60 Minutes: The Con Artist
Wolfgang Beltracchi is not a common name, and he is not a common man. But he became a very rich man over four decades by doing something most people have never imagined. He is an art forger who did not copy works, but completely imagined works that artists might have created, or which may have been thought lost forever. 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon said that it is widely acknowledged that he is the best art forger of our time.
60 Minutes: Wolfgang Beltracchi
Beltracchi said he may be the best forger ever, and he let 60 Minutes visit his home in Cologne, where he let the cameras watch him forge a Max Ernst painting that he could paint within three days and might have sold for $5 million.
By his own count, he thinks he has painted 25 works in the style of Ernst. These are not copies, but things Beltracchi imagines a particular painter might have taken on in his or her own style. He projected that he has forged 100 artists or more.
The only one he might not be able to pull off, he thinks, is Bellini, because of the degree of difficulty. Some of his works are still on public display in museums. He thinks he is one of the most exhibited painters the world over.
60 Minutes: Helene Beltracchi Germany Art Cover Story
That list includes the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Hermitage in Lausanne. Actor Steve Martin has been among the customers for Beltracchi’s forgeries, which have also been auctioned at public events and featured in paintings of the 20th century’s greatest artworks.
Jeff Taylor, an arts management professor at Purchase College, thinks that he is the most financially successful art forger ever, combining and building on techniques of his forebears. He may be an evil genius, because he was a great con man in addition to his painting skills.
With the help of Helene, his wife and co-conspirator, Wolfgang was really able to cash in since their 1993 marriage. Their story was that her grandfather hid his collection of art before World War II in Germany, to protect it from the Nazis. Then she inherited it when he died…but none of it ever really existed until Wolfgang painted it.
60 Minutes: Helene Beltracchi Forgery
Helene said that no one ever really pressed her for more details about her story, and the couple also fabricated labels from a German art dealer, which they affixed to some of the works they sold, even staining them to make them look aged.
They would also purchase canvases from the proper time periods to make it more realistic and believable. 60 Minutes said the couple even had paint pigments analyzed in labs to ensure that they would have been available at the right times.
But that’s not all. Helene would pose in front of the works as her grandmother, in settings where the photographs would have been displayed, even using pre-war photographs and period-appropriate film.
60 Minutes: Jamie Martin Raman Spectroscopy
The couple bought estates in Germany and France, complete with a vineyard. Then they took on the world and the adventures it had to offer them and their fortune. But eventually the gravy train came to an end, and the million-dollar paydays dried up.
It all came down to a tube of white paint in 2010, which did not fully list its pigments on the label. That would be the beginning of the end for the pair 60 Minutes called the art world’s Bonnie and Clyde. This type of Titanium White would not have been available when Ernst would have been painting.
Forensic art analyst Jamie Martin took a look at one of Beltracchi’s forgeries, and Martin agreed that the fakes were convincing and well-done. Martin said that no one examined the paintings closely enough. You can analyze them down to a microscopic level using Raman Spectroscopy to analyze possible forgeries.
60 Minutes: Wolfgang Beltracchi Fallout
The couple was sentenced, with Wolfgang receiving six years and Helene getting four. But that was just the beginning of the fallout, as collectors are now suing the art galleries and auction houses who claimed the forgeries were legitimate works.
60 Minutes wondered how he felt about this. He said that he is now hated, and that he was just too good for the serious experts who were checking out his works. Taylor said that this has made many of these experts shy about their line of work.
“It’s so risky that a lot of authentication boards have shut down,” Taylor said, and many experts will not give their opinions any longer. Francis O’Connor, an expert on Jackson Pollock, said that he now keeps his opinions to himself. That leaves labs like Jamie Martin’s, who said that as many as 98% of artworks in circulation could be fakes.
60 Minutes: Beltracchi Original Paintings
At trial, the charges claimed that 36 of Beltracchi’s fakes netted him $46 million. However, art historians and Beltracchi both believe there could be ten times that amount out there, and the trail could continue to unravel over the decades. Unless they are burned or destroyed, Martin said that fakes could be in circulation for generations to come.
After a year and a half in a penitentiary, Beltracchi can now spend more of his time at home, where he has a paintbrush in hand once again, this time signing works under his own name. He has lost the fortune he had and is now being sued for at least $27 million. His only mistake, he said, is using the wrong Titanium White.