The main character of this true story is Wolfgang Beltracchi, owner of a €1.1 million villa that he acquired together with his wife Helene, situated in the hills above Freiburg among the city's high society. It appears that another €4 million were spent remodeling it.
Where all this money was coming from, no one knew. Some would say that Beltracchi was an artist with a high-end clientele, others thought that he was a successful art dealer or the owner of a valuable collection, or even that he had discovered a number of unknown masterpieces on flea markets.
Such was the mood at the party held at the Beltracchis' new house on September 22, 2007, where Champagne was served out of Magnum bottles and even a Flamenco band had been brought in from Spain.
But on Aug. 27, 2010, at 7:35 p.m., the Beltracchis were detained by the authorities, not far from their villa as they were going out to dinner.
The police officers had been sent by the district attorney's office in Cologne, which also had a theory about how Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi had amassed their fortune. It can be found in file number 117 Js 407/10, and if confirmed in a court of law, the Beltracchis will officially become the main characters in one of the greatest ever art forgery scandals in Germany and with serious repercussions abroad.
The couple has been held in pre-trial detention, accused of organized professional fraud. Prosecutors are also investigating Jeanette S., the sister of Helene Beltracchi, who is also currently in pre-trial detention, as well their mother and an art dealer from Krefeld identified only as Otto.
The defendants are accused of consistently provide the art market with paintings by famous artists, claiming to be undiscovered works. This went over a period of more than 14 years, in a market where 20th century classics have attained impressive auction records. This case centers on the alleged forgery of at least 35 paintings dating back to the first decades of the 20th century and sold through auction houses in Germany, as well in London and Paris galleries via art traders. The investigators estimate the total damage at more than €15 million.
While only one of the paintings has been confirmed beyond a doubt by two analyses as being fake, a number of similarities such as similar frames, yellowed stickers from famous galleries on their backs and the absense of photographs of any of them, leeds the investigators to suspect that the other 34 paintings are also fakes. Moreover all allegedly come from two mysterious art collections.
After acquiring a Campendonk work at the Cologne-based auction house Lempertz, Maltese company Trasteco had the work scientifically tested for authentication purposes. It turned out that one of the colors used in the painting had not been invented by 1914, the year the work was allegedly painted.
One of these collections is said to have belonged to Werner Jägers, a businessman from Cologne, born in Belgium in 1912, and the grandfather of the two sisters awaiting trial.
In a letter that Helene Beltracchi sent to an art historian, Jägers had acquired a number of paintings in the "late 1920s and early 1930s," particularly works by Rhenish expressionists artists "like Campendonk, Pechstein, Nauen, Mense, Ernst" as well as French painters "like Braque, Derain, Dufy, Marcoussis." She claimed several "important works in his collection" had been bought from the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, "who owned display rooms near one of her grandfather's business premises" and had been a "good friend" of Werner Jägers.
When the Nazis arrived to power, Jägers was allegedly loath to give up his precious artworks -- officially derided as "degenerate" during the Third Reich -- so he hid the pictures at a property in the Eiffel region of Germany.
"A few years before his death," Helene claims, he had passed on "a part of his collection" to her and her sister Jeanette.
However, according to his last wife and a close business associate, Jägers had only purchased a few paintings, but these were not considered valuable at the time and it seems that he didn't own an art collection. Besides nothing suggests that he was acquainted with the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.
Werner Jägers married four times and lived mainly in Cologne, where he died in 1992.
Helene Beltracchi was 34 years old at the time and had recently started runing an antiques store in Cologne.
Years earlier, more precisely in 1978, her future husband Wolfgang, who's surname was still Fischer, had three of his acrylic-on-canvas works exhibited at the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich.
Wolfgang spent some time in Morocco during the 1980s and then returned to Germany.
He organized theme parties, including a baroque fete at a castle in the Dutch town of Renesse, where guests paid a few hundred German marks for the privilege of dressing up in period costume and re-enacting 18th-century life.
Later on he decided to write the "Die Himmelsleiter" (The Ladder to Heaven), a screenplay for a road movie set in the Moroccan desert. A documentary about the pirates in the South China Sea became his next project, but was never realized.
In October 1990 Wolfgang and a friend paid 305,000 deutschmarks (€156,400) at a bank auction for an old farm in Viersen in the Lower Rhine region of Germany.
Neighbors remember a "first-floor warehouse converted into an artist's studio."
It's in the year of 1992 that Wolfgang meets his future wife Helene Beltracchi, who had moved to his farm.
Together they start their art business and, with no surprise, Helene assumes the serious side of things.
Now married and with Wolfgang's last name changed to Beltracchi, the couple owed several hundred thousand marks on their property.
In the year of 1995 Helene contacted the Lempertz art dealership in Cologne and offered the long-established auction house a painting by Hans Purrmann, a friend and student of the great French painter Henri Matisse. She said the work belonged to her maternal grandfather, the aforementioned Werner Jägers. But a Purrmann expert doubted the authenticity of the painting, entitled "Southern Landscape," whereupon Lempertz declined to put the work up for auction.
But the couple does not give up their intentions and eight months later, at the "German and Austrian Art" sale in October 1995, Christie's offered a painting by Heinrich Campendonk entitled "Girl with Swan," informing its clients that the art historian Andrea Firmenich "has been kind enough to confirm the authenticity of this work." The origin of the painting was stated by Christie's as "Alfred Flechtheim, Dusseldorf; Werner Jägers, Cologne."
