company, Kürten & Fischer fine arts GmbH.

While the businessman contributed the capital, Fischer scoured the art and antique markets of Europe, constantly in search of attractively priced paintings. His preference at the time was for the old Flemish masters. Fischer went to auctions in Brussels, Paris and Cologne, traveled to the famous Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, and to London, where he acquired, for his company, two paintings at Sotheby's in October 1981, one by Jan Tengnagel and the other by David Teniers, paying 4,795 British pounds for both.

Former associates recall that Fischer also brought along canvases and frames that he could use in his art restoration. They also say that he sometimes touched up the paintings he had purchased, using two rooms that had been converted into studios in the attic of a house on Kapellenstrasse in Aachen.

In July 1982, less than 12 months after establishing the company, Fischer and his partner parted ways. According to the minutes of a shareholders' meeting, the real estate agent said: "Substantial losses were incurred as a result of the purchases of paintings at auction." A short time later, the financier, who held a majority of shares in the company, terminated Fischer without notice. He accused Fischer of having "recklessly sold off paintings at rock-bottom prices," of "grossly neglecting his duties as a managing director" and of not properly accounting for the paintings.

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