Steve Martin Swindled: German Art Forgery Scandal Reaches Hollywood

The scope of what is believed to be Germany's biggest art forgery scandal since World War II has reached as far as Hollywood. American actor Steve Martin bought one of the fake paintings in 2004 and later sold it at a loss of some 200,000 euros.

The Heinrich Campendonk painting "Landscape With Horses" is believed to be a forgery. Zoom

The Heinrich Campendonk painting "Landscape With Horses" is believed to be a forgery.

German police believe that American actor, comedian and collector Steve Martin played a minor role as a victim in what may be Germany's biggest-ever art forgery scandal. According to investigators at Berlin's state criminal police office (LKA), the art lover purchased what he believed to be a 1915 work by the German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. He bought the colorful "Landschaft mit Pferden," or "Landscape With Horses," from the Paris gallery Cazeau-Béraudière for what would have been considered the bargain price of an estimated €700,000 (around $850,000 at the time) in July 2004.

Before the purchase a Campendonk expert had confirmed the painting's authenticity and identified the painter's signature on a label attached to the back. But 15 months later Martin, who would later publish a novel about the New York art scene called "An Object of Beauty," tried to re-sell the work. Art auction house Christie's finally auctioned it off in February 2006 to a Swiss businesswoman for €500,000 -- a loss of €200,000 from Martin's original purchase price.

Investigators believe the fake Campendonk originated from either the invented "Knops" or "Jägers" art collections devised by a group of German swindlers caught in 2010. Main suspect Wolfgang Beltracchi, along with accomplice Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus and two sisters are all under suspicion of selling dozens of forged paintings since 2001 and possibly even earlier.

Highly Convincing Forgeries

The accused allegedly attributed almost all of the forged works to artists from the first half of the 20th century, including Campendonk, Max Pechstein, Fernand Léger, Max Ernst and others. Most of the works were sold with now 60-year-old Beltracchi's story that they were part of the art collection of Cologne businessman Werner Jägers, who was the grandfather of the two female suspects in the case. 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. Schulte-Kellinghaus allegedly used a similar ruse, claiming the paintings, which were supposedly lost, originated from the collection of his grandfather, the master tailor Knops from Krefeld.

A number of the expertly forged paintings from the group were sold to French galleries like the one where Martin bought the forged Campendonk. Some forgeries of Max Ernst paintings were so convincing that even Werner Spies, an art historian and Ernst expert, gave them his seal of approval. When the true origin of the paintings emerged last year it caused a commotion in the art community, where trading works by classic 20th century artists is a lucrative business.

The Cologne public prosecutor's office recently brought charges against the four main figures in the affair. Their files indicate that total losses to the art community from the sale and resale of just 14 of the forgeries reached nearly €34.1 million ($48.6 million).

-- kla

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