Fakes and copies Germany

Sympathy grows for alleged forgers

Media has painted four defendants in fake art trial in a positive light

Wolfgang Beltracchi, left, in court, and the alleged forged paintings by Derain (centre) and Leger (right)

cologne. The four protagonists in Germany’s biggest art forgery scandal were sentenced a total 15 years in prison on 27 October following charges of forgery and corruption in a Cologne court. The group duped leading art world figures into buying forgeries from the fictitious “Werner Jägers” and “Wilhelm Knops” collections by artists including Max Ernst, André Derain and Fernand Léger. Ringleader Wolfgang Beltracchi, his wife Helene, her sister, Jeanette, as well as Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, all confessed to their involvement in creating and selling 14 forgeries, which earned them an estimated €16m over the past decade. Beltracchi was given a six year sentence, his wife a four-year term, her sister—named as Jeanette S—a 21-month suspended sentence; and their associate, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, a five-year term.

German auction house Lempertz, Max Ernst expert Werner Spies and art dealer Jacques de la Béraudiere are facing civil lawsuits and compensation claims from their clients. Beltracchi’s forgeries continue to be uncovered—most recently a painting in Hannover’s Sprengel Museum, Katze in Berglandschaft, said to be by Heinrich Campendonk.

“Masterly forgeries”

While the case has sent shockwaves through the art world, German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau calls the group a “nice family of counterfeiters”, and most media outlets, from the local newspaper Badische Zeitung to the popular weekly magazine Der Spiegel, have been calling Beltracchi a filou, or rogue. Die Welt says that the “likeable” Beltracchi deserves our applause for his masterly forgeries, while an opinion piece in Die Zeit calls for an exhibition of the fakes. The Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) says that Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was”.

Plea bargain

During the trial, Beltracchi described his early beginnings when he forged a Picasso in two hours as a 14-year-old boy, his faltering career as an artist and the “fun” he experienced in deceiving the art world, finally delivering a scathing attack on the art market: “You have to know where the greed is greatest.” His confession, along with those of the three other defendants, formed part of a plea bargain that will see their sentences reduced and the case expedited. The trial was due to end as we went to press.

“Art forgery is the most moral way to embezzle €16m,” said FAZ. Der Spiegel expressed little sympathy for the art market: “compared with crooked bankers, Beltracchi and his co-conspirators haven’t swindled common people out of their savings, but rather people who may have wanted to be deceived. Therefore the [expected] sentences are not inappropriately mild, but rather the opposite.”


Robert Ketterer, the owner of German auction house Ketterer Kunst, said there is a general sense of schadenfreude about the art market. “The lack of transparency often leads people to believe that intrigues are going on behind the scenes, which they feel have now been exposed. In a Robin Hood kind of way, the Beltracchis have taken money out of the pockets of the rich. They have shown up the art market.”

Those on the receiving end are less forgiving. Art dealer Wolfgang Henze, who bought a fake Max Pechstein painting from Lempertz in 2003, says he is astonished that the ­public has fallen for Beltracchi’s “Albrecht Dürer Christ act”, and has branded the German media’s reaction to the case “disgusting”.

None of the 178 planned witnesses will now take the stand and the full extent of the fraud will most likely remain a mystery.

To see how good the forgeries were, see our online picture gallery.

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12 Dec 11
15:15 CET


All of the perpetrators will now have plenty of time to read William Gaddis's fine artworld novel "The Recognitions." After all, they've already performed it.

6 Dec 11
15:9 CET


I'm disappointed to read that the response to people deliberately setting out to deceive for profit and to undermine the authenticity of any artist's work are being lauded in any way. It may be tempting to feel good about someone besting the institutions representing over-valued art market, but it's still wrong.

4 Nov 11
14:46 CET


Wow! This is one of the few art forgers in captivity. With all of the folklore surrounding high quality forgeries swirling around artland finally is the real deal. My guess is that within 2 years (allowing for media gestation) he’ll have a reality TV show and a ton of booty. What was that line in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”…..”I’d rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody”.

3 Nov 11
17:2 CET


It's funny to see forgers getting the bad end of the stick. They haven't stolen, but borrowed. A lot of art is rubbish. Freshening up the masters of the past for rich people who "need" art, maybe just the thing they need to put these snobs back on a realistic path. Paintings are not commodities, they are art. If dealers went away believing they have bought something beautiful, it should be enough. I love paintings and I have a large collection of paper and computer prints. They are still lovely. Original paintings should be shown to everyone in museums. That is honoring the masters. I think a valuable lesson has been taught to dealers and I have to laugh. How many times have books, music and architecture been stolen, edited, redone and given the authors name to the work. A lot.

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