From Forgery Scandal to Unexpected Fortune

In the art investment market, where a painting can cost more than 100 million euros, authenticity and provenance are crucial. The Beltracchi case is a good example of how counterfeiting can lead to unpleasant surprises.
Wolfgang Beltracchi, often referred to as «the greatest art forger after the Second World War», succeeded for decades in defrauding the international art world with his deceptively real forgeries.
He and his accomplices sold over 300 forged works, purportedly by masters such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Heinrich Campendonk. Switzerland was both an outlet and a transit country for these works, and many Swiss galleries and collectors fell victim to his deceptions.
Millions Spent on Counterfeiting
His forgeries caused financial damage of up to 20 million euros (in german only). These were only discovered when the art expert Ralph Jentsch checked the  authenticity of stickers on various canvas backs that identified the works as original and from the «Flechtheim Collection» (in german only) and clearly identified these stickers as fakes.At the same time, the art historian Andrea Firmenich had Heinrich Campendonk’s work «Red Picture with Horses» examined by art technology, during which suspicious substances were detected. This scandal caused the value of originals, especially in the impressionist sector, to fall by up to 20 percent as confidence in the market declined.
Current Exhibition on the Topic
This is confirmed by Henry Keazor (in german only), Professor of Art History, with a focus on art forgeries, at the University of Heidelberg. He is currently preparing the exhibition  «Art and Forgery: Learning the Right from the Wrong» (in german only) at the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg, which will be open to visits from 29 February to 30 June 2024.«Even after their discovery, counterfeits cause far-reaching damage beyond the financial impact. Apart from the resulting dilution of Heinrich Campendonk’s oeuvre, even originals with impeccable provenance were initially avoided for some time after the scandal on the art market,» says Keazor.

André Derain (1880-1954), Vue de Collioure. Original or forgery? (Image: Private collection Germany)
Keep Your Eyes Open When Buying Art
Particular care should be taken when buying art. Reputable purchases require not only an eye for the art, but also a thorough examination of the accompanying documentation.
Regardless of whether the artwork is purchased directly from the artist, from galleries, auction houses or private individuals, it is essential to obtain appropriate certificates of authenticity and proof of provenance and to check them for authenticity.
Well-Known Impostor
As early as the 1990s, John Drewe, a well-known impostor in the art scene, perfectly forged provenances for the forgeries of his accomplice and henchman John Myatt. And in the case of Beltracchi, there were middlemen who did not tell the buyers the full (problematic) provenance.Today, due to our digitized world, it is even easier to forge documents in a deceptively real way.
Überprüfung der Echtheit
Therefore, if there is the slightest doubt, it is advisable to check the authenticity of the works of art and their accompanying documents by independent experts, for example from the Federal Association of Publicly Appointed and Sworn Art Experts and Qualified Art Experts (BVK) (in german only) as well as Qualified Experts (BVS) for Art and  Antiques or from renowned auction houses.

The back of the canvas, material and nails must be examined (Image: Private property, Germany)
These institutions often have many years of experience in dealing with works of art and have the necessary resources and expertise to identify fakes. Many auction houses also offer guarantees on the authenticity of the works they sell, which provides additional peace of mind for buyers.
Consequences for the art market
The impact of such counterfeits is far-reaching. It is fraud, which is committed as well as falsification of the original oeuvre in question, which in the worst case can then lead to further «successful» forgeries. If a work of art is exposed as fake, this destabilizes the art market, influences the buyership and usually leads to downward price adjustments.
However, in the midst of these uncertainties, there are also positive stories. A private collector from Germany, who is personally known to the finews.art editorial team, recently learned that a painting in his possession, which he had acquired years ago in an antique shop for a small sum as a copy after André Derain,  could actually be an original by the artist worth over 600,000 euros.

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