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.
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.
The Fraud Is Discovered
Soon the Beltracchis bought the "Domaine des Rivettes" near the port town of Mèze in the Languedoc region of France on the Mediterranean. Built in 1858, the country estate had its own private river and vineyards. The property underwent luxurious restoration, and was furnished with palm trees and a 170-square-meter (1,700 square foot) studio.
The reconstruction must have cost millions. An artist and former friend of the Beltracchis remembers the "many paintings" that hung in the house, works he was told were "heirlooms from an uncle of Helene's." The Beltracchis said they were the pieces by Campendonk, Pechstein and Max Ernst, and that they would be selling them at auction.
A neighbor said he "never dreamed they could have been forgeries." Nevertheless, he did suspect that something was awry, although he attributed the wealth of pictures to "a collection amassed during the Third Reich."
Valuable paintings were now being offered at ever shorter intervals, sometimes by Helene Beltracchi, sometimes by her sister Jeanette, a sophisticated officer's wife, and sometimes by an old acquaintance from the Lower Rhine: The art-lover Otto from Krefeld.
An artist living near the Baltracchis' French residence recalls Wolfgang once inquiring about "how valuable pictures could be transported to Germany" and "how the insurance worked." In the end the painter had allegedly found a shipping company that didn't ask too many questions and was willing to take the canvasses on one of its trips rolled up and packed into cardboard tubes.
A Minor Sensation
In 2001 Helene Beltracchi's sister Jeanette presented the Lempertz auction house in Cologne with a new picture from the "Werner Jägers collection." This oil painting, entitled "Seine Bridge with Freight Barges" and allegedly painted by the expressionist Max Pechstein, was sold to a collector in Montevideo. Two years later, she delivered another supposed Pechstein for auction. "Reclining Nude with Cat" (1909) was sold to the Bern-based art dealer Wolfgang Henze for €498,000. The nude was considered a minor sensation in the art world. After all, hadn't Pechstein mentioned precisely this motif in his memoirs? And didn't the find exactly match a small Pechstein aquarelle in the Brücke Museum in Berlin?
Indeed it did -- though a little too well. As art historian Aya Soika has since discovered, key details of the aquarelle were copied "almost one-to-one" onto the later auctioned canvas, apparently with the aid of a projector. Soika found other astonishing similarities when comparing the picture of the barges with another of Pechstein's drawings.
After the two supposed masterpieces had been sold, the Beltracchis expanded their family estate. In mid-October 2005 the couple bought the exclusive villa in Freiburg for €1.1 million. Wolfgang Beltracchi paid part of the purchase price using money from his account in Andorra.
The reconstruction of the villa took 19 months to complete, by which time the builders were furious about the special wishes of the property's rich owner, whose demands included a countertop in the kitchen shaped like angels' wings.
During his visits to Freiburg, Beltracchi always stayed at the Colombi, a prime location on the main square, and a "leading hotel of the world." And while his luxury villa was gradually taking shape, with builders installing olive doors, panorama windows and casements made from zebrano wood, the "Werner Jägers collection" was gradually converted into cash. In February 2006 Christie's auctioned off the next Campendonk. A few months later the auction house offered a list price of £3.5 million on the supposed Max Ernst painting "La Horde." It was purchased by a German collector.
In late November 2006 Lempertz was sent a painting that would put an end to the suspected massive fraud. The painting was ostensibly "Red Picture with Horses."
Once again the painting had been brought in by Helene's sister. The picture graced the front cover of the auction catalog, and eventually changed hands for €2.9 million -- more than had ever been paid for a work by a Rhenish expressionist artist. The painting was bought by a company in Malta called Trasteco Ltd.
Because the Maltese didn't want to take any risks, they sought the advice of a gallery in Geneva, Switzerland. Experts there found it strange that the authenticity of the painting had not been certified before the auction, and they asked Lempertz for the relevant paperwork.
However the auction house in Cologne replied that Campendonk's son had verbally declared the picture to be authentic. Trasteco also hired art historian Andrea Firmenich, who had written her Ph.D. thesis on Campendonk. This time, however, the art critic recommended the work undergo scientific testing.
In October 2008, Firmenich contacted Flechtheim expert Ralph Jentsch and asked him to assess the strange gallery sticker on the frame of "Red Picture with Horses." Jentsch said he laughed out loud when he saw Flechtheim's face on the sticker. The art historian also knew what the gallery's stickers really looked like -- and confirmed that they did not bear the owner's portrait. More damning still, when Firmenich inquired about the "art collector Werner Jägers," Jentsch said he had never heard of him.
