Considered the greatest art forger of our time, Wolfgang Beltracchi says he imagined what famous artists might have painted rather than copying their known works. His close "channeling" of artists--from Matisse to Max Ernst--has resulted in hundreds of fake artworks being sold on the market, passing into major museum collections and handled by venerable galleries and auction houses worldwide.
Beltracchi eventually landed a six-year prison term in Germany and faces $27 million in lawsuits.
A "conman of epic proportions", reports CBS's 60 Minutes in a recent interview with the forger, Beltracchi really fooled the art world after he married Helene in 1993. The pair came up with a devious story to explain the rediscovered masterpieces.
Helene said she inherited the artworks from her grandfather, who had hid them in Germany when the Nazis took power. The couple found gallery labels from the period, employed canvasses and paints consistent with the times, and used an old box camera to take old-looking photographs on pre-war paper showing the artworks with Helene's grandmother, a faded figure who was actually Helene herself in disguise.
His near-40-year run as a master art forger ended in 2010. A tube of paint with titanium white, which was not disclosed on the ingredients label, was uncovered with scientific analysis on a canvas traced to Beltracchi. That particular color was not histrically accurate with the artist's dates.
Now the forger, who once lived in high style, has nothing. Beltracchi continues to paint in other artists' styles, but now signs his own name,
There were 36 fakes that sold for $46 million at issue during Beltracchi's 2011 trial, including a Max Ernst purchased by actor Steve Martin. Experts believe there are more than 300 fakes at large, and they are just beginning to be uncovered.