An art forger and his three accomplices, who made at least 10 million euros ($14 million) by selling oil paintings they falsely attributed to famous artists, were today sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison by a court in Cologne.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, 60, was sentenced to 6 years in jail after he confessed to painting 14 works that he sold as masterpieces by Max Ernst, Max Pechstein, Heinrich Campendonk, Andre Derain, Fernand Leger and Kees van Dongen.
His wife, Helene Beltracchi, got a 4-year term; her sister, named by the court as Jeanette S., was handed a 21-month suspended sentence; and a fourth associate, Otto Schulte- Kellinghaus, was given 5 years at the Cologne regional court.
“Beltracchi was the guiding spirit, who brought the others in, even if they came willingly,” Wilhelm Kremer, the presiding judge at the trial, told the court. The scam was “organized in great detail, you could say with military precision,” he said.
Dealers and collectors say confidence in the German art market has been shaken by the forgery scandal, described as the biggest ever in Germany, as art historians, museums and auction houses were duped by the fake pictures.
On the side of the victims, “there was a great deal of frivolity in buying the paintings, which had perhaps something to do with the gains that could be made,” Kremer said. He pointed out that galleries and auction houses had sold the forgeries on to collectors at vast profit.
“No serious tests and investigations were conducted,” he said.
Among the forgers’ victims was the U.S. actor Steve Martin, according to a May report in Spiegel magazine. Martin paid 700,000 euros for a painting falsely attributed to Heinrich Campendonk, called “Landscape With Horses,” from Galerie Cazeau- Beraudiere in Paris in 2004, according to Spiegel.
It was then sold by Christie’s in 2006 for 500,000 euros to a Swiss businesswoman, the magazine said. Christie’s spokesman Matthew Paton declined to comment on the sale.
“The whole thing is quite terrible,” said Christoph Graf Douglas, a Frankfurt-based independent art dealer and consultant to collectors. “It has completely undermined confidence in the market. Not only were criminals at work, there was also some shoddy research. People have bought the idea that experts can detect forgeries, and this shows that is not the case.”
The Cologne auction house Kunsthaus Lempertz said in January that it had sold five of the forgers’ works. The authenticity of all of them “was confirmed by leading experts and some of them were subsequently shown in a number of museums.”
“My colleagues and I, like the whole art market, were deceived by the highly skilled and professional operations of the forgers,” Lempertz chief executive Henrik Hanstein wrote in a letter to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in July.
The group not only produced and sold the paintings, it also invented an entire provenance for them, claiming the art came from either the “Jaegers Collection” or the “Wilhelm Knops Collection,” according to the Cologne court.
They said Werner Jaegers was Helene Beltracchi’s grandfather, while Knops was Schulte-Kellinghaus’s grandfather. The Beltracchi couple produced fake gallery and collectors’ labels to stick on the back of the canvases.
They even forged family photographs from the 1930s, showing paintings hanging in the background, with Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother, to convince potential buyers that the provenance was authentic. In fact, neither Jaegers nor Knops collected art, Kremer told the court.
In return for the confessions, prosecutors had agreed to request milder prison sentences. The Beltracchi couple agreed to pay 980,000 Swiss francs ($1.12 million) to the court. During the court negotiations, the total sum of damages caused by the forgers was reduced to 10 million euros from an initial figure of 16 million euros.
“The confessions helped to save us a long trial and appearances that could have been very embarrassing for some witnesses,” Kremer said.
Beltracchi, who was wearing a lilac pullover and jeans with a sports jacket, hugged his wife at the end of the trial. Helene Beltracchi’s dark blond, waist-length hair floated loose over a black sweater dress.
Christian Rode, Beltracchi’s lawyer, said in a final statement that his client wasn’t motivated by profit alone. The master forger, who has unruly, gray-blond, shoulder-length locks and once lived in a houseboat, took great pride in his work, he said.
He felt a close connection with the artists whose oeuvres he sought to “complete,” calling his paintings the works that the artists should themselves have produced, but never got around to, Rode said. Beltracchi told the court that his pictures were sometimes almost “too good” for the artist, because he had the benefit of hindsight and knew how the artist and the history of art developed.
The judge described how Beltracchi bought canvases dating from the 1920s, choosing those without too much paint on so that he could carefully remove it. He sometimes mixed his own pigments or bought antique paint kits. He became an expert in art history and the lives of the artists whose work he emulated.
In some cases, he took the titles of paintings listed as lost during World War II in directories of the artists’ works and recreated them from scratch.
Shady Art Market
Rode said the trial exposed many of the shadier aspects of the art market.
“We have heard a lot about experts driven by interests, who don’t only provide expertise but also buy, mediate and receive commission,” he said in his concluding statement.
The forgers were only caught out when one buyer became suspicious and sent his picture to be examined by scientists. They discovered a paint color that had not existed at the time the work was supposed to have been produced.
As many as 41 more paintings not included in the trial because of statutes of limitations may also be forgeries by Beltracchi. The scandal has also spawned a number of civil cases against dealers and auction houses, as well as the criminal trial. Kremer said today it is not the job of the court to try to uncover each forgery.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.