Confessions of a Genius Art Forger.
In one of Germany's greatest art scandals, former hippie and talented artist Wolfgang Beltracchi forged dozens of paintings over a period of 35 years, earning millions and fooling top collectors and museums. Now he's about to go to jail. In a SPIEGEL interview, he reveals how he did it and why he eventually got caught.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Beltracchi, just how large are your debts today?
Beltracchi: They are €6.5 million, I think. Or maybe even 8 million? But we don't know who else is going to sue for damages.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a plan for how you intend to satisfy the claims?
Beltracchi: We own properties in France and in Freiburg (in southwestern Germany). They are up for sale. And then there is also the money in the bank.
Helene Beltracchi: We also work every day.
Beltracchi: We have to, in order to have a place in an open prison. We work in a friend's photo studio. My wife worked there in the 1980s, and she now deals with customer acquisition, while I handle the artistic aspects.
SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say that at the age of 61, this is the first time in your life that you have had a regular job?
Beltracchi: Yes, the first time.
SPIEGEL: You've managed to do it just before reaching retirement age.
Beltracchi: But that wasn't my intention.
SPIEGEL: Did you imagine everything would turn out differently?
Beltracchi: No one imagines ending up like this.
SPIEGEL: But you did have an inkling that it wouldn't end well, didn't you?
Beltracchi: For some time, yes.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Beltracchi, you are celebrated as an exceptional talent who has exposed the absurdity of the art market. But there are also those who say that you got off far too easily with your prison sentence. For them, you're a criminal.
Beltracchi: One is a criminal to some people and an artist to others. I can understand that. In a legal sense, I am a convicted criminal.
SPIEGEL: Have you thought about whether what you did is right?
Beltracchi: Of course. But I never decided to become an art forger. I was aware of my talent at an early age, and I used it foolishly. This developed over the years. In my heart, I don't see myself as a criminal.
SPIEGEL: You are one, though, from a legal point of view as well as morally. You deceived people and made millions through fraud.
Beltracchi: In my 14 months of pretrial detention, I met real criminals: murderers, child molesters, people convicted of manslaughter. I didn't injure anyone, nor did I steal from or rob anyone.
SPIEGEL: So the penalty you received is too high?
Beltracchi: Well, it's tough but justified, because I did forge paintings, after all, and have done so for a long time. In a certain sense, it's also a relief. Now I can do all the things openly that I've always liked doing: writing, making films, sculpting, painting my own subjects.
SPIEGEL: In the past, you had a lot of money but no fame. Now you're famous, but you have no money.
Beltracchi: Fame never interested me. I could have exhibited more of my own works in the 1970s, but I didn't want to. It's sort of like being a child. When you're finished with school, you have only one thing on your mind: to get out and experience life. Did I want to spend all my time working on a painting? No, I wanted to have fun, travel, meet women and live life.
SPIEGEL: Were you never tempted to tell the world: Listen, people, it was me?
Helene Beltracchi: If that were the case, he could have marked the paintings. There are forgers who have done that.
Beltracchi: With one Max Ernst, it did briefly cross my mind to incorporate a Mickey Mouse into the painting. But the people who did that sort of thing usually didn't remain in the business for long. I did enjoy painting my own subjects, and they sold well, but it was much more fascinating to paint the unpainted pictures of other artists.
In one of Germany's biggest-ever art scandals, the former hippie and talented artist Wolfgang Beltracchi forged dozens of paintings over a period of 35 years, earning millions in the process. Now, he's going to jail -- but first he told SPIEGEL in an exclusive interview about how he did it and why he eventually got caught.
Beltracchi was caught because of a fake Heinrich Campendonk painting titled "Red Picture with Horses." The new owners commissioned a scientific analysis. It turned out there were traces of titanium white on the canvas, a pigment that Campendonk couldn't have used because it didn't exist at the time. "I took a zinc white from a tube, a Dutch product, but unfortunately it didn’t say that it contained a small amount of titanium white," Beltracchi told SPIEGEL. "In other words, the whole thing was discovered because of an incorrectly labeled tube."
This Cubist painting, supposedly by Fernand Léger, which therefore created by Beltracchi. "It was bothering me more and more to sign my paintings with someone else's signature," he said. "I did not feel good about it anymore.
Beltracchi and his wife Helene are seen at their trial in Cologne in September 2011. The court sentenced the couple to prison terms of six and four years
The couple faked this supposed family photograph as part of the backstory for the forged paintings. Helene Beltracchi posed as her own grandmother for the photo. Forged paintings hang in the background.