The film opens with interviews with the principals involved with the painting that brought down Wolfgang Beltracchi's forgery career. They discuss the fate the forger should face. Each has a harsher sentence that the next with the most extreme being Kunstahaus Lempertz owner Hendrik Hanstein who recommends punishment under Muslim Sharia law. In fact Beltracchi received a 6 year prison sentence for his crime of selling 47 million in fake art over a 40 year period but after a year and a half was allowed to spend his days in his studio working on pieces as he attempts to pay back the 27 million he now owes through law suits.
As with any con man a big personality and extreme confidence is a must. Beltracchi has both in abundance. As he tours around his studio he reflects on works of his main target Max Ernst along with other masters commenting on how easy it is to re create their work and in fact his versions of their works or his inspired creations to fill in gaps in an artist catalogue are better that the original works of the artists themselves. His wife Helene was a vital part of the plan. The pair met in 1993 and Helene soon fell in step with her husbands work. Helene was front and centre in the couples biggest scam. A claim that her grandfather had hid his art collection from the Nazi's before the war that she inherited at his death. Only there was no collection only works by Beltracchi's filling in gaps in targeted painters catalogues.
Director Arne Birkenstock basically says Action the hits lets Beltracchi roll full on. The story follows Beltracchi as he goes through the process of creating a forgery. Mixing period appropriate pigments, foraging though flea markets for early 20th's century picture frame preferably with dealer stamps on the back of the frames. Birkenstock shows Beltracchi's technique for removing the original painting from the frame to leave a blank canvas for his work. Lastly the forger's finishing aging steps are displayed including adding dust to the inner nooks and crannies of the frame to give that bumpy feel that one expects as they run their fingers over the frames's outer edge. Birkenstock uses a lot of long shots when filming the work in the studio. Overhead shots are also prevalent to show the scope and physicality of the work.
It turns out that the protagonist was tripped up by a moment of carelessness. He used a tube of white paint for his lost Campendonk creation Red Painting with Horses 1914 that contained a titanium white pigment that would not have existed in Campendonk's era. The mistake led to a police investigation and arrest as the family headed for an evening out. Beltracchi's teenage children were in the vehicle and it was the first time that they learned that their dad did not have a legitimate job in the art word.
Birkenstock also exposes the seedy underbelly of the High Art world. The auction houses make millions in commissions along with the authenticators. The collectors are greedy for the prestige of owning a unique work of a master. So all parties have a vested interest for the paintings to be real. Couple this with the inexact science of authentication makes it relatively easy for forgeries to reach galleries, private collections and museums.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery is an enjoyable production that is entertaining viewing whether you're an Art world insider or know nothing about art at all. Director Birkenstock creates a relaxed environment for his frank and open protagonist to tell their story. The charismatic pair committed crimes but somehow it seems that the people the pair duped were entwined in a system that is full of holes. It is a film that I can recommend.
*** 1/2 out of 4.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery | Arne Birkenstock | Germany | 2014 | 93 Minutes.
Art, Forgery, Crime, Documentary, Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Art Gallery, Auction House, Sotheby's, Christies, Authenticators.