“You have to know how the art market works. Where is the greatest greed?”

Master Forger Wolfgang Beltracchi

One great problem that continues to face the art trade is fakes and forgeries. This is not a new problem and has faced the art market from the beginnings of time. In a booming art market the crime problem escalates and specialist police units have been set up in various Countries to take this problem more seriously. (See the Serbian Police story on my blog.)

This article takes a look at two recent master forgers and whilst they cleverly fooled the art world it is the reactions people have had to their crimes that are perhaps the most surprising aspect of their stories.


“A family of nice counterfeiters”

German Newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau

In October 2011 Mr Wolfgang Beltracchi a 60 year old man, his wife Helene, her sister Jeanette and their business partner Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus were due to face a trial in Cologne District Court for the largest art fraud trial in Germany in recent history that was set to last several months and was to include 100s of expert witnesses.

The Beltracchi gang faced prosecution for faking 14 art works by famous 20th century artists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Kees van Dongen, Heinrich Campendonk, Raol Duffy, Max Pechstein and André Derain.

The trial came to an end after nine days when Mr Beltracchi and his gang confessed. Through a plea bargain they received reduced sentences. Mr Beltracchi received a 6 year sentence, his wife received 4 years, her sister a 21 month suspended sentence and Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus a 5 year sentence.

The technical brilliance of the Beltracchi forgeries is undisputed as the forgeries were able to pass through the hands of reputable auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s and reputable dealers such as the Dickinson gallery, where appraiser’s had apparently made no scientific tests, trusted their eyes and relied on the provenance provided by the conmen.

“My grandfather’s collection” – the sole source of provenance

The conspiracy to defraud involved Helene Beltracchi and Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus recounting to potential buyers or sellers how they had inherited the paintings from their fictitious late grandfathers’ collections, the Werner Jägers and Wilhelm Knops collections. They claimed their grandfathers bought the paintings from Alfred Flechtheim, (a renowned gallery owner and famous source for paintings by these artists in this period) in Düsseldorf. The gang faked labels from this gallery and stuck them on the back of art works.

Legal Claims

The auction houses, dealers and experts now face many potential claims from the purchasers and it will be interesting to see whether the debts are honoured given that some potential claims may be time barred.

Hollywood Actor, Steve Martin was amongst one of the rich and famous who had consigned to Christie’s his Campendonk painting Landschaft mit Pferden (1915) for sale in February 2006, that sold for £344,000.

A Crook who has damaged the market place?

Mr Beltracchi received what some might perceive as a light custodial sentence others however, feel it was too harsh.

Berlin based art group called BVDG who represent 350 galleries were outraged by the plea bargain struck because it meant that many of the art works that had been forged by this gang went undetected as the police dropped further investigations into the missing and undetected fake art work. Stuttgart art dealer Klaus Gerrit Friese makes the point that there may be collectors still out there who do not know they have bought a forgery. He makes another point that those in the art world who do know the art work is fake may now be under no pressure to disclose the fakes (See Bloomberg Catherine Hickley’s article dated 9/11/2011)

A talented genius?

However others think Mr Beltracchi’s mitigation was quite brilliant as it focused on the genius of Mr Beltracchi, a truly talented artist who could produce copies of famous art works that would pass muster with the experts.

Beltracchi was taught by his father, an art restorer how to copy art works by Rembrandt and the Old Masters. Beltracchi described how at 14 years old he forged a Picasso in 2 hours.

The Motivation – Money or Anti- art-establishment anarchism?

Mr Beltracchi and his family amassed a 16 million Euro fortune through their deception and lived the life of riley. A lavish life style that included buying and renovating houses in Germany and the South of France.

Beltracchi said that “money alone didn’t really interest me” and that it was “really fun” to forge paintings.

However Beltracchi gained sympathy as he made a scathing attack on the art market and art dealers, arguably exposing the greed and vanity of art dealers and experts who trusted their eyes and experience and declared his forged works as genuine.

His defence lawyers painted Beltracchi as a Robin Hood prince of thieves character who was only fooling the truly greedy art collectors, who buy art with “fashionable” names on it with huge price tags to satisfy their large egos.


