Review: ‘Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery’ Tells How a Swindler Fooled the World


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Wolfgang Beltracchi in “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery.”

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KimStim

In the documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery,” the German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi — who was sentenced in 2011 to six years in prison but released this year — professes to be able to paint anything. The art historian Henry Keazor gives him names. Leonardo? “Of course. He’s not difficult,” Mr. Beltracchi replies. When Mr. Keazor notes that the forger has the potential to deceive even scholars like him, Mr. Beltracchi replies, “If you write a catalog of works, bring it to me first.” This is ostensibly to make sure that undiscovered fakes are not accidentally included.

The movie, directed by Arne Birkenstock, the son of a lawyer for Mr. Beltracchi and his wife, Helene (who was sentenced as an accomplice to four years in prison), is hardly impartial about its subject, positioning the maned, urbane con artist at its center as a man of enormous talent and ingenuity. The film suggests that his deception was enabled by the skewed economic incentives of the art world, where the authentication of a painting has the potential to reap financial rewards.

Mr. Birkenstock watches Mr. Beltracchi undertake a painting in the style of the Russian artist Marie Vassilieff (“high on my list” of prospects, Mr. Beltracchi says). The swindler approaches the task with an artist’s attention to detail: He adds dust to the back of a frame to create the appearance of age; he notes that a real painting would smell of the room in which it hung. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Mr. Beltracchi’s punctiliousness and ability to paint in a chameleonlike array of styles are themselves a form of flair worth appreciating.

Part of what allowed Mr. Beltracchi to fool collectors — he grew rich off what he estimates were 300 paintings and drawings created between 1970 and 2010 — is that he was canny about filling in gaps in catalogs. Rather than copying existing works, he made new paintings in the style of particular artists, creating the illusion of important and logical historical finds. In the film, he even has the hubris to suggest that he may have improved on some of the original artists’ ideas.

The movie mostly trails Mr. Beltracchi during his time in an open-prison arrangement, which allowed him to leave prison during the day and continue working as an artist in a studio. It doesn’t look like much of a punishment. (We learn that he and Helene separate when they return to prison at night.)

While Mr. Beltracchi is an agreeable raconteur, and is much more knowledgeable than a mere armchair art historian, “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” is a case in which a great documentary topic hasn’t yielded a great documentary. Significant questions remain unanswered. There is not enough information on those whom Mr. Beltracchi deceived, the fate of an authenticator who made procedural errors, the seeming ignorance of the Beltracchis’ children or how the case was resolved in a German court. Putting identifying title cards in the same part of the screen as the subtitles doesn’t make the presentation any clearer.

By the end, though, it seems hard to accuse Mr. Beltracchi of hypocrisy. Shown painting under his real name, he says he doesn’t mind that his own works aren’t forgery proof.



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