Time runs out for Germany's master forgers

Their fakes made millions, and duped the world's top auction houses for years. Now art's oddest couple face jail.

They look more like old hippies stuck in a San Francisco time warp than the couple who conned the international art world out of an estimated €30m (£26m). He sports worn jeans, a greying blonde mane of shoulder-length hair, a moustache and a beard. Under the unforgiving neon lights of the Cologne courtroom where he is standing trial, 60-year-old Wolfgang Beltracchi looks like a bizarre cross between Frank Zappa and King Charles the First.

Helene Beltracchi, his 53-year-old wife and accomplice, could also have walked straight out of the Summer of Love. She dresses in long flowing robes and her hair cascades down to her waist in thick tresses. Before the opening of each court session, the two embrace passionately in front of the assembled public and press.

Several German newspapers have described the loving couple as "highly sympathetic" despite the enormity of the crimes they have confessed to: Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi have admitted to masterminding the biggest art-forgery scandal in German – if not global – history. Together with Helene Beltracchi's sister, Jeanette Spurzem, and the group's logistical expert, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, they face charges of systematically duping the art world over a period of 14 years.

The four are expected to be sentenced by a Cologne court for their crimes tomorrow. They have confessed to supplying top auction houses including Sotheby's and Christie's with scores of forged paintings. They claimed they were undiscovered works by famous early 20th-century artists such as the German Expressionists Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Heinrich Campendonk. Their victims included celebrities such as the American comedian Steve Martin, who was duped into paying about $ 800,000 for a supposed Campendonk painting called Landscape with Horses.

All along, Wolfgang Beltracchi, the promising art student and Harley Davidson fan from the north-western provincial town of Geilenkirchen, was the master forger. Many of the 53 works the Beltracchis duped art houses into buying were sold for over €500,000 apiece. The losses inflicted on the art world are estimated to amount to €30m. The Beltracchis are believed to have enriched themselves to the tune of €16m. They spent their fortune on building an opulent villa in the southern German town of Freiburg and on lavishly restoring the country estate they acquired near the town of Mèze in south-west France. Neighbours said they were shocked by the couple's obsession with amassing and flaunting their wealth. They described it as a "sick craving for status". The Beltracchis spent up to €17,000 a month on shopping, hotels and travel alone.

But, these days, Wolfgang Beltracchi sucks sweets in the Cologne court where the four have been on trial since the beginning of September. He even shares the occasional joke with the presiding judge.

The couple and their accomplices have cut a deal with Germany's justice authorities. They have confessed to everything. In return they have been promised minimum jail terms which are likely to amount to six years for Wolfgang Beltracchi and four for Helene.

The others will probably get away with suspended jail terms. If the Beltracchis are lucky they will be allowed to work outside prison by day and spend only their nights in a cell.

At their trial, the Beltracchis have even attempted to turn the tables by accusing the world's art houses of themselves being consumed by "greed and depravity" in their relentless pursuit of sensational works capable of fetching sensational prices.

Yet their 14 years of meticulously planned deception are certain to go down in history as one of the biggest and most elaborate art frauds ever recorded. The Beltracchis started putting their expert forgeries on the market in 1995.

Helene Beltracchi managed to hoodwink the art world into believing that she had been left the works by her grandfather Werner Jägers. She claimed that he had bought them at the beginning of the Nazi era from the renowned Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.

The couple claimed that most of the paintings they put on the market stemmed from the so-called Werner Jägers Collection. They went to extraordinary lengths to make their bogus claims appear utterly convincing. Helen Beltracchi had herself photographed by her husband with her hair up, clad in a sombre black dress and pearl necklace in front of several of the Jägers Collection paintings.

The black-and-white photograph was slightly out of focus and printed on pre-war developing paper. Wolfgang Beltracchi even went to the trouble of cutting a zig-zag pattern around the edge of the picture to make it look authentically pre-war.

Helene Beltracchi's impersonation of her grandmother, Josefine Jägers, took in all the art dealers and served as indisputable proof of the authenticity of the Jägers Collection. "It was great fun," Wolfgang Beltracchi told judges.

To dupe prospective buyers, the Beltracchis bought up pre-war canvases which were then carefully sanded down and made ready for forgeries expertly applied, often with the help of a slide projector. The con trick was made easier, thanks to experts like Werner Spies, a celebrated Max Ernst authority and former director of the Pompidou arts centre in Paris. Mr Spies, who admits to having been wholly gullible, appears to have been completely taken in by the paintings and even vouched for their authenticity. In fact, the Jägers Collection never existed. Werner Jägers was a member of the Nazi party who had no interest in art. He made his money in the construction industry and died in 1992. Helen Beltracchi is the daughter of a lorry driver.

Wolfgang Beltracchi grew up as Wolfgang Fischer, later adopting his wife's surname. His father made a living out of restoring church paintings. He was a gifted art student but never completed his studies. His attempts to become an art dealer were also a failure.

"For years I lived on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," he claimed at his trial. But his life changed dramatically when he met Helene Beltracchi.

Her background was working class. Her mother gave her money to buy books and told her that she would "make it" even without a proper education. Both appear to have had high aspirations which were frustrated. The Beltracchis' elaborate con trick began to unravel in 2006 after the Lempertz auction house in Cologne was offered a painting by Helene Beltracchi's sister which was conclusively proven to be a forgery.

The work, named Red Picture with Horses, was supposed to have been painted by Heinrich Campendonk.

The painting was sold to the Maltese company Trasteco at auction for € 2.9m. But Trasteco eventually became suspicious and commissioned two art historians to investigate.

Their findings led to scientific analysis of the paint. It concluded that the painting contained a colour which did not exist in 1914 when the work was said to have been completed.

Police arrested the Beltracchis in August last year as they were leaving their luxury villa on the outskirts of Freiburg in south-western Germany to go out to dinner. Their two homes are now being sold off and Wolfgang Beltracchi claims that the €1m remaining in his Swiss bank account has since been handed to court authorities. But Wolfgang Beltracchi now apparently hopes that the publicity he has gained from his trial may help him to further his own future career as an artist after jail.

As the presiding judge in Cologne revealed last week: "To clear up any confusion, Mr Beltracchi has agreed to take back all his forgeries and return them to their owners signed – this time – with his own name."

The ignoble art: Notorious counterfeiters

John Myatt The former teacher from Staffordshire began faking art for money in 1983. A customer, John Drew, sold the fakes at auction for thousands of pounds until the pair were jailed in 1991 for perpetrating "the biggest art fraud of the 20th century". Now reformed, Myatt's story is being made into a Hollywood film.

Ely Sakhai The former New York art dealer was arrested when the FBI discovered he had been buying little-known works by modern masters such as Monet, faking them, then selling the forgery in Asia and the real painting in New York or London in a scam worth more than $3.5m. In 2005, he was sentenced to 41 months in prison and fined $12.5m.

Tom Keating He shocked the art world by admitting to forging at least 2,000 paintings during the 1970s. Keating's fake Titians and Cezannes are now worth thousands in their own right.

Enjoli Liston