05 November 2011

German Expressionist art - fakes!

An art copier has admitted in court in Cologne that he faked 14 modern paintings that sold for millions of euros (see The Age 29/9/11). Together with 33 other suspected forgeries not included in this indictment, the case is believed to be biggest art deception in Europe in living memory.  A total of three other people are accused of fraud in the same case, but those three are still awaiting their day in court.

Did anyone in the art world suspect that the 14 paintings were fakes? In the early 1990s the canvases were presented for sale to a German auction house. The first warning that something may have been amiss came in 2008, when a George Grosz expert questioned the authenticity of the Gallery Fechtheim labels on the picture-backs. Two years later, word of possible forgeries leaked and the Berlin state criminal police started an investigation. Only now, in 2011, has 60 year old Wolfgang Beltracchi become the first of the four people accused of fraud to admit to the charges.

Campendonk, Man Horse Cow, c1918, 
64 x 77 cm, 
private collection. Legitimate

Cost so far: €16 million in forgeries, making total damages of €27 million. The list of fakes included works apparently by Max Pechstein, Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, André Derain, Kees van Dongen and Fernand Léger. If I was designing a course for students on Expressionist artists, I could not have selected a better group of artists myself.

Rich investors were tricked into buying what were claimed to be long-lost paintings by these German and Dutch artists of the early 20th century. According to the story given to the auction house, the paintings had belonged to a rather secretive collector, Werner Jaegers. Werner who?

Jaegers had been a client of Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937), the famous Jewish gallery owner whose business really WAS seized by the Nazis. Jaegers' granddaughters said he had bought this degenerate art from Flechtheim and had to hide it in the mountains near Cologne. Jaegers, according to the granddaughters' story, feared Nazi art-confiscators might discover his stash and take the offending pictures away. This was the reason, the women said, why the paintings were totally unknown by the modern art world.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, who had once been a student in an art school, had learned to copy art from his father, an art restorer who did replicas of the Old Masters. Beltracchi said he began copying on a professional basis in the 1970s, not because he liked the art market, the greedy dealers or the greedy buyers, but because he loved doing the paintings.

Why did Beltracchi choose to copy lesser known WW1 era expressionists and not, for example, Cezanne or van Gogh where he could have made more money per fake? I am assuming because a mother lode of previously unknown Cezannes & van Goghs would have provoked amazement in the art world, and therefore close scrutiny. Expressionist works were less well known, more scarce and their prices were rising at a slow but acceptable pace. All that was missing was an adequate supply of new works, which Beltracchi and his team provided.

Campendonk, Landscape with Horses, 1915. 
Faked by Beltracchi

Judge Wilhelm Kremer said it was amazing that art collectors had not noticed the deception about the supposed collector, Werner Jaegers, who was in reality the grandfather of Wolfgang Beltracchi's wife and co-defendant. “Jaegers was supposed to have collected Rhineland expressionist artists from the age of 16 or 17”, said Judge Kremer incredulously. As it turned out Jaegers, who died decades ago, did not collect art at all.

My feeling is that Judge Kremer was overly optimistic. I probably know a little bit more about the pre and post-WW1 German Expressionists than the average person on the street, yet there is no way I would have picked up their fake status via inspection. Furthermore I most certainly would not have checked the provenance of a painting, IF the auction was being run by a reputable firm.

And examining the estimated prices for bargains that were too-good-to-be-true would not have been helpful either. In the biggest fake sale, Red Picture with Horses, supposedly painted by Heinrich Campendonk (1888-1957), sold at auction in Cologne for $A3.4 million. It was the highest price ever paid for work believed to be by the Rhineland expressionist - not a bargain at all!

According to German news magazine Der Spiegel, a famous American film star bought one of the forgeries in 2004, believing it to be a 1915 work called Landscape with Horses by Campendonk. If the film star’s expert art advisors didn’t pick the fake, there is no way that an ordinary art lover could have known.

