Last week there was a piece on the infamous German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi on 60 minutes, likely due to the fact that a jazzy documentary about him launched today in Germany. For years he made millions of dollars off of forgeries. He started selling his work when his wife agreed to pretend that her grandfather’s art was hidden from the Nazi’s during the war, and she “found” the work in a shed. In the 60 Minutes piece he states that 36 of his fake paintings would reap $40 million, that was just a sliver of his forgery career.
After a year and change of jail time, he is trying to make a name for himself as a painter, signing his paintings with his own name. Not as exciting, and most definitely not worthy of patronage I would think.
This is absolutely nothing new in the art market. There are 1,000’s of transactions of fakes in all styles and periods, from ancient Chinese art to 19th century European art to tribal African art. There simply isn’t enough beautiful original art to go around to satiate collectors’ and monied appetites.
I remember my first taste of the forgery – growing up I used to go to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. A gorgeous little museum right next to the much larger MFA. Gardner was a very wealthy woman and consummate arts patron. Over the years she amassed an impressive collection ranging from early Renaissance to her contemporaries. Once I returned to the museum after college, I saw that many of the labels were changed to “School of xyz”. So the Rafael I thought I was looking at before turns out to be the “school of”. His assistant did it? Nope, just some Beltracchi type forger in the early 20th century. Public relations departments are compelled to use words like “school of” in order to legitimize the work.
Gardner befriended Bernard Berenson (art historian and critic) and Joseph Duveen – in the book Artful Partners you can read all about their relationship – it’s fascinating and upsetting at once. I had first heard of Berenson and the Villa I Tatti – an idyllic place I would have loved to study in with Berenson. Then I learned about his business dealings with Duveen, and those dreams withered to a sludgy view of art and market. Sadly, this relationship, that of historian/critic with dealer is one that is used to this day. The equation is as follows: historian/critic is paid to justify the work, dealer is paid by unsuspecting collector.
In his book Making the Mummies Dance Thomas Hoving talks a lot about the forgeries the museum acquired accidentally over the years, and remarks that it is part of the process of building a collection. One of the forensic art scientists interviewed in the 60 Minutes special said that out of 100 paintings brought to him for review, 98% are fake.
So while Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue with their pose as luxurious department store of art business complete with “anonymous bidders” on the phone (couldn’t those simply be employees on the line?), please note that it still carries the history and perception of being a garage sale. A look into the starting of both companies will reveal that in the beginning these auction houses were the very last place you would want a piece from your collection showing up.
Lastly, when the story broke several months ago about a cache of 1,500 pieces of artwork discovered in the German apartment of a dealer’s heir, I told my husband I thought it all sounded a little strange and expensively convenient. He didn’t see that at all, and was leaning toward the story in the headlines. Then again, he didn’t believe me in 2004 when I stood fiercely on my position that Lance Armstrong and ALL cyclists in the Tour de France were on major doping programs. Thankfully I am vindicated in 2014 per the documentary The Armstrong Lie. So lie we do, and uncover we must.Tagged: 60 Minutes, ancient Chinese art, art dealer, Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung, Bernard Berenson, Christies, documentary, forgery, Isabella Stuart Gardner, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Joseph Duveen, Sotheby's, Wolfgang Beltracchi