High life ends for couple who conned art world

By Tony Paterson

Wolfgang Beltracchi and wife Helene ran a global operation from their home in Cologne. Photo / Supplied
Wolfgang Beltracchi and wife Helene ran a global operation from their home in Cologne. Photo / Supplied

They look more like old hippies than the couple who conned the art world out of an estimated €30 million ($52.4 million). He sports worn jeans, a greying blond mane of shoulder-length hair, a moustache and a beard. Under the unforgiving neon lights of the Cologne courtroom, 60-year-old Wolfgang Beltracchi looks like a bizarre cross between Frank Zappa and King Charles the First.

Helene Beltracchi, his 53-year-old wife and accomplice, dresses in long flowing robes and her hair cascades to her waist in thick tresses. Before each court session, the two embrace passionately in front of the public and press.

Several German newspapers have described the couple as "highly sympathetic" despite the enormity of their crimes: Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi have admitted to masterminding the biggest art forgery scandal in German - if not global - history. With Helene Beltracchi's sister, Jeanette Spurzem, and logistical expert Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, they face charges of systematically duping the art world over 14 years.

The four are expected to be sentenced for their crimes today. They have confessed to supplying top auction houses, including Sotheby's and Christie's, with scores of forged paintings.

They claimed they were undiscovered works by famous early 20th century artists such as the German Expressionists Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Heinrich Campendonk. Their victims included the American comedian Steve Martin, who was duped into paying about US$800,000 ($1 million) for a supposed Campendonk painting called Landscape with Horses.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, the promising art student from the north-western provincial town of Geilenkirchen, was the master forger.

Many of the 53 works the Beltracchis sold to art houses fetched over €500,000 apiece. The Beltracchis are believed to have enriched themselves to the tune of €16 million.

They spent their fortune on building an opulent villa in the southern German town of Freiburg and on lavishly restoring the country estate they acquired in southwest France. Neighbours said they were shocked by the couple's obsession with their wealth. The Beltracchis spent up to €17,000 a month on shopping, hotels and travel alone.

But, these days, Wolfgang Beltracchi sucks sweets in the Cologne court where the four have been on trial since the beginning of September. He even shares the occasional joke with the presiding judge.

The couple and their accomplices have cut a deal with Germany's justice authorities.

They have confessed to everything. In return they have been promised jail terms likely to amount to six years for Wolfgang Beltracchi and four for Helene. The others will probably get away with suspended jail terms. If the Beltracchis are lucky they will be allowed to work outside prison by day and spend only nights in a cell.

At their trial, the Beltracchis have even accused the world's art houses of themselves being consumed by "greed and depravity" in their relentless pursuit of sensational works capable of fetching sensational prices.

Yet their 14 years of meticulously planned deception are certain to go down as one of the biggest and most elaborate art frauds ever recorded. The Beltracchis started putting their expert forgeries on the market in 1995.

Helene Beltracchi managed to hoodwink the art world into believing she had been left the works by her grandfather Werner Jagers. She claimed he had bought them at the beginning of the Nazi era from the renowned Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.

The couple went to extraordinary lengths to make their bogus claims appear convincing. Helene Beltracchi had herself photographed by her husband with her hair up, clad in a sombre black dress and pearls in front of several of the Jagers Collection paintings.

The black-and-white photograph was slightly out of focus and printed on pre-war developing paper.

Helene Beltracchi's impersonation of her grandmother, Josefine Jagers, took in all the art dealers and served as indisputable proof of the authenticity of the collection. "It was great fun," Wolfgang Beltracchi told judges.

To dupe prospective buyers, the Beltracchis bought up pre-war canvases which were then carefully sanded down and made ready for forgeries expertly applied, often with the help of a slide projector. The trick was made easier thanks to experts like Werner Spies, a celebrated Max Ernst authority and former director of the Pompidou arts centre in Paris.

Spies, who admits to having been wholly gullible, appears to have been completely taken in by the paintings and even vouched for their authenticity. In fact, the Jagers Collection never existed. Werner Jagers was a member of the Nazi party who had no interest in art. He made his money in the construction industry and died in 1992. Helene Beltracchi is the daughter of a lorry driver.

Wolfgang Beltracchi grew up as Wolfgang Fischer, later adopting his wife's surname. His father made a living out of restoring church paintings. He was a gifted art student but never completed his studies. His attempts to become an art dealer were also a failure.

"For years I lived on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll," he claimed at his trial. But his life changed dramatically when he met Helene Beltracchi.

Her background was working class. Her mother gave her money to buy books and told her that she would "make it" even without a proper education. Both appear to have had high aspirations which were frustrated.

The Beltracchis' elaborate con trick began to unravel in 2006 after the Lempertz auction house in Cologne was offered a painting by Helene Beltracchi's sister which was conclusively proven to be a forgery. The work, named Red Picture with Horses, was supposed to have been painted by Heinrich Campendonk.

The painting was sold to the Maltese company Trasteco at auction for €2.9 million. But Trasteco became suspicious and commissioned two art historians to investigate. Their findings led to scientific analysis of the paint. It found that the painting contained a colour which did not exist in 1914 when the work was said to have been completed.

Police arrested the Beltracchis in August last year as they were leaving their luxury villa to go out to dinner. Their two homes are now being sold and Wolfgang Beltracchi claims the €1 million remaining in his Swiss bank account has since been handed to the court authorities. But Wolfgang Beltracchi now apparently hopes the publicity from his trial may help him to further his own future career as an artist after jail.

As the presiding judge in Cologne revealed last week: "To clear up any confusion, Mr Beltracchi has agreed to take back all his forgeries and return them to their owners signed - this time - with his own name."

- Independent

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