According to convicted art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, the best artists are those who paint with the “richest colors.” Whereas the art market, he says, merely favors whoever commands the highest selling price. Beltracchi is the focus of German director Arne Birkenstock’s provocative new documentary Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery. The film begins just three days before Beltracchi is off to prison for forging what some experts have called the finest Campendonk ever “discovered” — one of Beltracchi’s tricks is to paint works of art that no one has ever actually seen and are only alleged to exist.
The filmmakers conduct interviews with the forger — and with those he deceived — as he serves the length of a highly unusual prison sentence. Beltracchi and his wife, Helene (who was also convicted as an accomplice), are allowed to paint together in their home studio during the day before having to return to their respective prison cells at night. The arrangement isn’t explained in the film, but it frees Beltracchi to demonstrate for us how to forge an early-twentieth-century oil painting by a well-regarded albeit lesser-known artist.
The art experts and auctioneers interviewed onscreen respect Beltracchi’s talent but abhor how he used it. “I would’ve preferred Shariah law,” says one auctioneer, presumably asked whether Beltracchi’s punishment fits his crime. There’s no question that Beltracchi broke laws and cheated collectors out of millions, but he still claims to believe he did nothing wrong. He’s “a Robin Hood,” he explains, who used the money he made from forgeries to create a better life for his wife and children.
The filmmakers resist taking sides. Instead, they present the clash between Beltracchi’s views and those of the art-world cognoscenti as an opportunity for an enlightening meditation on the meaning of art and how that meaning gets lost (perhaps) through high-profile financial transactions. Beltracchi tells an interviewer that Max Ernst wasn’t a genius because his techniques were rudimentary and easily duplicated. When the interviewer counters that Ernst was a genius because of his ideas, Beltracchi scoffs, “Ideas don’t make you a good painter.” Cut to an exasperated art dealer who tells us just how badly Beltracchi gets it wrong.
But how wrong is Beltracchi, really? Before discovering that their Campendonk was actually a Beltracchi, the married owners of the forgery hung it prominently in their living room. The wife says the multicolored, geometrical cow in the center of the work reminded her of her rural childhood. She got rid of it once the experts proved it to be fake. But there are times, she says, she wishes she’d kept it so she could hang it in her closet, next to family photographs and other “decorative arts.”
Once stripped of its market value, a painting that once evoked tender memories for its owner seems only to matter as a pretty knickknack. Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery makes us question not only art, but the experts who claim to understand it best.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
Directed by Arne Birkenstock
Opens August 19, Film Forum