Art Forger freed and making millions

Wolfgang Beltracchi forged paintings by some of the world's most famous artists

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A German forger who conned the art world out of millions is holding his first exhibition this week, after becoming a free man.

Wolfgang Beltracchi forged paintings by some of the world's most famous artists including Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst.

His work made the front cover of a Christie's catalogue, and hung in some the most prestigious galleries across the world.

But after one life-changing mistake, the 64-year-old was sent to prison.

Forged Max Ernst painting

Beltracchi maintains "the only thing that was wrong was the signature".

In other words, if he had put his own name on the paintings, instead of those of Ernst and Picasso, he would have walked away.

"I was in prison not for the painting," he insists again, but "for the signature."

"I regret the wrong signature," he adds.

That's hardly a surprise. In 2011, following a 40-day trial, Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in a German prison, on charges of forgery and corruption relating to 14 works that sold for $45m (£28.6m).

His wife, Helene, was given a four-year sentence, and they were both ordered to pay millions in compensation to the people they conned.

Fernand Leger forgery by Wolfgang Beltracchi Fernand Leger forgery by Wolfgang Beltracchi

In the past, Beltracchi has been described as a "genius" and "mastermind".

He spent years studying and analysing the work and lifestyles of the painters he mimicked - and disputes the accusation his works are mere copies.

"You cannot copy a painting," he says. "A copy is never the same as the original."

Beltracchi André Derain forgery which sold for $6.2m Beltracchi André Derain forgery which sold for $6.2m

He openly declares, "I am the best art forger in the world. Many forgers cannot copy every artist. I can. I can do anybody."

His aim was to get inside an artist's mind and create a piece of work which could be attributed to them. His paintings were all originals - he would find a gap in a collection and invent a new work to fill it.

Some of his paintings sold for millions across the world. But the 64-year-old says it was never about cash: "I was always rich, I've always had enough money."

Beltracchi forgery which sold for $3.5m Beltracchi forgery which sold for $3.5m

The excitement, he says came from elsewhere.

"I got a thrill when my wife was going to the experts and they were saying, 'Oh that's my painting... Voila!'"

Wolfgang and his wife Helene were a team. He painted and remained a ghost, whilst she sold the product to unsuspecting bidders.

Together, they concocted an elaborate plan to fool the art market.

"At first it was not a big story, I told people I got these paintings from my family." Helene claims.

But after multiple inquiries about the origins of the paintings, the couple mocked up photographs to prove their provenance.

Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother in a fake photograph Helene Beltracchi posing as her grandmother in a fake photograph

Helene dressed up in vintage clothes and pretended to be her grandmother as she sat in front of Wolfgang's paintings. Then she took the photos along when she sold the forgeries.

Asked if she was a good actress, Helene replies: "I don't know, maybe that was my talent!"

Wolfgang says: "You must have a good story to sell paintings for millions."

Beltracchi says he has created hundreds of forgeries, some of which he has seen hanging in the world's most famous galleries: "In 1986, I sold a painting to New York for $25,000.

Wolfgang is painting in the style of George Brecht Wolfgang is painting in the style of George Brecht

"In 2009 I was with my wife in a gallery, and there I saw the painting. I told Helene to ask the price. When she came back she said $2.2 million!"

The couple owned homes across Europe, a vineyard and a yacht. But things changed in 2008.

The forged Campendonk which contained titanium white The forged Campendonk which contained titanium white

Dr Nicholas Eastaugh, a British expert in the scientific analysis of paintings was asked to analyse a painting by Dutch artist Heinrich Campendonk.

The work was meant to have been created in 1915 - but Dr Eastaugh found a discrepancy in the painting materials.

He explains: "The painting was brought into my lab like any other painting [and] there were a number of questions over the authenticity.

"I discovered [the pigment] titanium white had been used in this painting, and this did not exist in 1915 when this painting was meant to have been made."

Dr Eastaugh admitss he gets a thrill when he can help bring an art forger down: "People like Beltracchi destroy the history of art.

"He is not the first and will not be the last forger to get caught, then go onto make money because of his story."

Wolfgang and his wife Helene at his art exhibition in Munich Wolfgang and his wife Helene at his art exhibition in Munich

Following this find, around 50 of Beltracchi's forgeries were discovered.

The forger was sent to jail in Germany for six years. Helene was sentenced to four years.

This week though, Wolfgang is returning to his roots in Germany, with his first solo exhibition.

It is called "Freiheit", meaning freedom, which Beltracchi says has a number of meanings.

"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."

Curtis Briggs owns the art room 9 in Munich which is exhibiting the collection.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people out there that think this is awful what I'm doing and people think he betrayed the art world.

A painting from Beltracchi's new collection A painting from Beltracchi's new collection

"But I believe in democracy, and Wolfgang has done his time.

"A lot of people may say 'How can you do this? He is a convict.'

"Well, I say the art can't help it, and the art is there for people to see, and the art must be seen."

Many of the paintings covering the walls of the gallery are now worth thousands if not millions with the name Beltracchi signed in the bottom corner.

Each signature is different to the last, which Beltracchi says is down to his past: "I sign how I feel the painting should be signed.

"The signature is just a signature. It doesn't matter to me."

Many of the paintings have already sold - but this artist will not reap the full reward. Half of the money he gets will go to those he conned until he has paid back his debts.

Beltracchi does agree it was right for him to go to prison for the criminal act he committed.

But, when asked what he would change about his past.

He replies: "I would never, never use titanium white."

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