Notorious Forger Wolfgang Beltracchi Is Making Millions Since Going Legit

The unrepentant painter is making big money with originals now.

Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi. Photo by Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Few people in the art world polarize opinion quite like Wolfgang Beltracchi. To some, the German master forger is a genius, but to others he’s the most infamous criminal in art history.

There are certainly plenty of people who have a problem with the fact that, since turning legitimate, the convicted criminal is still making millions of dollars off the notoriety he has gained from his 36-year career in art forgery.

The BBC reported that Beltracchi’s first solo exhibition since being released from prison in January opens this week at Munich’s Art Room 9 Gallery.

Collectors paid millions for falsely attributed works by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger painted by Beltracchi. He duped experts, auction houses, museums, and even Max Ernst’s widow, into believing that his creations were genuine.

Beltracchi’s wife Helene sold the works to collectors and auction houses claiming she discovered the paintings in her family’s collection. The couple even created vintage-style photographs to fool specialists, in which Helene posed as her grandmother with the paintings hanging in the background.

The scam was eventually uncovered when the British expert Nicholas Eastaugh discovered the pigment titanium white in a forensic analysis of a painting purportedly by the Dutch artist Heinrich Campendonk. Titanium white did not exist in 1915, the year the painting was supposedly created. In 2011, Beltrachhi was sentenced to six years in prison and Helene, to four.

Explaining the exhibition title Freiheit (freedom), Beltracchi told the BBC “the first meaning is I am free now. I am free and I must not go back to prison. The second is I am free to paint, not exactly in the handwriting of other artists. I can do whatever I want.”

DW reported that the exhibition–which includes 24 paintings–already attracted international interest before it even opened. The most expensive work reportedly costs €78,000 ($88,500).

In December 2014, while Beltracchi was still serving his sentence, a Swiss gallerist sold out an exhibition featuring Beltracchi’s work, netting over €650,000 ($737,000). The gallery was subsequently expelled from the Swiss art dealer’s association.

However, his Munich gallerist, Curtis Briggs, is not concerned about the exhibition having similar consequences. “I believe in democracy and Wolfgang has done his time,” he told the BBC.

“Whoever criticizes me just wants revenge—or they are jealous,” Beltracchi told DW.

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