The Art of Forgery

The documentary, ‘The Art of Forgery’, examines the life and work of one of the world’s greatest art forgers, Wolfgang Beltracchi, who was arrested in 2010 after a career spanning 40 years. During this time, he sold more than 300 paintings as works by a variety of European painters from the 19th and 20th centuries. The sale of these paintings made him tens of millions of Euros and funded a lavish lifestyle.

Beltracchi is a beguiling character – on the one hand, he is a loveable rogue whose crimes only affected those that could afford it, a man whose ruse exposed some serious problems with the art market and, in particular, with the ‘science’ of authentication. On the other hand, he is an arrogant narcissist, who lazily squandered his considerable talent aping the work of others instead of making innovations of his own, a spiteful, failed artist that willfully damaged the legacy of the artists he forged.

Wolfgang beltracchi mixes pigments in his studio. A still from the documentary The Art of Forgery.
Wolfgang beltracchi mixes pigments in his studio. A still from the documentary The Art of Forgery.

He began painting at a very young age and says that he painted simply because everyone in his family did. His father painted houses, restored frescoes and eventually made cheap copies of Impressionist works. He surprised his father, when at the age of fourteen, he completed a convincing ‘Blue Period’ Picasso in a single day. He received no formal training in fine arts. He briefly attended an art academy in Aachen, Germany, but skipped most of his classes and never completed the course.

His career as a forger began while he was living a semi-nomadic lifestyle, traveling throughout Europe, buying and selling paintings. At one point, he bought a series of impressionist landscapes depicting frozen lakes and was told by an art dealer that if only the paintings had more life, like figures skating on the ice, they would sell for much more. Beltracchi began to carefully add figures to the paintings. They did sell for more. Eventually, he realised that it would be easier just to paint them from scratch.

Beltracchi did not copy existing paintings – he is not that type of forger. Instead, his paintings filled in gaps in the official catalogs of works. For example, a painting that is mentioned in a catalog but which later disappeared. In this way, he could create forgeries that already possessed some provenance.

Beltracchi says that it is easier than you might think to convince people that a painting is real because they want to believe it’s real. If it is, then the gallery or auction house, the authenticators, they all make a dollar. As long as the truth remains concealed, even the owner is happy.

A painting is valuable due to its ‘provenance’: the identity of the artist and how well this can be demonstrated. It is the history, the story behind the painting and the artist, that makes it valuable. People want to be able to say, ‘a great artist once touched this surface!’

Beltracchi and his wife hold up the canvas of a Max Ernst forgery made while filming the documentary.
Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, hold up the canvas of a Max Ernst forgery made while filming the documentary.

Many great works of art have endured hundreds or even thousands of years, but not without helping hands: over time, paint dulls and cracks, colours lose their vibrancy – this is the natural degradation of something that is not supposed to last forever. Paintings must be cleaned and restored in order to bring them back to their former glory and this means that some other hand must touch the sacred surfaces of these works. This other hand must ‘interpret’ the painting’s original appearance. Restoration can therefore be a very difficult task, especially if the work in question is very old: many old pigments can simply not be found anymore. For one reason or another, the restorer must make decisions that compromise its originality.

Beltracchi’s role is similar to that of the restorer. He too interprets, but instead of looking back, he looks forward to what the artist would have done. He ‘channels’ the painter and asks, for example, what would s/he have painted if they were looked at a particular landscape.

We could say then that his work has value, just not the value he thinks it has: his paintings are not great works of art because the ideas behind them belong to others, and these ideas are far more important than the accuracy of their reproduction. He would not have been able to forge Picasso without their first being, Picasso. His works are valuable if we think of them as thought experiments about what could have been. Beltracchi is ultimately a great painter, not a great artist. He could have become a great authenticator if he had wanted to. Sure, he would not have made as much money, but then again, he wouldn’t be in prison either.


Arne Birkenstock, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, Fruitmarket Kultur und Medien, Germany, 2014.

Stills from the documentary. Copyright Fruitmarket Kultur und Medien, 2014.

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