Art Forgery Trial Outcome Is ‘Scandal,’ German Dealers Say

Cologne Regional Court
The Cologne regional court, where a trial for the biggest art forgery case in German history took place. Wolfgang Beltracchi was sentenced for producing oil paintings that he sold as masterpieces by famous artists. Source: Landgericht Koeln via Bloomberg

A Cologne court made a “scandalous” decision by allowing dozens of counterfeit artworks to remain undetected and in circulation during the trial of four art forgers, the BVDG association of German galleries said.

The gang of four, who made at least 10 million euros ($14 million) by selling oil paintings they falsely attributed to famous artists including Max Ernst and Andre Derain, were on Oct. 27 sentenced to a total of 15 years by the Cologne Landgericht, or regional court. Art historians, museums and auction houses were duped by the forgers.

Before the judgment, the defense agreed to confessions in return for milder sentences. The court agreed to focus on just 14 forgeries, dropping investigations into at least 40 more suspected fakes because of statutes of limitations. More than 100 witnesses were never heard.

The court “gave up any attempt at full disclosure in favor of a quick trial,” the Berlin-based BVDG, which represents 350 galleries, said in a statement sent today by e-mail. The trial outcome “missed the chance to shed light on the backgrounds and location of dozens more forgeries.”

Wolfgang Beltracchi, 60, was sentenced to six years in jail after he confessed to painting 14 works that he sold as masterpieces by Ernst, Max Pechstein, Heinrich Campendonk, Derain, Fernand Leger and Kees van Dongen.

His wife, Helene Beltracchi, got a four-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 five years.

Missed Opportunity

The result of the trial, and the missed opportunity to clear up the case in full, is “at least as scandalous as its subject,” the BVDG statement said.

Stuttgart art dealer Klaus Gerrit Friese, the group’s president, said in a phone interview that the collectors who bought the artworks may not even know they are forgeries. Those in the art world who know are now under no pressure to disclose the fakes, he said.

“A cloak of silence has now fallen over this whole case,” he said. “We won’t get any more information.”

During the trial the presiding judge, Wilhelm Kremer, said it was not the responsibility of the court to try to uncover each forgery. He said that in reaching the agreement with the defense, the court had avoided a lengthy, costly trial.


Kremer said that the trial had exposed “a great deal of frivolity” in the art market in dealing with the forgeries, “which perhaps had something to do with the gains that could be made.” He pointed out that galleries and auction houses had sold the forgeries on to collectors at vast profit and said no serious tests or investigations had been conducted.

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.” They said Werner Jaegers was Helene Beltracchi’s grandfather, and Knops was Schulte-Kellinghaus’s grandfather.

The Beltracchi couple 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.

Still, “it wasn’t hard to find out that the Jaegers Collection didn’t exist,” said Friese. Art dealers need to be more vigilant, and should also not rely on individuals who are the sole authority on an artist, he said.

The forgery case has spawned a number of civil cases against experts and auction houses accused of negligence by buyers, as well as the criminal trial.

The BVDG called for scientific tests in cases where there are any doubts about authenticity.

“Any forgeries must immediately be taken out of circulation,” the statement said. “Forgeries are and remain forgeries, even if they are extricated from cellars or depots after 50 years.”

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