Meet the art detective

Peter Woolrich

Art forgers make millions conning art lovers with faked paintings. But one professor is on their case…

As art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife Helene drank champagne on a Caribbean island, they had no idea that a budding forensic art investigator was honing the skills that would put them in prison. Professor Nicholas Eastaugh wasn’t on their tails yet—but he soon would be.

Unaware that time was running out, the Beltracchis continued flitting between their European homes and lazing on their yacht; ill-gotten gains from what would prove to be the biggest art forgery case of the 21st century. Their luxury lifestyle was afforded by Wolfgang’s ability to reproduce classic paintings worth more than £30m.

The Beltracchis, whose gang included Helene’s sister, Jeanette Spurzem, and friend Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, pulled off an elaborate scam that duped auction houses, museums and private collectors alike for more than 20 years.


Wolfgang's infamous Max Ernst forgery, The Forest, which sold to a publishing tycoon for a cool £5.5m

It’s believed that Wolfgang, now a well preserved 65-year-old with shoulder-length grey hair, began his criminal career in the 1980s. It it wasn’t until he married Helene in 1993 that the operation became truly sophisticated, by which time Professor Nicholas Easthaugh was emerging as a leading art detective.

While the gang scoured provincial French auctions for appropriately aged canvasses Wolfgang could use, the Professor was busy using his expertise to expose other less ambitious fraudsters.  

Wolfgang took just a few days to copy an Old Master or Picasso, but found the biggest money to be made was in imitating 20th-century Modernists. One of his greatest successes was called The Forest, purportedly by Max Ernst, which was wrongly authenticated by a renowned art historian at the Beltracchis villa in the South of France. It sold for £1.5m and in 2006 was loaned to the Max Ernst Museum in Germany. Firmly believed to be genuine,
a French publishing tycoon then purchased it for £5.5m. 

 
A woman in the Moritzburg Art Museum in Germany looks at the Red Painting with Horses forgery, which was created in the style of artist Heinrich Campendonk by the Wolfgang Beltracchi

Rather than copy existing pictures, Wolfgang’s modus operandi was to create supposedly unseen or lost works by relatively unknown artists. He scraped the top layers off a suitably dated painting, retaining the “ground” used to coat the canvas, and got his brushes out. “You have to respect the hard work he put in,” says Professor Eastaugh. “Although he’s not a scientist, in his own way Beltracchi was innovative and experimental. He built a special oven and cooked his paintings until he got the cracking in the paint surface that comes with age just right.”

"It was only two years but There was no getting away from iT­—i had him"

To further convince buyers, the Beltracchis concocted an elaborate backstory that Helene and Schulte-Kellinghaus had inherited the artworks from their grandparents, who they claimed were inter-war-year collectors. When questions started to be asked, the gang mocked up sepia photographs with Helene dressed in period clothes pretending to be her grandmother. In the background hung Wolfgang’s reproductions, which she claimed proved the pictures’ provenance.

They said the grandparents did business with the renowned German Jewish collector, Alfred Flechtheim. It worked because like all successful cons, the art world wanted it to be true. It also helped that Flechtheim’s life had been cut short when he had fled the Nazis in 1933, only to catch his leg on a nail and die of blood poisoning upon reaching London.


Renowned German Jewish collector Alfred Flechtheim

What the gang didn’t know, however, was that as their operation became ever more sophisticated, so too did Professor Eastaugh’s ability to catch them. His knowledge of historical art techniques was now second to none, bolstered by scientific advances, and he had set-up his own business, Art Analysis and Research. Eastaugh’s laboratories are as technologically equipped as the National Gallery and he has an impressive roster of worldwide clients who want their prospective art purchases verifying.        

“We can test with ultraviolet fluorescence, chemical analysis and ultra-high resolution digital imaging,” he explains. “We’re able to take such an extremely small sample using very fine eye surgery scalpels, that you shouldn’t be able to see where we’ve been.”

"In his own way, Beltracchi was innovative and experimental"

Beltracchi tried to stay ahead by keeping himself informed about scientific advances and submitting samples of the paints he was using for chemical analysis. “If a test report highlighted any materials that could have only been available after the
work was supposed to have been produced, Beltracchi removed it from his palette,” says
Professor Eastaugh.

But the Professor didn’t rely solely on science. His speciality was pigmentation and he’s amassed 3,000 vials of brightly coloured powders from nearly every chapter of art history—whites and yellows from Pompeii, blues from ancient China and Japanese glass pigments—which he keeps in an office drawer. Each helps him understand how artists worked in nearly every historical period, and consequently how to spot a modern fake. Red pigment, for example, used to be so expensive that painters boiled cast-off garments to extract the dye and bits of fibre can still be found in their work today. 


Professor Nicholas Eastaugh

According to the British Art Market Federation’s latest figures, the UK has the world’s third largest arts and antique market, which in 2014 was worth £9bn. Professor Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor at Oxford University and leading expert on Leonardo da Vinci, said, “Art forgery is a huge issue. It’s a cat and mouse game that the forgers are finding more difficult to stay ahead of, but they’ll always find a way into the latest art market hotspot. The Russian art scene, for example, is a bit like the Wild West at the moment.” 

The beginning of the end for the Beltracchis came when Wolfgang copied a painting by German expressionist Heinrich Campendonk, who died in 1957. His fake Red Painting with Horses sold for a record £1.7m in 2006, but issues were soon raised about its supporting documentation. In 2007 it was sent to a German art institute for analysis, which failed to reach a conclusion about its authenticity. 

"Eastaugh has amassed paint from every chapter of art history"

Eastaugh was itching to get his hands on the alleged Campendonk and in 2008 it arrived at his offices near Tower Bridge, London. Analytical tools at his disposal included x-rays, electron microscopes and ultraviolet lights, but it was his extensive knowledge of pigmentation that brought the Beltracchis down.  

Using an electron magniscope, he discovered that the master forger had made a rookie error by using two historically inappropriate colours, the most damning of which was a titanium dioxide white; a pigment which wasn’t widely available in 1914 when the painting was dated. “White titanium wasn’t introduced until after 1916,” says Eastaugh. “The difference was only two years but there was no getting away from it. I knew I had him.”


Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi at a screening of the film Beltracchi—The Art of Forgery

Beltracchi’s scheme began to unravel and the gang was arrested by armed German police in August 2010, and went to court the following year. The case was cut short after nine days of the expected two-month-long trial when German prosecutors made a plea-bargain deal with the gang. Wolfgang admitted 14 forgeries worth nearly £30m and was jailed for six years. His wife Helene, 53, got four years, her 54-year-old sister a 21-month suspended sentence and Shulte-Kellinghaus, 67, five years. They were also ordered to pay millions of pounds in compensation.    

The Professor, who has since analysed eight more Beltracchis and grown to recognise his style, remains on the lookout for more of the fraudster’s paintings, which are undoubtedly still hanging in art galleries and museums around the world. “We’re joined at the hip now,” Eastaugh says with a smile.

Since his release from Cologne prison two years ago, Wolfgang Beltracchi has staged numerous solo exhibitions and is regarded as a fine artist in his own right. Now his own signature appears on his work.