Worse still for the art trade was that his story attracted sympathy. There was not just sympathy by the Courts but with the press and the general public.

In Julia Michalska’s Market article “Sympathy grows for the alleged forgers”, issue 229, November 2001, suggests that most media outlets described Beltracchi as a “rogue” or “filou” and cites the following comments. Beltracchi was described as “likeable” and should be applauded for his “masterly forgeries” by Die Welt.

“Art forgery is the most moral way to embezzle 16 million Euros” and he painted “the best Campendonk that ever was.” (According to The Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ))

“Compared with crooked bankers, Beltracchi and his co-conspirators haven’t swindled common people out of their savings, but rather people who may have wanted to be deceived. Therefore the [expected] sentences are not inappropriately mild, but rather the opposite.” (Der Spiegel.)

Reverse Snobbery or a sound Moral argument?

The above comments show there was considerable sympathy for the forger and the comments appear to raise a social issue– a reverse snobbery, where the poor artist gets the last laugh against the great dealers, collectors and investors that make vast fortunes. Also perhaps an anti-establishment aspect as the artist mocks the art establishment and all that stands for.

The moral question the Beltracchi fakes raise is whether the name of an established artist justifies its market value when other artists, without the famous name are just as talented and can produce equally brilliant art work. Why should a copyist’s work not be priced at the same value when the copyist has the same technical ability?

One answer is that the copyist did not conceive of the idea. Nor is the copyist creating truly original art work that breaks artistic boundaries in its day and is merely imitating great art.

The Arrogance of a Forger

Beltracchi believed his work was just as good if not even better than the originals as he embellished the works with his own artistic flare. According to ARTINFO France Kate Deimling’s article, Beltracchi boasted of his artistic brilliance at his hearing and said:

“In my thoughts, I created an original work, an unpainted painting by the artists of the past” and “I painted works that really should have been in the artist’s oeuvre.”

However he wanted to make the forgeries “even a little better” and the results were sometimes “too good.” (Die Welt)

Too Good?

The forgeries were exposed by a purchaser who did want their painting scientifically tested and once the Campendonk bought for 2.2 million Euros was tested it was discovered that the painting contained a paint (Titanium white) that would not have been used or invented in the 1920s.

The forger’s work merely fooled the unsuspecting eye. Let’s not forget the elaborate con trick included the fake provenance that would then influence the appraiser’s assessment and experts views.

What is more bewildering and perhaps beguiling is the attitude of the con artist who on the one hand would revere the art, dedicate time and energy to perfecting and mastering that artist’s unique style and in the same breath would denigrate it, devalue it and seek to destroy its value.


Britain has their very own story of a genius master forger.

Shaun Greenhalgh was considered by some to be truly talented. His forged art works were presented to many famous institutions such as the Tate Modern, the Henry Moore Museum in Leeds, the British Museum, auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s and many museums across England and in Ireland and Dresden. His story inspired a BBC documentary.

Greenhalgh’s Alabaster bust, the Amarna Princess bought by Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council for the Bolton Museum for £410,393 was considered by experts at the British Museum to be probably the best in the world.

It was thought to be a 1350BC Egyptian sculpture of one of the daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti. There were only two known pieces that were similar, one in the Louvre and the other in Philadelphia. This sculpture was even admired by her Majesty of the Queen at the Hayward Gallery.

The family got caught as they went the extra mile and cleverly sought to persuade the British Museum that they had found ancient Assyrian reliefs with battle scenes. Unfortunately there were spelling mistakes in the ancient script that alerted the experts who then contacted the police who by that stage were already on to the family.

Sean Greenhalgh is a fascinating character. He lived at home all of his life until he went to prison for four years and eight months for conspiring to defraud a wide selection of the art establishment between June 1989 and March 2006. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal, disguise, convert or transfer the proceeds of the sale of the Bolton statue.

Unable to enter the army, unable to hold down any job, and worst of all rejected by art school; arguably the beginnings of a deep resentment against the art world, he became a collector and dealer acquiring a detailed knowledge about art through art sales and auction houses.

Having amassed a great artistic understanding, he would then spend time in his garden shed recreating lost art works from the catalogues and books he had read and studied.

