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Authorities Crack Forgery Ring that Infiltrated Museums Worldwide

Authorities Crack Forgery Ring that Infiltrated Museums Worldwide

The Beltraccis's "Red Picture with Horses" by Heinrich Campendonk failed a scientific authenticity test after it was sold at auction for €2.9 million ($3.7 million).

ARTINFO | Kate Deimling

November 16, 2010

COLOGNE, Germany— With the recent arrest of Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, prosecutors in Cologne believe they have broken up a forgery ring of breathtaking skill and duplicity. The couple is accused of forging as many as 35 Expressionist paintings that made their way to London and Paris, with the total sum of the damages estimated at over €15 million ($21 million). Helene’s sister, the mother of the two women, and an art dealer from the German town of Krefeld — identified only as “Otto” — are also under arrest and awaiting trial

The couple seems to have established an elaborate story for the provenance of an Expressionist art collection that they supposedly owned and sold off piece by piece, Der Spiegel reports. Helene said that her grandfather, Werner Jägers, had acquired several paintings from a close friend, the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. When the Nazis came to power and branded Expressionist art as “degenerate,” Jägers allegedly decided to hide his collection at a property in Germany’s Eiffel region. Helene said that before his death he had given part of the collection to her and her sister.

The artworks auctioned off by the couple over a 14-year period were all said to come from Werner Jägers’s collection and even bore yellowed stickers, ostensibly from art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, that bore the dealer’s likeness. In a clever ploy, the couple auctioned off a painting titled “Le Havre Beach” by Raoul Dufy in June 1998 that was supposedly from the Jägers collection. This painting was genuine, and it seemed to confirm the existence of the trove.

But a cautious buyer’s concerns led to the couple’s downfall after a sale at the Cologne auction house Lempertz. A supposed work by Heinrich Campendonk owned by the Beltracchis, “Red Picture with Horses,” sold to Trasteco, a company in Malta, for €2.9 million ($3.7 million). Trasteco had been informed by Lempertz that Campendonk’s son had verbally assured the work’s authenticity, but just to be sure, the company consulted an expert who recommended scientific testing, which revealed that the painting contained a color that had not yet been invented by the supposed year of the work’s composition, 1914. Trasteco eventually sued Lempertz for annulment of the sale, and the scandal ignited further study of the Beltracchis and their collection.

First, the stickers on the paintings were discovered to be fakes. Flechtheim expert Ralph Jentsch laughed out loud when he saw a picture of the dealer’s face on the sticker, as the authentic stickers do not feature any portrait. It turned out that Helene’s grandfather, Werner Jägers, truly did exist, but was no art collector: neither his widow nor his business partner had any recall of a substantial art collection. Moreover, as a member of the Nazi party, it was unlikely that Jägers was a close friend of the Jewish art dealer Flechtheim.


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