In thinking in particular about Heinrich Campendonk, I would have been personally quite pleased to “rescue” one of his works. A German artist, he had been a member of the famous Der Blaue Reiter group in the years just before WW1 erupted in 1914. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he was among the many modernists labelled as degenerate artists, his paintings were removed from German galleries and his career prospects were slim. He emigrated to the Netherlands where he spent the rest of his life working at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam.

van Dongen, La parisienne de Montmartre, 1911,  
65x 54cm, 
Le Havre, Musée des Beaux-arts André Malraux. Legitimate 

I would have liked a Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968) as well. This Dutch artist began to exhibit in Paris, and participated in the controversial 1905 exhibition Salon d'Automne, along with the other artists who created the bright colours beloved by the Fauves. He was also a member of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke for a time. van Dongen's portraits of well dressed women with beautiful hats and jewellery were a delight.

van Dongen, Portrait of Woman in a Hat. 
Faked by Beltracchi

Like artnet, I would want to know how an art fraud of such magnitude could be so successful? How did all the control mechanisms in the art market fail so comprehensively? Clearly the supporting documentation was of no assistance since the collection’s authenticity was "confirmed" by fake documents and fake photographs.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
How intriguing all of this is and how amazing that so many people in the chain could have been tricked. This is a scam of mammoth proportions but one has to admire the skill of it all. Clearly, this is no ordinary faker and, even more clearly, the plan of bringing the forgeries to market was cleverly executed.

As you say, to own one of these works would be a delight.Perhaps if one becomes suddenly available at a bargain price we should snap it up and enjoy it quietly in our own homes!!

Hermes said...

Fascinating. I read a report the other day that thousands of pictures in private and public collections were fake but no one wanted to enquire too closely. Great post.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I would have to agree. Beltracchi said he began copying on a professional basis specifically because he loved doing the paintings. Nothing wrong with that! If he loved painting in the expressionist style and reliving the First World War era, people might be delighted to buy his works and to pay a fair price for them.

Just because he is a con man, it doesn't mean he isn't a talented artist in his own right.

Hels said...


The whole story has been fascinating *nod*.

If the report you read was true, it would totally undermine collectors' trust in the auction houses and curators. I would prefer to think that honest mistakes are occasionally made, but that tricksters and con men are the exception, not the rule.

Anyhow, there is trickery and then there is Trickery. When Rembrandt ran a large art school, I can imagine that the students each did a different bit of each painting (the animals, the furniture, the architecture etc) while the master did the faces and signed the finished product. As long as we understand how his school worked, I would not consider the Rembrandt signature to be faked.

Andrew said...

I say, they are rather nice paintings. But I don't have too much sympathy for those who buy art as an investment. Art is worth what it is worth to you.

Hels said...

I am semi sympathetic to that view. But if I had spare money, I would rather invest in the visual arts (eg paintings, silver art, jewellery) than in stocks and bonds. At least you can have the joy of looking at your investments, while they mature :)

Nonetheless people who buy art, for investment or any other reason, deserve to have all the information, before they buy. If they are told that a painting was NOT by an Old Master himself but they like it anyhow, they might certainly choose to buy the work and hang it on the wall.

Hermes said...

Just for interest:


The Wikipedia article on Fakes is very good and I didn't know about the Museum in Vienna.

Hels said...


I agree that copies, replicas, reproductions and pastiches are, by definition, not deceptive fakes. The problem is that although they can be perfectly legitimate works in their own right, the distinction between a legitimate reproduction and deliberate forgery _does_ often become blurred over time.

I too did not know anything about The Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna. They apparently show copies of paintings by Schiele, Klimt and Matisse etc, alongside fascinating details about famous forgeries. But was the museum's goal - to alert the art buying public? warn art criminals off their dastardly career? help art criminals become more skilled? or to laugh at the gullible wealthy families out there?

Hermes said...

You must go Helen that is a question whose answer is worth knowing. I have a horrible feeling some fakes are becoming art in their own right.

P. M. Doolan said...

A fascinating story. Let's hope that the "new" Leonardo painting, about to go on exhibition in the National Gallery London next week for the first time ever, will not turn out to be a forgery.

BigJack said...

We discussed Flechtheim in class, especially in connection with the German expressionists. And Kahnweiler. But we discussed their galleries and patronage pre-WW1, way too early for this story.

Hels said...


I will be in Vienna, Prague and Budapest next July, Qantas willing. I have made a note for myself to check out The Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna, and will do some reading before I leave home.

Hels said...

Dr Doolan

I suppose this story only serves to increase peoples' scepticism about any newly discovered work of art. Partially this is a good response and will force the galleries and auction houses to check and double check.

But partially it is so cynical that even if the new Leonardo painting is proven by the National Gallery London to be 100% right, people will still reserve judgement.

I wouldn't like to be a gallery that paid $50 million for a work of art, only to find out years later that it is actually worth $12,000.

