The Greatest Fake-Art Scam in History? How did a self-described German hippie pull off one of the biggest, most lucrative cons in art-world history? And how did he get nailed?
October 17, 2012
Nobody in Freiburg could remember a party quite like it. The date was September 22, 2007, and Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, affluent newcomers to this lively university town near Germany’s Black Forest, had invited friends and neighbors to celebrate a milestone. Workers had just put the finishing touches on their $7 million villa, after 19 months of extensive renovations. Lanterns lit up the cobblestone walkway to the hillside house, a five-level minimalist structure with a glass and Siberian-larch-wood façade, steel beams, pastel-colored tile floors, and contemporary paintings and sculptures filling every room. The staff of Freiburg’s luxurious Colombi Hotel—where the Beltracchis had lodged in a $700-a-night penthouse suite when they were in town during the remodeling—had prepared the ample food and drink, including magnums of fine champagne. The Beltracchis had even flown in a celebrated four-member flamenco band from Granada to dance and sing for their 100 guests.
Spanish ballads floated across gardens and courtyards to the glass pool house. Inside it, the party-goers ogled a large painting by the French Cubist Fernand Léger. Others admired art installations throughout the villa, including Baghdad Table, an intricate stylized aluminum model of the Iraqi capital by the Israeli industrial designer Ezri Tarazi. From the terraces, they took in the lights of the medieval city far below. Wolfgang, a long-haired, 56-year-old Albrecht Dürer look-alike, and Helene, an ingénue-like woman of 49 with waist-length brown hair cut into girlish bangs, had spared no expense to announce their arrival on Freiburg’s scene. “Everybody was blown away,” remembers Michel Torres, who had hired the flamenco dancers on the Beltracchis’ behalf and who had befriended the couple during the years that they lived in southern France. “It was unforgettable.”
Yet mingling with admiration for the Beltracchis’ style and taste was a feeling of unease. None of the architects, lawyers, university professors, and other Freiburg residents knew the first thing about where their hosts had come from, nor how they had amassed their wealth. “One [German] woman asked me, ‘Who is this guy? Is he a rock star?’” recalls Magali Richard-Malbos, another of the Beltracchis’ French friends. “And I said, ‘No, no. He’s an artist, a collector.’”
Strictly speaking, that was true. It would be another three years before the truth about what kind of artist Beltracchi is came out.
‘The big question every reader will want to know is, how and why does a person become an art forger?” Wolfgang Beltracchi tells me. His question is just a tad modest: Beltracchi, in fact, masterminded one of the most audacious and lucrative art frauds in postwar European history. For decades, this self-taught painter, who had once scratched out a living in Amsterdam, Morocco, and other spots along the hippie trail, had passed off his own paintings as newly discovered masterpieces by Max Ernst, André Derain, Max Pechstein, Georges Braque, and other Expressionists and Surrealists from the early 20th century. Helene Beltracchi, along with two accomplices—including her sister—had sold the paintings for six and seven figures through auction houses in Germany and France, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s. One phony Max Ernst had hung for months in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Steve Martin purchased a fake Heinrich Campendonk through the Paris gallery Cazeau-Béraudière for $860,000 in 2004; the French magazine-publishing mogul Daniel Filipacchi paid $7 million for a phony Max Ernst, titled The Forest (2), in 2006. For the 14 fakes that the Beltracchis were eventually charged with selling, their estimated take was around €16 million, or $22 million. Their total haul over the years must have been far more.
I was meeting with the couple last winter in the dining room of their lawyer’s house in Sürth, an affluent suburb of Cologne. Large windows looked over a snow-dappled garden and, just beyond, the Rhine River, clogged on this bright and frigid February morning with chunks of ice. After complicated negotiations, they had agreed to tell me their story.
Beltracchi, who was wearing jeans and a pale-blue fleece, still appeared every bit the hippie rogue. His shoulder-length blond hair, thinning on top, along with his blond mustache and graying goatee, made him look something like a swashbuckler out ofThe Three Musketeers, with a touch of Mephistopheles. For 61, he seemed surprisingly youthful, an appearance enhanced by the upper- and lower-eyelid lifts he had received in a clinic in southern France six years ago. Helene, clad in a blue knit turtleneck sweater, her thick tresses cascading to her waist, had clearly done her best to retain her girlish appeal. She looked at her husband adoringly, as he began to explain what drew him into a life of crime.
“Obviously one has to invest a lot of time to achieve success by painting one’s own works,” he told me, displaying a healthy amount of what the Germans call Selbstgefälligkeit, or self-satisfaction. “I was always a guy who wanted to be out and about . . . For me, life is on the outside, not the inside.”
eltracchi, whose original name was Wolfgang Fischer, was born in 1951 in Höxter, a village in Westphalia, in west-central Germany. His father was a house painter and a restorer of churches who supplemented his income by producing cheap copies of Rembrandts, Picassos, and Cézannes. Beltracchi inherited his dad’s skill with a brush, and took it to a new level: at 14 he astonished his father, he says, by painting a passable Picasso in a single day—“a mother and child from the Blue Period”—and adding original flourishes. Three years later, he enrolled in an art academy in Aachen, but ended up skipping most of his classes. It was the late 1960s, “the hippie time,” Beltracchi says. He grew his hair long, purchased a Harley-Davidson, and smoked hashish and dropped L.S.D. with U.S. soldiers stationed at a nearby NATO base on their way home from Vietnam. “Many of them had gone a little bit crazy from the war,” Beltracchi recalls. “Some of them became my friends.”
During the 1970s and early 80s, young Wolfgang Fischer led a nomadic life—like Peter Fonda inEasy Rider, Helene says. He spent a year and a half on a beach in Morocco, and lived in a commune in Spain. He drifted around Barcelona, London, and Paris, buying and selling paintings at antique markets. He lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam, where he put on psychedelic light shows at the Paradiso nightclub. He enjoyed some early success as a painter in his own right, contributing three works to a prestigious art exhibition in Munich in 1978. But, by his own admission, he was more drawn to the outlaw life. One day during his wanderings, he bought a pair of winter landscapes by an unknown 18th-century Dutch painter for $250 apiece. Fischer had noticed that tableaus from the period which depicted ice skaters sold for five times the price of those without ice skaters. In his atelier, he carefully painted a pair of skaters into the scenes and resold the canvases for a considerable profit. Thirty years ago, fakes were even harder to detect than they are now, he tells me. “They weren’t the first ones I made, but they were an important step.” Soon he was purchasing old wooden frames and painting ice-skating scenes from scratch, passing them off as the works of old masters…