Flickering torches lit the path up to the villa. The guests were led through a modernistic gate, past a glass-covered swimming pool and on to a series of minimalist bungalows, the facades of which were freshly clad in Siberian larch. Champagne was served out of Magnum bottles. A Flamenco band had been brought in from Spain. Wolfgang Beltracchi, the owner of the property, stood in front of his studio welcoming the guests as they arrived, long blond hair hanging down to his shoulders.
Beltracchi's villa is situated in the hills above Freiburg among the city's high society: professors, lawyers and managing directors. Beltracchi and his wife Helene paid 1.1 million for their property and are said to have invested another 4 million remodeling it. The Beltracchis appeared in Freiburg seemingly out of nowhere, without a past or a present. But the money had to have come from somewhere -- and there was gossip. Some said Beltracchi was an artist who only painted for millionaires who regularly commissioned his services. Some thought he was a successful art dealer or the owner of a valuable collection. Others, like a relatively famous plastic surgeon in Freiburg, insisted Beltracchi toured flea markets, where he had found a number of undiscovered masterpieces.
Such was the mood at the party held at the Beltracchis' new house on September 22, 2007.
Just three years later, at 7:35 p.m. on Aug. 27, 2010, police officers detained the Beltracchis not far from their villa as the couple was going out to dinner. The officers had been sent by the district attorney's office in Cologne, which also had a theory about how Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi had amassed their fortune. It can be found in file number 117 Js 407/10, and if they are confirmed in a court of law, the Beltracchis will officially become the main characters in one of Germany's greatest ever art-forgery scandals.
Alleged Forgeries of 35 Paintings
Since their arrest, the couple has been held in pre-trial detention. They stand accused of organized professional fraud. Prosecutors are also investigating Jeanette S., the sister of Helene Beltracchi, who is also currently in pre-trial detention, as well as the two women's mother and an art dealer from Krefeld identified only as Otto. Lawyers representing the defendants are refusing to comment on the allegations.
The case centers on the alleged forgery of at least 35 paintings dating back to the first decades of the 20th century. The defendants are accused of systematically supplying the art market with paintings they claimed were undiscovered works by famous painters, and this over a period of more than 14 years. These pictures were sold not only through auction houses in Germany, but also ended up in the art world via traders in London and Paris. The investigators estimate the total damage at more than 15 million. Gallery owners, auctioneers and art historians alike now worry the case could become what the fake so-called "Hitler diaries" were for Stern magazine: A fiasco.
The market for 20th century classics is booming at the moment. In May a second painting was sold for more than $100 million at auction. An anonymous bidder paid the equivalent of 81 million for a Picasso nude at Christie's in New York. There's plenty of money to be earned on art, and the competition to find new goods in a limited market is extremely tough. It could be that auction houses are asking too few questions out of fear the would-be seller will take his business elsewhere. Likewise, experts naturally prefer to attest that a picture is genuine rather than voicing suspicions of forgery and thereby potentially ruining their clients' business. Added to this, the art market has always been a somewhat shady operation in which money is passed under the table and art-loving rich people often seek to keep their identities hidden. All this plays into the forgers' hands.
Two Mysterious Art Collections
In the present case, only one of the paintings has been confirmed beyond a doubt by two analyses as being fake. But the investigators are also considering at least 34 others, all of which have a number of similarities: They are all in similar frames and have yellowed stickers from famous galleries on their backs. No photographs exist of any of them. Many had been considered lost. And all allegedly come from two mysterious art collections.
One of these collections is said to have belonged to a businessman from Cologne called Werner Jägers, the grandfather of the two sisters awaiting trial. According to a letter Helene Beltracchi sent to an art historian, Jägers had acquired a number of paintings in the "late 1920s and early 1930s," particularly works by Rhenish expressionists artists "like Campendonk, Pechstein, Nauen, Mense, Ernst" as well as French painters "like Braque, Derain, Dufy, Marcoussis." She claimed several "important works in his collection" had been bought from the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, "who owned display rooms near one of her grandfather's business premises" and had been a "good friend" of Werner Jägers. When the Nazis came to power, Jägers was allegedly loath to give up his precious artworks -- officially derided as "degenerate" during the Third Reich -- so he hid the pictures at a property in the Eiffel region of Germany. "A few years before his death," Beltracchi claims, he had passed on "a part of his collection" to her and her sister.
One aspect of her story is certainly correct: Her grandfather really existed.
Werner Jägers was born in Belgium in 1912. He married four times and lived mainly in Cologne, where he subsequently died in 1992. But the entrepreneur who made most of his money with industrial construction had relatively little interest in art. Both a close business associate and Jägers' last wife have confirmed he did no more than paint in his spare time -- and only originals like small calendar pictures and fruit baskets.
Hardly a Collection
Neither the man's widow nor his business partner have any memory of an art collection. Although Jägers purchased a few paintings, these were definitely not valuable and certainly did not constitute a collection. Nor are there any records that suggest Jägers, a member of the German Nazi Party, ever knew the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.
There is, however, ample evidence that the key to the mystery of the artworks lies with his granddaughter from his first marriage. When Jägers died, in 1992, Helene Beltracchi was 34 years old and had recently started dealing in antiques. The young, attractive blonde ran an antiques store in Cologne. As the daughter of a Belgian trucker, she and her four sisters grew up in a public housing apartment in Bergisch Gladbach. Helene studied business before diving into the world of junkshop owners, collectors and antique-lovers.
It was probably here that Helene Beltracchi's world intersected with that of her future husband, Wolfgang. At the time, his surname was still Fischer, and he was trying his hand as an artist. In 1978, the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich exhibited three of his acrylic-on-canvas works. They were entitled "Zu Hause" (At Home), "Durchdringung bei Geilenkirchen" (Penetration Near Geilenkirchen) and "Durchdringung, Melatenerstr. Nr. 4" (Penetration, Melatener Street, No. 4). Perhaps the young artist had already realized how difficult it was to earn his keep with conventional art.