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Master forgers duped art world out of €30m

They look more like old hippies stuck in a time warp than the couple who conned the international art world out of an estimated €30m. He sports worn jeans, a greying blonde mane of shoulder length hair, a moustache and beard. Under the unforgiving neon lights of the Cologne courtroom where he is standing trial, 60-year-old Wolfgang Beltracchi looks like a 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. Before the opening of each session, the two embrace passionately in front of the public and press. Several 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 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 19th-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.

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 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. The Beltracchis spent up to €17,000 a month on shopping, hotels and travel alone.