Hels said...


MoMA says the following:
Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937 opened his gallery in 1913. He became known as the leading dealer in Germany for modern art, much of it obtained through his friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the eminent Parisian gallerist and German émigré. Flechtheim exhibited a select number of Expressionist artists, including Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, August Macke and many other now less familiar German artists. Highly successful, particularly in the postwar years, he moved his primary operation to Berlin in 1921, and opened branches in Frankfurt and Cologne in 1922.

Art Knowledge News said: The heirs of George Grosz, a famous Weimar period artist and relentless critic of the Nazis and German military establishment, filed suit in New York in 2009 against the Museum of Modern Art for refusing to return three artworks created by Grosz and left when he fled Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi threats. The artworks were left behind in Germany with his Galerist Alfred Flechtheim. Eventually Flechtheim was also fled Germany in 1933 due to Nazi persecution and the artworks were lost after Flechtheim's death.

John Hopper said...

I actually like the fakes and wonder if they may be collectibles in their own right, probably so. As you say, there is a big difference between merely copying and producing a 'long lost' piece. A very skilful and creative artist would need to be involved. However, they will pay the price for embarrassing the rich and famous who could probably afford to shrug it all off, admit that they admired the painting irrespective of the provenance and just told the world that they owned a genuine fake, I know I would.

Hels said...


I was not sure how seriously the German court regarded the 14 charges and what sort of gaol sentences the artist and his 3 accomplices would receive.

Spiegel International 27/10/11 reported: Wolfgang Beltracchi = six years in gaol; his wife Helene = four years; her sister Jeanette = a suspended 21-month sentence and accomplice Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus = five years.

If they actually do spend those years in gaol, it will suggest that the crime was taken quite seriously by the court.

NB Spiegel International also added that old criminal police investigations in Berlin suggest that Beltracchi had passed on at least 15 forgeries by the 1980s, which the accomplices had then sold. They could not be charged with these crimes as they had already exceeded the statute of limitations period.

Emm said...

This is just amazing. Can you imagine being that lone dissenting voice, claiming that this multi-million dollar artwork is a fake? It took talent to pick it up but bravery to follow it through!

Hels said...


It is a very brave person who is prepared to tell a major world auction house (or an important gallery) that they may be dealing in fakes. Or that art works they sold, in good faith since 1980, probably cannot be trusted.

Most people would keep their opinions to themselves.

Hels said...

Beltracchi is far from being a lone hand, of course. I have just listened to a Radio Netherlands interview with Geert Jan Jansen (born 1943), a Dutch painter and art forger.

His first success was forging a work by Karel Appel; he remembered sitting in the auction house, nervously waiting to watch his "masterpiece" go to its new home.

Jansen was very proud of his art; he was so excited by seeing his so-called Picassos, Dufys and Miros etc in galleries and homes that it became addictive.

Jansen was sentenced to one-year of gaol time and five more years suspended sentence. But even now he is proud that the majority of his fakes remain totally undetected.

scott davidson said...

In a way, for an art-lover like myself, decorating our home is quite easy. I just please myself mostly, with my poor husband going along with most of my choices. I am always collecting beautiful things, like handicraft decorative pieces, little sculptures and hangings.
And I simply hang lovely paintings in all our rooms. Not all are originals of course, as who can afford many of those.
I order many prints on canvas from Wahooart who have a vast collection of images from Western art, that you can choose to make economically-priced prints like this Interior in Aubergines, by Henri Matisse, from there.

Kaare Host said...

The real question here is, what is art and what makes it valuable? Obviously not the work itself, but who created it. It is the name of the artist that sets the value. If it were the picture that had the value, if it were the fantastic faces of these women that enchanted art lovers, it would make no difference who painted it. Kaare Host.

Hels said...


absolutely true. I would go even a step further and say that fakes would not work if the faker _himself_ was not a very talented artist. The paintings MUST be skilfully crafted, attractive, colourful etc otherwise noone will want to look at them.

But if a gallery paid $10 million for an original Kees van Dongen and found out that it was actually painted by ordinary old Fred Nurk, the gallery has done its investment in cold blood. No insurance company will cover them for a fake.

Hels said...

John hopper

You noted that you actually like the fakes and wonder if they may be collectibles in their own right. Although over 2 years have passed since then, I have continued to think about your question.

My next post is called "Elmyr de Hory - best art forger ever?" It follows Keats' line about why fakes are the great art of our age.