Breathtaking was the range of Shaun Greenhalgh’s skill, the artists he copied were Samuel Peploe and L.S Lowry, he could copy famous sculptors such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Man Ray, Brancusi, and even Gauguin; the Institute of Art in Chicago had paid £60,000 in 1994 for the forged Gaugin Faun. He also made Roman silver, gold artifacts from original metals and Anglo-Saxon jewellery. Greenhalgh was able to copy any manner of medium.

Greenhalgh’s parents were both in their 80s when they received their suspended sentences for conspiracy to defraud art institutions and money laundering. His mother Olive worked on faking the documentary provenance. His father George dubbed “the artful codger” came up with the stories about how this art work had been received into the family, concocting all manner of tales about their alleged family heirlooms as he would try to con museums and auction houses about his finds. Shaun’s brother George Jnr would manage the money.

Shaun Greenhalgh meanwhile would be busy in his garden shed knocking up priceless art work with tools bought in B&Q that would raise about £1 million.

Surprising was the scale of the industry and range of artistic talent, with many more artefacts in the pipe line and many objects were found by the police in their early stages of preparation scattered all over the property. Had the Greenhalgh family disposed of all their forged treasures they may have made more than £10 million.

The Motivation?

Yet despite this enterprise, the family lived extremely modestly, they did not cash much of the money and still lived on State benefits in their council house. When the police raided the house, the most surprising feature was the way they lived it was as if they had never acquired any money from their crimes.

Why ? That is the question many journalists have asked. Money was apparently not the real motivation but the con, the ruse, the sheer craic was. The motivation in this case was certainly not a lavish life style.

Forgers may be driven by the fact that they are unable to develop a style of their own and also this desire to ridicule the greed and vanity of the art world.

Shaun Greenhalgh’s trial barrister told a different story however, a sad story even.

“Mr Greenhlagh discovered many years ago he has no style of his own. He had one outlook and that was his garden shed. What he can do is copy. He was completely self-taught…that may make him unique. He was trying to perfect the love he had for such arts.”

Again these characters attracted sympathy. In a strange anti-establishment way they showed the art world that a talented genius could produce art works of brilliant quality and for a large part of it get away with it. So extraordinary were the fakes they ended up being shown at a V& A exhibition in January 2010.

In an article in the Manchester News by Mr Andrew Grimes he raises the question was Shaun Greenhalgh’s sentence too heavy?

Grimes argues that here was a truly talented artist receiving a sentence for the same length of time as those who commit serious harm, such as a burglary and is this right?

What is the damage, is it a crime merely against the rich art establishment?

One problem is the potential perpetuation of the crime of selling on stolen goods and the fact that the undetected fakes remain on the market place or even hanging in museums creating lots of potential further harm to innocent parties.

Noah Charney (founding director of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art) and Vernon Rapley (Former Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Unit) argue there is a more fundamental problem, fakes and forgeries often mingle with far larger criminal activities taking place in the art market that concern mafia gangs that use forged art work as collateral for more sinister illegal activities.

Secondly property is surely worth protecting?

Thirdly artists’ intellectual property rights are surely worth protecting?

Lastly it is naive to think that it is simply the wealthy art collectors and dealers that are hurt by art crime. Ultimately museums and galleries that receive state funds and lottery funds, i.e. taxpayers money are victims too.

Ian Lawson from Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiquities squad said at the time of the Greenhalgh case:

“The Art market has its own momentum …These items may well have been passed on through different people, so it’s not just one deception. That’s the tragedy of this case. The crime goes on for many, many years.”

Bolton Council had raised money to buy their Greenhalgh forged Egyptian statue through the National Arts Collection Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Friends of Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.

The true scale of the Beltracchi crime is only just reaching the surface, where it is now estimated that there were over 53 forged works made. However an art expert has claimed there could be between 150 and 200 forgeries that may have been passed on by accomplices. Only time will tell just how many fakes are out there.

It certainly has a detrimental effect on the market place making all parties all the more cautious.

Can experts, appraisers and buyers really trust their eyes or connoisseurship anymore?

See my forthcoming article on Science and how scientific analysis is now increasingly a feature of an appraisal of high value art work.