The Hippy and the Expressionists Investigators Zero in on Massive Art Forgery Scandal
Part 2: The First Sale
Acquaintances remember him as a hippy who dreamt of the good life in southern climes and claimed to have driven around on his motorbike delivering illegal psychedelic drugs to US soldiers on their military bases in his youth, a show-off who said he'd learned about art from his father, a church muralist and restorer who had taken him up on the scaffolding from an early age. In actual fact, his father appears to have been a normal house painter in Geilenkirchen, a town near Aix-la-Chapelle on the border with Belgium and Holland. At least, that's how relatives remember him.
In the 1980s Wolfgang "disappeared for longer periods," and spent time living in Morocco and in a commune. After that he is said to have returned to Germany "on foot." Back home, he was seen as a "luxury hippy." He organized theme parties, including a baroque fete at a castle in the Dutch town of Renesse, where guests paid a few hundred German marks for the privilege of dressing up in period costume and re-enacting 18th-century life.
Eventually he decided to go into the movies and wrote the screenplay for a road movie set in the Moroccan desert. The working title was "Die Himmelsleiter" (The Ladder to Heaven). Next he wanted to shoot a documentary about pirates in the South China Sea. But after the three-mast ship with built-in video studio had cast off from Majorca and sailed to Gomera, the adventurers fell out and the plan was never realized. In October 1990 Wolfgang and a friend paid 305,000 deutschmarks (156,400) at a bank auction for an old farm in Viersen in the Lower Rhine region of Germany. By now the drifter was calling himself a "director," and began renovating the place at great expense. Neighbors remember a "first-floor warehouse converted into an artist's studio," where "easels, painting utensils and pictures lay strewn about."
More Success with Christie's
In June 1992 a woman moved into the artist's farm: Helene Beltracchi. She and Wolfgang married a year later. The painter took his wife's name, and together -- as the neighbors recall -- they started a thriving art dealership. While Wolfgang constantly walked around in slippers looking "organic," Helene apparently took on the "serious role" and looked after the business side of things.
In February 1995, the couple owed several hundred thousand marks on their property. Helene contacted the Lempertz art dealership in Cologne and offered the long-established auction house a painting by Hans Purrmann, a friend and student of the great French painter Henri Matisse. She said the work belonged to her maternal grandfather, the aforementioned Werner Jägers. But a Purrmann expert doubted the authenticity of the painting, entitled "Southern Landscape," whereupon Lempertz declined to put the work up for auction.
Eight months later, Beltracchi had more success with Christie's, the world's largest auction house. As part of its "German and Austrian Art" sale in October 1995, Christie's offered a painting by Heinrich Campendonk entitled "Girl with Swan." It sold for £67,500.
In the auction catalog, art historian Andrea Firmenich waxed lyrical about the "intense, shining, expressive colorfulness" of the pictures of the Krefeld-born expressionist painter. "Dr. Andrea Firmenich," Christie's informed its customers, "has been kind enough to confirm the authenticity of this work." The origin of the painting was stated by Christie's as "Alfred Flechtheim, Dusseldorf; Werner Jägers, Cologne."
A sticker on the back of the picture, which bore the inscription "Flechtheim Collection" and a crude portrait of the legendary art dealer, was also shown in the catalog. Nobody appeared to be too bothered by the fact that the sticker, which looked like a potato print, simply didn't match the style of the elegant gallerist. Such stickers have only appeared on the paintings that are now suspected of having been forged. Most of these stem from the "Werner Jägers collection."
Famous for its Light
The Beltracchis soon turned their backs on the provincial Lower Rhine. Acquaintances recount that Wolfgang bought himself an old Winnebago motor home, restored the interior in rosé and turquoise, and sold his farm in Viersen to a firm of realtors for 2.6 million deutschmarks (1.3 million) in July 1996.
He and Helene rented a vacation home with studio in Marseillan, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Montpellier in the south of France. The Languedoc region is famous for its light, and it's quite possible that this inspired Beltracchi's creativity. Visitors to his studio speak of a "large piece on a mythological theme" onto which he copied faces with the aid of a projector. The fake Purrmann that Lempertz had refused to auction off hung in the Beltracchis' living room. When he wasn't painting, Wolfgang and Helene researched the local art scene, visited antique stores, art trade fairs and galleries.
In June 1998 Lempertz in Cologne auctioned off a picture ostensibly from the "Werner Jägers collection": "Le Havre Beach" by the French painter Raoul Dufy. "For once, it was a real one," Lempertz Managing Director Henrik Hanstein says today. Hanstein says the couple had been particularly devious by selling a genuine picture in addition to the fakes. A Lempertz spokesman is similarly shocked about the ruse. He says the auction house had been "the victim of an extraordinarily clever and mean gang of forgers."
More than a Million
If the allegations prove to be true, the modus operandi was indeed remarkably shrewd: The alleged forgers didn't fabricate Picassos, but Pechsteins, not Beckmanns, but Campendonks. They kept well away from the truly great artists, whose works had been researched in minute detail. Instead they concentrated on second-tier painters, whose paintings can still fetch more than a million euros.
It appears they began by studying old catalogs of exhibitions by artists in whose names they wanted to create pictures, preferably catalogs of the gallery of Alfred Flechtheim, one of the most important art dealers of the Weimar Republic, the period from the end of World War I to the Nazis' ascent to power. Flechtheim fled the Nazis in 1933, moved first to Paris, and then died in London in 1937. Large parts of his collection have been lost to this day, and documents from his gallery have never been recovered.
The list of pictures from the Flechtheim catalogs was compared to the lists of paintings by the relevant artists. Were any of the paintings listed as missing, ones that had not been photographed?
Such pictures have been traded in increasing numbers since the late 1990s, and it is assumed that some of the profits from the sales landed in the bank account the Beltracchis held with the discrete Credit Andorra in the tax-shelter principality of the same name, where Wolfgang Beltracchi was also registered as having a residence.