It sold for £67,500.
A sticker on the back of the painting, which bore the inscription "Flechtheim Collection" and a rough portrait of the legendary art dealer, was also shown in the catalogue. Nobody appeared to be too bothered by the fact that the sticker, which looked like a potato print, simply didn't match the style of the elegant gallerist. Such stickers have only appeared on the paintings that are now suspected of having been forged, with particular focus for the "Werner Jägers collection."
Wolfgang sold the farm in Viersen to a firm of realtors for 2.6 million deutschmarks (€1.3 million) in July 1996 and traveled with his wife to Marseillan, 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Montpellier, where they rented a vacation home with studio.
Former visitors to his studio mention a "large piece on a mythological theme" onto which he copied faces with the aid of a projector. The fake Purrmann that Lempertz had refused to sell at auction, hung in the Beltracchis' living room.
During their stay, Wolfgang and Helene researched the local art scene, visited antique stores, art trade fairs and galleries.
In June 1998 Lempertz in Cologne auctioned a painting professedly from the "Werner Jägers collection": "Le Havre Beach" by the French painter Raoul Dufy. "For once, it was a real one," Lempertz Managing Director Henrik Hanstein says today. Hanstein says the couple had been particularly devious by selling a genuine picture in addition to the fakes. A Lempertz spokesman is similarly shocked about the couple's crafty stratagem. He says the auction house had been "the victim of an extraordinarily clever and mean gang of forgers."
Should the allegations prove to be true, then the modus operandi was indeed remarkably astute: The alleged forgers didn't forge names like Picasso or Beckmann, but those of Max Pechsteinand, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Max Ernst. They kept well away from the truly great artists, whose works was renowned and had been researched in minute detail. Instead they concentrated on second-tier painters, whose works can still fetch more than a million euros.
Besides the paintings, the fake documents that authenticated them were also of high quality.
"They produced incredibly well-made paintings, including a complete provenance that took familial background and the historical art context into account," said Henrik Hanscheid, head of Lempertz, a 150-year-old art dealership based in Cologne that was duped into selling some of the fakes.
It appears they began by studying old catalogues of exhibitions by artists in whose names they wanted to create paintings, preferably catalogues of the gallery of Alfred Flechtheim, one of the most important art dealers of the Weimar Republic, the period from the end of World War I to the Nazis' ascent to power. Flechtheim fled from the Nazis in 1933, moved first to Paris, dying later in London in 1937. Large parts of his collection have been lost to this day, and documents from his gallery have never been recovered.
The list of pictures from the Flechtheim catalogs was compared to the lists of paintings by the relevant artists. Were any of the paintings listed as missing, ones that had not been photographed?
Such forged paintings had been traded in increasing numbers since the late 1990s, and it is believed that some of the profits from the sales landed in the bank account the Beltracchis held with the discrete Credit Andorra in the tax-shelter principality of the same name, where Wolfgang Beltracchi was also registered as having a residence.
Otto and the German art historian, journalist and organizer of exhibitions Werner Spies, exchanged letters about one Max Ernst painting the Krefeld based art dealer was particularly proud to possess. Spies took a look at the piece, entitled "The Forest," at an art gallery in Berlin. Later it was even exhibited at a major Max Ernst retrospective held at the New York Metropolitan Museum.
Werner Spies certified a total of seven alleged Max Ernst pictures from the collections of Knops and Jägers. "From a stylistic point of view I still believe the pictures given to me to authenticate were the works of Max Ernst," Spies says.
The majority of the suspicious paintings weren't auctioned off, but rather sold to private collectors - in some cases with Spies' assistance. They apparently fetched up to €4.6 million. "If the pieces are forgeries," Spies says, "they can only be described as the work of a brilliant forger."
An old friend of Beltracchi's says the itinerant artist was "touched by God," adding: "He is extremely talented, and can paint everything from memory."
In June, after the lawyer von Brühl had pressed charges, officers at the art crime division of the regional criminal investigation bureau in Berlin began looking into the case. At the same time, private investigators from the Munich-based ADS detective agency started researching Werner Jägers' life. Within a matter of days, they discovered what the art world had refused to see for 15 years: Werner Jägers may have been a businessman, but he was never an art collector.
Monte Carlo Art sued Max Ernst expert Werner Spies and Parisian Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière in French court.
The gallery sold the fake painting to Monte Carlo Art in 2004, and Spies authenticated it. Monte Carlo Art later sold the painting at Sotheby's for $1.1 million.
Another victim from this art scam was the renown American actor Steve Martin, who sold his painting to a Swiss collector for €500,000 ($600,000 at the time). Martin took a loss from the original €700,000 ($850,000 at the time) that he paid for it in 2004. Martin did not become aware his painting was inauthentic until after he sold it.
The trial relates specifically to 14 fake works and is expected to take at least 40 days, as the prosecution has reportedly called over 170 witnesses, including a number of prominent art dealers and experts.
Work is now underway to determine whether Wolfgang Beltracchi did indeed forge the pictures, who he may have been assisted by, and how many paintings really are fakes. It also remains to be seen whether he can still be punished for acts beyond the decade laid down in the statute of limitations.
The public attorney's office recently entered two debt-securing mortgages on the renovated villa in Freiburg that Wolfgang Beltracchi had unveiled so lavishly. The total value of the mortgages: €2,545,577.20.
This article contains excerpts from spiegel.de, thelocal.de and artinfo.com. Image courtesy of Lempertz