Is this painting by Valck worth anything

From forger to artist

He became known as one of the greatest art forgers of all time. Today, however, Wolfgang Beltracchi is an artist. Now living in Switzerland, the German is painting again - without any forgeries.

Strictly speaking, the man is not an art forger at all. Because art forgers - as the name suggests - counterfeit art. But Wolfgang Beltracchi, who became known as the “forger of the century”, did not forge works of art, but documents: he did not copy pictures, but created new works in the unmistakable style of great painters. But since he put their names - including well-known painters such as Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, Max Pechstein or André Derain - under these pictures, he was guilty of forging documents. Even the most recognized art experts could not identify the "new" works as forgeries.

Wolfgang Beltracchi
... was born in 1951 as Wolfgang Fischer. He was kicked out of school, dropped out of art school and led a wandering life through Europe and North Africa. In 1992 he met his wife Helene. For many years Beltracchi forged several hundred pictures which he sold to collectors and gallery owners. He was caught in 2011 and sentenced to six years in prison. He has been painting again since his release
as a "regular" artist.

Beltracchi fooled gallery owners, collectors, auction houses and art experts together with his wife Helene, who among other things resold the pictures as part of an allegedly newly discovered "Werner Jäger Collection" and not only earned good money (the public prosecutor's office estimated the profits in the process at 16 Million euros, note), but also revealed numerous sore points in the art trade. Because what art is and how much individual pieces should be worth, these are controversial questions that have a massive impact on the art trade. It is one of the great ironies of this story that it was not art experts but chemists who could convict the Beltracchis. A chemical analysis of his picture "Red Picture with Horses" showed that a titanium white had been used that had not yet existed during the lifetime of the artist Heinrich Campendonk. Wolfgang Beltracchi was sentenced to six years imprisonment (after pre-trial detention in the open prison, note), his wife Helene to four years.

Today the two live near Lucerne, where Beltracchi paints his pictures in a former dance hall. According to his own statements, he sells the works for prices between 80,000 and 300,000 CHF, mostly to collectors. He says he has achieved his goal of making it from forger to artist. But what does this man, who has dealt with art and trade with it for decades, think about it today? In his opinion, how can the art market be better designed? And what does an artist have to be able to do, according to Wolfgang Beltracchi?

We visited him - and asked. At his side, as for 26 years, was his wife Helene Beltracchi. The two of them had a conversation with us about the trade in or the character, the essence and the future of art.

You have often criticized the art trade and exposed the weaknesses of the market. How would you like the art trade if you could?
WB: Nobody has ever asked me that.

HB: Fairer for all artists.

WB: Especially for young artists. But first you have to know how the art trade works in order to understand that. The art trade is not as big a story as is often thought. The volume is perhaps around US $ 50 billion worldwide. It's not that much. That's why retail is dominated by very few people - and that's what bothers me. It starts harmlessly at the bottom, there are many small galleries that take care of artists and try to sell their works. These gallery owners and artists earn little, but they are the ones who invest the most work and time.

HB: Then comes the big interim structure: slightly higher quality goods, established art, but mostly not the great artists - or if so, then only their by-products. There is sales, but the actors earn a living at most. All of this is still normal trading. Then come the big galleries that make good money. And on top of that comes the highly acclaimed art elite, who share the market and earn real money.

WB: That’s maybe a dozen or two dozen people around the world.

HB: What makes the whole thing so terrible is that the trade is only focusing on a few artists at the same time. It's a monopoly society, and people earn money from it. The artists accepted into this society produce a gigantic volume.

WB: They are all “factories”. There are some who don't even have a drawing table in the office, but dozens of art workers on their payroll.

HB: So a mechanism would be needed to distribute this money to those who have such a hard time

Do these few people at the top have too much power?
WB: In the past, artists were at the top of the rankings for the most influential people on the art market. Today the first 40 places are occupied by artists. These are the people who determine who gets to the top. Quasi: “We'll make something out of you - or not.” And that has nothing to do with good or bad art.

Then what does it have to do with?
WB: Art has no value, art is a fiction. You sell a picture for CHF 1,000 or CHF 1 million. Nobody can say whether the picture is worth its price. The only difference is that someone is willing to pay that much money for it.

Which in turn has to do with supply and demand ...
WB: But a normal artist can never create the offer for the upscale art society. If I work really hard, I can sell maybe 25 paintings in a year. But if someone paints on the world market, this artist needs between 200 and 500 works - for example someone like Ai Weiwei (Chinese artist, note). Such artists are no longer millionaires, they are budding billionaires. And of course others also earn money from it. And since someone has to make this art, there are a lot of people in these factories who make the works, the artist just signs, done. It doesn't matter whether it's Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami: It's always the same game.

Should artists sell their work directly?
HB: I can only recommend most artists that they set up their own marketing. Today this is the great opportunity to network yourself around the world. But that's infinitely time-consuming - and most artists aren't the great marketers anyway.

WB: There are millions of artists around the world, but they are no longer well trained and don't have the skills. And then it becomes problematic, because at some point they will all be unemployed and at best have to make ends meet as art workers.

What role do the auction houses play?
WB: They're part of it. They no longer play the same role as they did in the past, because at that time the dealers still sold directly to their customers. Today, however, customers go shopping directly at auction houses, and art auctions have become retail.

HB: As a result, prices have risen exorbitantly.

WB: And the auction houses are of course also smart, because they interfere in the trade. They acquire customers, participate in sales, etc.

What percentages do the houses share in the works of art?
HB: Around 25 to 30 percent.

Is it even possible to build a market around something that has no intrinsic value?
HB: The question is: what do I want? And not: What is someone trying to tell me to buy? The balance of power on the art market could be changed, for example by making collectors work on themselves and emancipating themselves from the “advisors” who whisper to them what art is and what one should buy.

You always refer to your ability to paint pictures through the eyes of others as a “genetic defect”. How so?
WB: Well, that's not normal. (laughs) The maximum I would say about myself is that I have a rare talent to see and reproduce the painters' manuscripts, that is, to paint new paintings in the manuscripts. I also worked intensively with the artists - I even know what they ate.
Is that something that is missing in today's market - knowledge about the artists, the context?

WB: That is extremely lacking. For me, creativity always consists of ability and knowledge. You have to learn the skills like a craft, you have to acquire the knowledge. Both together result in creativity, and creativity can result in art. Otherwise you can also give a brush to a chimpanzee. It's a little different with musicians; if someone sits down at the piano who can't play, he'll be laughed at. In art this is simply accepted.

This article was published in our October 2018 issue of “Handel”.

Klaus Fiala,
Editor-in-chief