German painter forged masters' works to 'meet women and travel'

The so-called 'eternal hippie' sold faked works to auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's

The convicted "hippie painter" behind Germany's most spectacular art-forgery scandal has revealed that he faked the works of at least 50 famous painters over a career spanning decades and started because he wanted to "have fun, travel and meet women".

Wolfgang Beltracchi, 61, and his wife Helene, 63, were sentenced to six and four years respectively last October after a court found them guilty of forging 14 paintings by six well-known artists, including the German Expressionists Max Ernst and Heinrich Campendonk.

The paintings were the tip of the iceberg when it came to forged works. The couple is estimated to have inflicted losses on the art world totalling €34m (£28m) through the sale of the 14 forgeries alone. But they have also confessed to supplying top auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's with scores of other fakes, which may never be traced. Their customers included celebrities such as the American comedian, Steve Martin.

In his first interview since his trial, Beltracchi told Der Spiegel this week that he began his career back in the 1970s by painting his own works by old masters and later Jugendstil and Expressionist artists. He found his first customers at flea markets. But by the end of his criminal career he said, "the demand was so high, I could have easily have put 1,000 or 2,000 forgeries on the market".

Beltracchi, the son of a church restorer from the German town of Geilenkirchen, claimed to be so talented that even his art school refused to believe that the portfolio he submitted was his own. Although he sold several of his own works and had the beginnings of a promising artistic career in his own right, he admitted "spending hours messing around with one's own picture – that was nothing for me, I wanted to have fun, travel, meet women and live life". The forger, who has been dubbed the "eternal hippie" because of his shoulder-length hair and beard, said he spent almost a year in Amsterdam in the 1970s counterfeiting paintings and earning cash from tourists who paid to take photographs of him in flowing Indian robes and a floor-length Afghan coat.

But in the early 1980s he married Helene, the daughter of a lorry driver, and started larger-scale art forgery. He admitted that he specialised in "filling the gaps" left by prominent artists and subsequently creating works the artists had never actually painted. He said Max Ernst's widow has described one of his forgeries as "the most beautiful Max Ernst I have ever seen".

For decades the con trick paid off handsomely. The Beltracchis bought an opulent €5m villa with a swimming pool in Freiburg and a country estate with a vineyard overlooking the sea in the South of France. They are reported to have spent €17,000 a month on shopping, hotels and travel alone.

Their forging spree came to an abrupt end two years ago, thanks to scientific analysis of the paint Beltracchi used on a faked Campendonk.

The originals: Works forged

* Portrait of Oskar Schlemmer, originally painted by Johannes Molzahn in 1930. Schlemmer was a fellow artist and colleague of Molzahn who specialised in painting, sculpture and choreography, and would eventually become a target of the Nazis in their campaign against entartete kunst – "degenerate art" that was considered un-German or Bolshevist in nature.

* The forgery of Johannes Molzahn's work Lineare Farbkomposition was reproduced in the late 1980s and was sold for 15,000 deutsche marks.

Molzahn first apprenticed as a photographer before turning his hand to painting, moving into graphic design and advertising for the shoe industry.

Michael Pooler

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