Vanity Fair has a fascinating piece about the infamous art-forging Beltracchis of Cologne. It's hard to say what's more impressive -- the ingenuity of the forgers or the credulousness of the art establishment:
He had moved from old masters to early-20th-century French and German artists, partly because it was easier to find pigments and frames from that period. The forgeries came in “waves,” he says, depending on his need for cash. “Sometimes I’d paint 10 works in a month, and then go for six months without doing any.” Among his specialties were paintings by the German Expressionist Johannes Molzahn, who had fled the Nazis and taken refuge in the U.S. in 1938; Fischer sold as many as a dozen purported Molzahns, which fetched up to $45,000. (One was even bought by the artist’s widow.) He says he insinuated three fake paintings, by three different artists, into a single auction held by art dealer Jean-Louis Picard in Paris in 1991.
In the mid-1980s, Fischer also began painting phony works supposedly by Heinrich Campendonk, another German Expressionist from the Lower Rhine. Condemned by the Nazis as a “degenerate artist,” he had fled into exile in the Netherlands shortly after their rise to power. During this period, Andrea Firmenich, a young German art scholar in Bonn, was assembling a comprehensive catalogue of Campendonk’s art with the assistance of Campendonk’s son; Beltracchi says “five or six” of his own forgeries ended up in Firmenich’s catalogue raisonné. “This was really brilliant,” says Ralph Jentsch, a modern-art expert who would later play a critical role in exposing the Beltracchis’ fraud. “It shows the criminal potential of this guy. . . . It also shows how careless [Firmenich] was.” For her part, Firmenich counters that Campendonk’s output was unusually vast (more than 1,200 works), that two other authorities consulted on the catalogue, and that “no expert is immune from mistakes.” She declines to go into further detail. “The damage to my person is so big that I am not able to say anything ‘official,’” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “The damage for the experts of art is so enormous, and the public understanding of Beltracchi as a hero so absurd, that I hope you can understand my opinion.”
By the early 2000s, Beltracchi’s fakes were selling at auction to collectors for the high six figures, sometimes more. Steve Martin paid $860,000 in 2004 for a counterfeit Campendonk called Landscape with Horses, then sold it through Christie’s 18 months later at a $240,000 loss, still unaware that he’d been in possession of a fake. In 2007, a French gallery sold Portrait of a Woman with Hat, a semi-nude allegedly by the Dutch Fauvist painter Kees van Dongen, to a wealthy Dutch collector, Willem Cordia, for $3.8 million. Other forgeries wound up in the hands of galleries, museums, and private collectors in places as far flung as Tokyo and Montevideo, Uruguay. In addition to imitating the works of second-tier Expressionists and Cubists such as Louis Marcoussis, Oskar Moll, and Moïse Kisling, Beltracchi embarked on a more dangerous business: forging the works of great artists such as Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and Max Ernst. While they would command higher prices, these paintings also ran the risk of inviting closer scrutiny. Beltracchi says he was especially drawn to Ernst, because “physically, he resembled my father.”
Despite the higher stakes, or perhaps because of them, art experts eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. Indeed, the Beltracchis often prophylactically secured statements of authenticity from leading authorities to quell potential doubts before offering the paintings to auction houses and galleries. Werner Spies, now 75, the former director of the modern-art museum at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the world’s leading Max Ernst authority, made a pilgrimage to Domaine des Rivettes in early 2004 to inspect The Forest (2). The large canvas depicted a sun of concentric circles of red, blue, white, and yellow, rising over a coppice of cypress trees. Beltracchi had painted the large work in two days, employing the same method that Ernst often used: rubbing a spatula over blocks of rough wood, seashells, and other found objects that he had placed beneath the painted canvas. With Wolfgang making himself scarce—he never revealed himself to potential buyers or experts, he says—Helene escorted Spies into the couple’s bedroom. The phony Ernst hung on the wall behind the bed. “Spies came in, took one look, and was overcome with excitement,” Helene says. He declared that there was no doubt The Forest (2) was authentic.
Spies—who did not return e-mails or phone calls asking for comment—quickly put Helene in touch with a Swiss art dealer, who triumphantly sold Max Ernst’s long-lost The Forest (2) to a company called Salomon Trading, for about €1.8 million, or $2.3 million. The painting passed to a Paris gallery, Cazeau-Béraudière, which sold it in 2006 to Daniel Filipacchi for $7 million. “The widow of Max Ernst [Dorothea Tanning, who died this past January] saw the painting and said that it was the most beautiful picture that Max Ernst had ever painted,” Helene gloats today. She and Wolfgang were amazed by the gullibility of those they had duped, says Helene. “We’re still laughing about it.”
Also playing a bit part are the relentless, utterly dedicated German police, who discovered a fake Beltracchi in the mid-1990s and started an investigation, and then let everything slide while Beltracchi fled the country for a few years and then resumed his forgery career.