Trasteco thereupon commissioned Friederike Gräfin von Brühl, a lawyer in Berlin, to sue Lempertz for an annulment of the sale. Extensive research was also initiated. Investigators discovered that "Red Picture with Horses" contained a color that had not been invented yet in 1914, the year in which the picture had allegedly been painted.
An Art Lover from Krefeld
Suddently, after his name had been circulating for more than a decade, people started wondering about the identity of the mysterious Werner Jägers. The man tasked with attesting to the ominous collector's passion for art in Trasteco's civil suit against Lempertz was an old acquaintance of Beltracchi: Otto, an art-lover from Krefeld, whom state prosecutors also began investigating after several forged paintings from his "family collection" apparently made their way onto the market.
Otto is actually in advertising, though he once tried to set up an artists' collective à la Joseph Beuys. The legend he wove around the origins of his paintings is strikingly similar to that which Helene Beltracchi told about Werner Jägers: In a letter to a friend Otto wrote that his "maternal grandfather" had had "Jewish acquaintances" and bought "many pictures through Flechtheim." Likewise, the collection of tailor Knops -- the grandfather's name -- primarily consisted of the works of Rhenish or French expressionists. Otto claims he received "packages containing the pictures" after his parents' death.
In the civil case, he backed the Beltracchis up. He said his grandfather knew Jägers well, and that the two families had even wanted to exchange two Campendonks in the 1950s. He said he distinctly recalled the pictures, which hung on the wall at the time.
Knops' collection also contained several paintings supposedly by the surrealist Max Ernst, all of which were authenticated by art historian Werner Spies, a long-standing features writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper and Germany's leading authority on Max Ernst.
'The Work of a Brilliant Forger'
Otto and Spies exchanged letters about one Max Ernst painting the art-lover was particularly proud to possess. Spies took a look at the piece, entitled "The Forest," at an art gallery in Berlin. Later it was even exhibited at a major Max Ernst retrospective held at the New York Metropolitan Museum.
Werner Spies certified a total of seven alleged Max Ernst pictures from the collections of Knops and Jägers. "From a stylistic point of view I still believe the pictures given to me to authenticate were the works of Max Ernst," Spies says.
Most of the suspicious paintings weren't auctioned off, but rather sold to private collectors -- in some cases with Spies' assistance. They apparently fetched up to €4.6 million. "If the pieces are forgeries," Spies says, "they can only be described as the work of a brilliant forger."
An old friend of Beltracchi's says the itinerant artist was "touched by God," adding: "He is extremely talented, and can paint everything from memory."
In June, after the lawyer von Brühl had pressed charges, officers at the art crime division of the regional criminal investigation bureau in Berlin began looking into the case. At the same time, private investigators from the Munich-based ADS detective agency started researching Werner Jägers' life. Within a matter of days, they discovered what the art world had refused to see for 15 years: Werner Jägers may have been a businessman, but he was never an art collector.
'That Bastard Wolfgang'
On August 25 detectives searched several apartments. The same day, investigators recorded a telephone call Helene Beltracchi's sister received in France from her son in Cologne, who had nothing to do with the art trading. "I just wanted to say that we had eight police officers in the apartment five minutes ago," the son explained excitedly. "What?!" his mother asked, perplexed. "Eight cops!" he explained. "And they had a search warrant because of that bastard Wolfgang."
The son assured her that he hadn't told the officers anything about her, his mother, taking pictures to Lempertz for auction. When Wolfgang Beltracchi, whose phone was also tapped, called his son and urged him to hide his laptop immediately, the investigators knew the time had come to act.
Work is now underway to determine whether Wolfgang Beltracchi did indeed forge the pictures, who he may have been assisted by, and how many paintings really are fakes. It also remains to be seen whether he can still be punished for acts beyond the decade laid down in the statute of limitations. One thing is sure: The case will rob art dealers of any shred of credibility that they still possess. The civil cases brought by the alleged victims of the fraud will probably drag on for years.
The public attorney's office recently entered two debt-securing mortgages on the renovated villa in Freiburg that Wolfgang Beltracchi had unveiled so lavishly. The total value of the mortgages: €2,545,577.20.