Notorious Forgers Explain Themselves: 'We Got a Kick Out of It’

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi collected millions before they went to prison
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 11, 2022 4:26 PM CDT
Notorious Forgers Explain Themselves: 'We Got a Kick Out of It’
A woman looks at the painting "Luther meets the holy Anna (2017)," by Wolfgang Beltracchi during the an exhibition of historical Cranach counterfeits in Germany in 2018.   (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Wolfgang Beltracchi, notorious forger of 20-century art, had standards. "I have to create something beautiful," he said. "I want to make people happy." With their prison sentences served, Beltracchi and his wife and forgery partner, Helene, have discussed their life of art crimes with Jeannette Fischer, a psychoanalyst and author based in Switzerland who's written a book about them, Psychoanalyst Meets Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi, due to be released this spring. The Beltracchis reasoned that the art market was fraudulent to begin with, the Guardian reports. "In their view, they were cheating those who made a living by cheating others," Fischer said.

Also, the couple said, it was fun. "We got a kick out of it," Beltracchi said. "We got rich." Selling hundreds of fakes, they fleeced the art market out of millions of dollars. Beltracchi learned to paint helping his father restore paintings as a child in Germany. He copied a Picasso when he was 12. He married Helene Beltracchi in 1993, after telling her what he did for a living. He took her surname, and she became his business partner. They liked the money, but that was only part of the attraction. Fischer points out that the Beltracchis didn't buy cool stuff with their wealth. "They bought liberty and free time," she said, adding, "free space to go to museums, to look after the children, to pursue their passion for research."

They relished in the entire process of creating the forgeries. "I got to paint, and we enjoyed doing the research too. Forgery was a way of combining all these things," Beltracchi said. "And I got to sit around the pool for days, reading and daydreaming and sleeping." They'd travel to where the real art was painted at the same time of year in a search for authenticity, Helene Beltracchi said. Their forgeries fooled experts and even the artists' relatives; one Max Ernst fake sold to a collector for $7 million, per the Guardian. The scheme fell apart when an analysis showed Wolfgang Beltracchi used a pigment not available to Heinrich Campendonk when he painted Red Picture with Horses in 1914. In 2011, a court in Germany sentenced him to six years in prison and Helene Beltracchi to four. (Steve Martin was fooled.)

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