SPIEGEL Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi Confessions of a Genius Art Forger

Part 5: 'The Whole Thing Was Discovered Because of an Incorrectly Labeled Tube'

In 2006, the Beltracchis delivered a Heinrich Campendonk titled "Red Picture with Horses" to Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. Beltracchi had affixed stickers to the back that read "Flechtheim Collection," "Der Sturm Gallery" and "Emil Richter Art Salon."

The painter Heinrich Campendonk, who was born in Krefeld in 1889 and died in Amsterdam in 1957, was a member of a group of artists called "The Blue Rider" in the early 20th century. His friends included August Macke, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. He emigrated to Belgium in 1934. A painting called "Red Picture with Horses" does exist in the list of Campendonk's works, but without an image or any information about its dimensions and whereabouts.

It was said that an appraisal was to be prepared, although that claim has been disputed by Hanstein. In November 2006, Trasteco, a Maltese company, bought the painting at auction for €2.88 million. It was the highest price paid for a picture at auction in Germany that year. But because the appraisal was missing, the new owners commissioned a scientific analysis. They received the results in 2008: There were traces of titanium white on the canvas, a pigment that Campendonk couldn't have used because it didn't exist at the time. The buyer's attorney filed a complaint with the district court in Cologne, demanding reimbursement of the purchase price. Various appraisals with differing results followed. Finally, in 2010, the attorney filed a criminal complaint. On Aug. 27, Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi were arrested in Freiburg and held in custody ahead of their trial in October 2011.

During those 14 months, Beltracchi drew portraits of his fellow inmates, and he and his wife wrote each other letters -- "7,000 or 8,000 pages in total," he says. They are currently spending a last 10 days on their vineyard estate in France, together with their attorney, who was ordered by the judge to accompany them, because there is still a small risk of flight. Then their time in prison will begin.

SPIEGEL: Was "Red Picture with Horses" your biggest mistake?

Beltracchi: Why do you say mistake? Scientific analyses were still relatively new at the time. I am only going to say two things. First, the results of these tests are still subject to interpretation. Second, it's easy to paint pictures in such a way that these analyses wouldn't turn up anything. They wouldn't be able to discover anything for years. I didn't pay such close attention to that at the time.

SPIEGEL: But how did the titanium white get on the canvas?

Beltracchi: I had always used a zinc white, which was completely normal in Campendonk's day. Usually I mixed the paints myself, but I was missing some pigments. So I took a zinc white from a tube, a Dutch product, but unfortunately it didn't say that it contained a small amount of titanium white. In other words, the whole thing was discovered because of an incorrectly labeled tube.

SPIEGEL: Then one expert also found out that those gallery stickers never existed.

Beltracchi: Those creations of mine were, of course, idiotic.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't you use authentic ones?

Beltracchi: I didn't want to. It was a joke. I also thought that it would only work one or two times.

SPIEGEL: Starting around 2003, you received more and more requests for documentation to support your invented Jägers collection. In retrospect, one might say that the noose was tightening. At some point, you were no longer just forging paintings, but also photos to support the authenticity of your fakes.

Beltracchi: Yes. We were asked if perhaps there were some family photos in which the paintings could be seen. Well, of course there were. I got myself an old camera, one of those big cardboard things from the 1920s, as well as old film rolls, enlargers, trays, whatever I could find in the flea market. The paper was the hardest part.

Helene Beltracchi: And I put on the kind of blouse that grandmothers used to wear.

Beltracchi: There were photocopies of the fakes hanging on the walls. We no longer had the paintings because, of course, they were already sold.

SPIEGEL: You also made a photo that supposedly depicts a show at the Flechtheim Gallery in 1928.

Beltracchi: I even reconstructed the skirting board in the gallery, even though it didn't even end up being visible in the photo. I printed the paintings from the still life exhibition in black-and-white, in their original size, pasted them into old frames and simply included the copy of my Léger.

SPIEGEL: How exactly did you find out about the titanium white discovery?

Beltracchi: Through (Henrik) Hanstein, the head of Kunsthaus Lempertz.

Helene Beltracchi: We had assumed that Hanstein had ordered an appraisal before auctioning the painting. But he hadn't done that.

Beltracchi: He messed up.

SPIEGEL: The appraisal was prepared in March 2008. Did you know things were going south at that point?

Beltracchi: Yes.

SPIEGEL: And what was your plan?

Beltracchi: There was no plan. Other people advised us to sell the houses and take off. But it was out of the question for us, just as it is today.

SPIEGEL: You say this so matter-of-factly, but you must have been very nervous.

Beltracchi: We were.

Helene Beltracchi: It could have something to do with the cancer I was diagnosed with a few years earlier. I had already cheated death. And, of course, there was some hope for a while. We would probably have won the civil case. But then the buyers' attorneys filed a criminal complaint.

SPIEGEL: Did you really pay the art historian Werner Spies a total of €400,000 for his appraisal of seven Max Ernst forgeries?

Beltracchi: It's quite possible.

SPIEGEL: And he thought it was completely normal to be paid 8 to 9 percent of the selling price for an appraisal?

Beltracchi: Yes, he did. I feel bad about some people, but for some people my sympathy maybe isn't as great as their greed.

SPIEGEL: Would you say that the art market is corrupt?

Beltracchi: No more corrupt than I am. That was clear to me early on.

SPIEGEL: In the end, you still tried to place that Léger and that Derain. Wasn't it risky?

Beltracchi: We were a little uncertain, because we knew that things weren't quite right. But we wanted to use the money to buy back the Campendonk from the Maltese company, and the rest of the money to buy a palazzo in Venice. A nice dream, isn't it?

Helene Beltracchi: We were offered €5 million for each of the paintings at a relatively late date. Of course, the potential buyers pulled out when things became critical. Our civil attorney even spoke with the people from the criminal investigation department and told them that we were available. But I think they wanted to make a really big splash.

SPIEGEL: Was it clear to you that all of this would end up with you in prison?

Beltracchi: Oh come on, that's logical. After we realized that they didn't want to talk to us, we straightened up our house in France and drove to Germany, to Freiburg. Our son's house had already been searched. My wife had spoken on the phone to the officer in charge of the search and told him: Put a seal on it, and we'll be there on Friday. When we arrived in Freiburg, the investigators even let us into the house, and when we drove to a restaurant for dinner later on, they followed us, blocked off streets with dogs and police cars and drew their weapons. They even made the children stand up against the car. It was as if we were terrorists.

Helene Beltracchi: Then the police asked us if we had weapons. Are brushes weapons?

SPIEGEL: And the children?

Helene Beltracchi: They had no idea. They were standing there in the rain and were completely horrified. Wolfgang had only painted when the children were in school.

SPIEGEL: You don't wish to and cannot reveal the number of paintings you forged. But how many artists were there?

Beltracchi: About 50 throughout my entire life.

SPIEGEL: Do you actually know where all your paintings are today?

Beltracchi: No.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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baronkurtz 04/04/2014
1. optional
I think beltracchi is great . He's a true artist . I hope his book get published in English too. Can't wait for the movie.
odunze.onchimereze 02/03/2015
this act of forgery have provided more jobs to securities, act lawyers and to more student that will be graduating to create avenues to track forge art works.we got it.
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