The explosion of AI art into the mainstream media sparked conversations from artists and collectors alike on the possibility of the algorithm’s ability to plagiarize artists’ techniques. While the topic is of extreme concern for the artists, forgers have done this for decades, painting on the canvas and sticking someone else’ s name on it to make a larger profit. Few forgers, however, could pull off a stunt so big it fooled art historians and significant collectors worldwide.
That brings us to the story of Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, the art forgers that rewrote history for their fellow cons. Jeannette Fischer’s book Psychoanalyst Meets Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi states that the couple did not forge art solely for money. The idea of rewriting history and fooling the entire art industry gave them a rush, earning millions of dollars for their pieces. While some forgers would study and duplicate a piece, the Beltracchi’s would use their techniques so precisely that they invented works from artists such as Kees van Dongen and Max Ernst, seemingly out of thin air.
“We enjoyed selling the paintings. We got a kick out of it. We got rich,” Wolfgang Beltracchi said.
Their whole process started with an obsession with an artist, finding locations they painted, reading any document related to them they could get their hands on, and studying the artist’s techniques with absolute scrutiny, down to the chemistry of the pigments themselves. The couple took trips to locations where the artists they were copying painted. Wolfgang would source the material and begin working. Wolfgang’s work accounted not just for technique and pigment but boiled down to even which hand the artist painted with, swapping hands to remain true to the artist he was forging.
So, if these forgers were so careful, how did they get caught? One act of carelessness led to a chain reaction resulting in their downfall. Wolfgang Beltracchi was working and needed more zinc to create white pigments for his paintings. After obtaining some from a supplier in the Netherlands, he continued to work on "Red Picture with Horses," a work he marketed as an original of Heinrich Campendonk, “created” in 1914.
However, the supplier he bought from failed to notify Beltracchi that there were trace amounts of titanium in the pigment base. Titanium was not included in the mixture until after 1920. This wasn’t caught until after the painting sold for $2.8 million and was analyzed by the buyers. From there, more questions arose about the validity of the paintings from the Beltracchi’s.
The German forgers earned jail time due to their exposure, with Wolfgang receiving six years and Helene four years. They served open prison sentences, so they could leave the compound for employment purposes and were trusted to complete their sentences with minimal supervision. Officials released Helene from prison in February 2013 and Wolfgang in January 2015 under the condition that he would only paint under his name.
The reputation of collectors and curators was immense. Large auction houses like Sotheby’s fell victim to the duping, and chaos ensued on whether some of the pieces from acclaimed auction houses and collectors were real or a Beltracchi forgery, with civil suits flying left and right toward the couple and analysts who mistakenly verified the fakes. An art historian even tried to sue Werner Spies, the former director of the Centre Pompidou and renowned art historian, for wrongfully certifying one of Beltracchi’s fakes as a Max Ernst work, per The Art Newspaper. The piece he certified sold for $1.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2004. While Wolfgang admitted to forging 14 specific paintings, he claimed to have produced almost 300 works under the names of nearly 50 artists, so museums and collectors may still be hanging up some of Beltracchi’s paintings. Since his release, he released an NFT series titled The Greats, where he reimagines Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged Salvator Mundi, exemplifying da Vinci’s technique while providing his take on the painting that also had critics debating on the validity of the work. The pieces are available in a free virtual gallery on the website.
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