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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Conn Coll chapter.

One of the most interesting college classes I have ever had the pleasure of taking was titled “Art Crimes and the Value of Art.” If you are a Connecticut College student (of any major), I highly recommend it. 

I will admit, when I first registered for the course, I believed that “art crimes” referred to criminally bad art, so I was a little disappointed when the professor first handed me the syllabus outlining a semester of studying copyright infringements and the history of international art laws. But, I gave it the old college try, and ended up learning about one of the coolest lawbreakers in the art world with the coolest name and the coolest hair: Wolfgang Beltracchi. 

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger who was active between 1965 and 2010. He grew up in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and was raised by his father. But of course, all children must grow to rebel against their parents, and Wolfgang Beltracchi was no different. His father worked as an art restorer and muralist, and thus Wolfgang took on the rebellious role of becoming an absolute menace to all artists, art collectors, and the global art market. In the documentary about him, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, he even states, “It’s my father’s fault I became a forger.” 

Just as many of us grow to love painting and drawing as young children, Beltracchi got his start in art at the young age of 14, when he made his first forgery. It took Vera Wang until she was 40 to find her passion for design, but Beltracchi was a prodigy in crime the second he hit puberty. I mean, when you know, you know, right? Anyways, he copied a Pablo Picasso painting when he was 14, and his life of unlawfulness only deepened from there. He was expelled from secondary school when he was 17 years old, which sent him to an art school in Aachen. As a young adult, Beltracchi is quoted saying that he began casually doing art forgeries “a little” when he started using drugs such as LSD and opium. 

Obviously, none of us should be pursuing a life of crime. But even if your moral and ethical apprehensions were not enough to stop you from starting your career as an art forger, you shouldn’t do it for the simple fact that you couldn’t possibly do it as well as Beltracchi did. See, he was not like other art forgers. Rather than copying existing and well-known paintings, Beltracchi actually imitated the styles of famous artists and made his own paintings, putting the signatures of famous artists on his own intellectual work. He even named the paintings himself, drawing titles from old documents or catalogs so that buyers would believe that the painting was part of an artist’s lost work. 

I believe that there was a real skill to this deception. In a “60 Minutes” interview with Beltracchi, the forger admitted that to him, painting itself was an easy feat. His true artfulness is in the conception of these paintings. Beltracchi did meticulous research into the lives of the artists he imitated, so that he could really get himself into the headspace of the artist. Once again, Beltracchi was not copying existing works, he was simply creating artworks he thought the artist might have done, or might have wanted to do, you know… if they hadn’t died. In this interview, Beltracchi stated that he imagined the artists to be looking over his shoulder as he painted, or that he inhabited the artist himself. 

At the risk of glorifying a known criminal: Beltracchi was a genius. He only used materials that would have been available to the artist during the artist’s time. If he were doing a landscape in Belgium, he would travel to Belgium to make sure his work was accurate. If an artist was left-handed, Beltracchi would paint his masterpiece with his left hand. During the “60 Minutes” interview, Beltracchi created a forgery meant to be from the artist Max Ernst. Because Ernst completed paintings in three days, so did Beltracchi. He created fake collection and gallery labels, and framed pieces in old wooden frames. He even demonstrated his strategy of roughing-up canvases and putting dirt from a certain geographical region in the stretcher bars of the canvas so that authenticators would be fooled by the origin of the work. He was that good. 

And Beltracchi even had a partner in crime: his wife, Helene Beltracchi. She revealed in an interview that Beltracchi told her about his career as an art forger only three days after they met one another. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. She joined his schemes, and came up with fake provenance for the forgeries so that they could be sold. Their main story was that Helene’s grandfather had been friends with a German-Jewish art dealer in the 1920s, and that her grandfather bought a large collection of works from this dealer right before the dealer was exiled in the Second World War. When their story was questioned, Helene even dressed up as her grandmother and staged old photographs with the “collected” paintings in the background. 

Beltracchi and his wife were incredibly successful, working in this field for over 40 years. It is estimated that they earned over $100 million in profits from all the forgeries. I am sure that they would have continued their work for even longer if it weren’t for our hero’s tragic flaw, or hamartia, if you will: titanium white paint. Beltracchi painted and sold a work, claiming it was authored by Heinrich Campendonk. It was later sold to a company for €2.88 million. While this work was being authenticated, it was discovered that the paint contained titanium white, which is a pigment that was not available during Campendonk’s active years. Beltracchi had made one sloppy error by not mixing his own paint as he usually did, and his empire crumbled from there. 

He was only found guilty for forging 14 works of art, which sold for $45 million, but Beltracchi himself claims to have been successful in forging about 50 artists. He was given a six year prison sentence, of which he served half, and he was fined with a $27 million lawsuit. His forgeries are indistinguishable from works by the actual artist even to this day. In his documentary, he expressed humor at seeing some of his pieces in prominent art museums and art auctions. One of his pieces was featured as the front cover of a Sotheby’s catalog. One of his forgeries was even included in a book titled Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century. When the interviewer asked if he was proud to be included in this book, Beltracchi nonchalantly stated, “Yeah, it’s a nice painting.” 

Even though Beltracchi is no longer active as an art forger, he currently works as an artist under his own name. He even recently released an NFT art collection titled “The Greats” as a nod to his past profession. This collection consists of 4,608 versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, with each version parodying a different art style. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself; I find it to be humorous and heavily representational of popular culture. 

Wolfgang Beltracchi is surely one of the most interesting figures in the art world. He is an anarchist’s role model and dream. I am most enamored by his ability to confound the art world for such a long period of time. As an undergraduate art history student, I find that the “art world” is a seemingly intimidating and unnavigable institution, and it is definitely getting out of hand in some respects. Beltracchi’s work is condemnable, but ultimately I believe it was a victimless crime. No millionaire is going to go bankrupt from buying an expensive painting, and arguably, a Beltracchi is now worth just as much as any artist he forged. If they don’t want it, I’ll take it. 

Now, whenever I go to an art museum, I always feel that Beltracchi is right over my shoulder. I grow skeptical of each work of art, thinking (and sort of hoping) that I might be admiring one of his farcical gifts to the art world. I hope you enjoyed learning about Beltracchi as much as I love writing about him.

Hello! My name is Catherine (she/her) and I am a Classical Languages and Art History major at Connecticut College. I am also completing a Museum Studies Certificate Program here. I work as a curatorial and archival intern at the New London County Historical Society, and I love visiting museums and spending time around good (and bad) art.