The most expensive Heinrich Campendonk painting was sold in 2006 for a price of $3.7 millions. The surprising element here is not the record price of this painting, but the fact that the most expensive Campendonk is not really a Campendonk. Its author is Wolfgang Beltracchi, and he could have kept on earning millions and millions of dollars from forgeries if Science hadn’t ended his career as a con artist.
Who is Wolfgang Beltracchi?
Wolfgang Beltracchi is a con man, an art forger, and at the same time, a very talented artist. He forged paintings from many artists, including Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, André Derain, and many others. Many museums, auction houses and art collectors from all over the world bought and displayed his paintings, not knowing that they were, in fact, forgeries. Christie’s even had his artwork on the front cover of their catalogue.
How did he do it?
To start with, we have to think of the tremendous amount of work he put into forging these paintings. He studied the style, tools and technique of painting of each artist he forged. After researching the artist’s work, he would imagine and create new paintings that the artist might have painted. Thus, he created the missing pieces from that artist’s collection by using the artist’s style and methods. Then, his wife, Helene Beltracchi, would talk to art dealers and sell the paintings by claiming that they’re from an art collection the Beltracchis inherited.
With all his talent and the hard work he put into creating these forgeries, it’s no wonder he managed to deceive so many specialists. Even Max Ernst’ widow stated that Beltracchi’s forest was the best Max Ernst forest painting she had seen.
How did science end the career of this famous art forger?
Wolfgang Beltracchi was very successful in his career as an art forger. He earned lots of money and he and his wife were living big, owning a villa in Freiburg and a yacht, and enjoying expensive parties and trips. All this ended when they sold the “Red Picture with Horses” painting, claiming it was a 1914 Campendonk, and the Malta-based company that bought the painting asked for a certificate of authenticity.
The scientists who authenticated the painting used a technique called Raman spectroscopy to investigate the chemical composition of the pigments. In Raman spectroscopy, we detect the scattered light from a sample after being hit by a monochromatic laser beam. The detected signal contains information about different molecular vibrational modes and can reveal whether there are multiple chemical bonds or heavy atoms involved and what kind of chemical groups are present in the sample. Each of them would appear as peaks in a certain region of the Raman spectrum. The presence of these features in a Raman spectrum acts like fingerprinting, and its analysis can eventually provide information on the chemical composition of a sample.
When the scientists applied this technique to small samples taken from “Red Picture with Horses” they found something that shouldn’t have been there. The analysis revealed the presence of titanium white, a pigment that was available to artists only after 1921. Thus, by identifying the chemical composition of the pigments, scientists revealed the forgeries of Beltracchi. To his credit, Beltracchi did do his homework and checked the chemical composition of the pigments before using them. Unfortunately (of fortunately!) the manufacturer of the pigment didn’t mention the presence of titanium white on the tube of pigment he used. This marked the end of the Beltracchis’ criminal adventures. The police started uncovering their entire operation and both of them ended up in prison.
In my past research, we are analyzing Beltracchi’s forgeries by mobile NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) and comparing the data on the forgeries with the data we record on the original paintings. The purpose of this research is to develop a method that uses mobile NMR in a non-invasive way to identify forgeries.
From art forger to artist
Wolfgang Beltracchi is both a really talented artist and a very charismatic person. These are both excellent qualities, but certainly not when you use them to deceive people. After spending some time in prison and paying for his previous actions, he is now trying to make an honest living by painting under his own name. If you like his story and you’re interested in his art, here’s where you can find out more about it: https://www.beltracchi-art.com/
You might actually still see some of his paintings in museums because he claims he still has many of his paintings on display in museums under the name of original artists. So next time you’re in the modern art section of the museum, think about this: is this really a Max Ernst or a Campendonk that I’m admiring, or is it one of the Beltracchi forgeries?
My three main take-away messages from Beltracchis’ story are:
We should appreciate art for the art itself and not for the name behind it.
Science is very helpful in analyzing art works and catching criminals.
If you want a successful career as an art forger, don’t use the wrong pigments!
Here’s a final thought for all art forgers out there: don’t underestimate science!
If you're interested in learning more about Wolfgang Beltracchi, you can read his full story in this Vanity Fair article.