All forgers learn from their predecessors, and the German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi (born 1951) built upon these cunning techniques. In French and German gallery exposition catalogues dating from the 1910s and 1920s, he searched for paintings considered forever lost, ones whose images had never been replicated and reprinted. Since only titles existed, Beltracchi would produce counterfeits according to the title.
Similar to the other forgers before him, Beltracchi saw himself as an artist belonging to another era. Like Elmyr and van Meegeren – whose own artwork was panned for being out-of-date – these men would insert themselves into the periods in which they thought they belonged. Beltracchi considered himself a kindred soul to the early 20th-century Expressionists, to whose oeuvres he made additions. (To his credit, he did so quite convincingly.)
But he also understood that artworks were judged on their provenance; he needed to ensure that each painting’s backstory and history of ownership checked out.
His solution? Inventing the art collection of the Cologne factory owner Werner Jägers, the grandfather of his wife. He stamped Sammlung Werner Jaeger Koeln (“Collection of Werner Jägers”) on the backs of his paintings. He also affixed forged collection stamps from Galerie Flechtheim, one of the most important Modernist dealers during the Weimar period.
Beltracchi even photographed his wife posing as her grandmother, with period furniture and his forgeries hanging on the wall, since an archival photograph is the Holy Grail of provenance documentation. Increasingly, the Sammlung Werner Jägers Koeln stamp was enough to validate any work on the German art market.
Beltracchi also knew exactly which paints to avoid, and worked with only period pigments. He did not, however, realize that his tube of Zinc White (a 19th-century pigment) might be mixed with Titanium Dioxide (a post-1920 invention), and this is what spelled his doom.
At the time of his arrest in 2010, he claims he had been sending out his works out to labs to see if they were “science proof.”
Beltracchi’s attempts to manipulate both provenance and science illuminates the future of art forgery in the 21st century: the really dangerous forgers are the ones who can infiltrate and corrupt the core of the knowledge system upon which the art world relies.