According to convicted art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, the best artists are those who paint with the “richest colors.” 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. (He demonstrates on screen how to forge an early–20th century oil painting by a well-regarded albeit lesser-known artist.)
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.
Anne BirkenstockWolfgang Beltracchi, Helene Beltracchi, Hendrik Hanstein, James Roundell, Sofia Komarova, Niklas Maak, René Allonge, Henry KeazorAmerican Cinematheque