Cache of paintings supposedly smuggled out of Nazi Germany turn out to be forgeries

Bryn Lloyd Williams, a former dealer, duped Desmond Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society and cheated investors out of £1.8 million, while Expressionist fakes toured 12 US colleges


One of the most audacious art frauds in years has been exposed in an English court. At the centre of the case was a cache of pictures, said to have been smuggled out of Nazi Germany by the marqués Victor von Saloschin, a Bavarian-born nobleman with a Brazilian title. This represented “the remarkable survival of a fabulous collection of paintings” amassed by his aristocratic ancestors.

The fraud began when some fifty-eight “Expressionist pictures” were sent on an exhibition tour to American colleges, eventually to be unmasked as fakes at the twelfth venue. But the real sting was when investors paid a total of £1.8 million for a financial stake in a collection of Old Masters which were to be sold to Malaysia. Although said to include works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Reynolds, all turned out to be copies or misattributions and the Malaysian buyer was a fiction.

In a High Court Judgment handed down on 8 July, Mrs Justice Ebsworth made a finding of fraud against Bryn Lloyd Williams, a former art dealer in the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles. Describing him as “a clever man and a calculating witness”, she commented that the plaintiffs “seem to have been dazzled throughout by Williams and the promise of substantial commission earnings.” The Saloschin saga exposes the gullibility of many of those involved—from American colleges to Irish investors.

Expressionist scam

In 1991 a group of community colleges in America were delighted when they received a proposal from Williams, offering to arrange the loan of a collection of Expressionist paintings and drawings. The big names were there—Dix, Grosz, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Marc, Nolde and Rouault—and the works were claimed to be worth £2,022,000. Williams, who said he was a close friend of the Marqués, presented the exhibition as a philanthropic gesture to further cultural ties between Europe and America, and the loan show was offered without charge. For adult education colleges, accustomed to showing local artists, this was a golden opportunity to display internationally renowned masters. It seemed too good to be true—and it was.

“The Von Saloschin/Hirth du Fresnes Collection of Expressionist paintings and drawings” began its North American tour in February 1992 at Evergreen Community College, San Jose, California. It was formally opened by the German consul, who spoke in glowing terms of the generosity of the Marqués. The collection then wound its way through colleges in Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Delaware and Alabama, until it reached its twelfth venue in September 1993, in Illinois.

Accompanying the exhibition was a catalogue, detailing the works and telling the extraordinary story of the Saloschin Collection. The introduction explained that Victor von Saloschin, the father of the present marqués, had a Brazilian title awarded by Emperor Dom Pedro and a French title which descended from vicomte Drevelle du Fresnes, “publisher, politician and polymath.” Victor was said to have been playing polo in Argentina when World War I broke out, and abandoning his wife (while she was “debauching gauchos”), he returned to Germany to marry his fifteen-year old cousin. The Saloschins were “inveterate womanisers”, and although half-Jewish, the marqués later took as his mistress the niece of Nazi leader Hermann Göring, installing her in the top-floor suite of a Munich hotel.

Alarmed by looming anti-Semitism, the marqués Victor von Saloschin fled to Britain in the 1930s with two railway wagons of works of art and other possessions. There he took a menial job as a horseback rider at Gordonstoun School, and to make ends meet he sold off his greatest paintings to “small art dealers in Elgin”, in the north of Scotland. During the Second World War, his son fought on the British side, “like his friend Prince Philip”. After being captured by the Germans, the marqués was imprisoned in Poland, but escaped and made an epic journey on foot to Odessa, avoiding Russian troops by swimming to the first British ship to reach the Black Sea. He then served as a British intelligence officer in occupied Germany, buying more works of art in return for cigarettes and coffee. The marqués later added Asian art to his collection while serving as Comptroller of the Household to the Sultan of Pahang.

This incredible tale was said to explain why the marqués owned a previously unknown collection of Expressionists which he wished to share with American colleges. Astonishingly, none of the two dozen colleges seem to have questioned this bizarre account. However, what the catalogue did not reveal was that the man who claimed to be the “marqués” was actually George Saunders, a friend who was living in a council bungalow in Oxfordshire.

When the Von Saloschin collection reached the College of Lake Country, in Grayslake, Illinois, it was seen by Chicago art dealer Eva-Maria Worthington, who began to ask questions about the previously unrecorded Expressionists. Further investigation revealed that they were fakes. Although booked for eleven other American and Canadian venues (and several in Southeast Asia), the exhibition was seized by the authorities and the tour was cancelled. Two minor drawings turned out to be genuine, but the other fifty-six works were all fakes. The judge later dismissed them as “daubs produced by a retired art teacher from Chalfont St Giles”, a Mr Peter Wilcockson.

But what was the point of the exhibition? The judge pointed out that the American tour was to have been followed by “the creation of reproductions of the paintings which were to be sold, as were the paintings themselves.” The travelling exhibition had been designed to give the paintings a provenance, and the hope was that the venture might raise $5 million. The seizure of the paintings obviously scotched plans to sell the collection, but by this time a group of Irish investors had already been persuaded to part with a total of around £100,000 for sets of the prints, with the promise that these would quickly increase in value. The prints were never actually produced, and although a few investors asked for their money back, the great majority shifted their investment into what sounded like an even more lucrative deal.

Old Master fraud

The judge commented that the next stage of the fraud was proposed “in an attempt to retain some of the Irish money invested, by rolling it forward into a new scheme at an enhanced value”. The Old Master venture involved two back-to-back contracts, under which twenty-six paintings from the Saloschin Collection and a hundred sets of prints of the Expressionist works would be purchased from the Liechtenstein-registered Saloschin Establishment for $5,250,000. These were to be sold to clients of a firm of Malaysian solicitors for $10,500,000.

Williams seemed a plausible businessman, and used a member of the Irish Establishment to add respectability to the venture. At a reception to promote the scheme, potential investors were impressed by the presence of the Honourable Desmond Guinness, former president of the Irish Georgian Society. Described by the judge as “a name to conjure with in Eire”, his patronage “had been secured” by Williams with a promise of a donation to the society. Mr Guinness was totally unaware of the fraudulent activities of Williams.

Eventually £1.8 million was paid by eighty-seven investors into an account for the Liechtenstein company with an Irish building society, but unfortunately the Old Masters were not what they appeared. The Rembrandt self-portrait bore no resemblance to works by the Dutch artist. “Boy at his studies”, by Reynolds, turned out to be by a follower, estimated by Sotheby’s to be worth £400-600. Sir David Wilkie’s “Invalid” was later attributed to a follower of George Bernard O’Neill, valued at under £500 by Sotheby’s. Altogether the paintings in the $10.5 million collection were worth an estimated £9,000. Despite claims that the pictures had been smuggled out of Nazi Germany, there was evidence from Christie’s and Sotheby’s numbers on the backs of some of them that they had been sold on the British art market during the inter-war years. The judge concluded that the Old Masters were “relatively low value copies and/or works of unknown or minor painters.”

In finding against Williams, the judge commented that “many people are gullible when offered the chance of a high rate of return on their money.” Frances Purdie of Marrache & Co., the solicitors representing the eighty-nine plaintiffs in the civil case, is delighted with the High Court judgment. “After a long struggle, we have won a finding of fraud against Mr Williams. We are now in the process of taking legal action to recover the money. The case is a warning to potential investors in the future to look very carefully at proposals involving art.”

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Guile meets gullibility'