Berltracchi: The Art of Forgery

Wolfgang Beltracchi, subject of Arne Birkenstock’s documentary BELTRACCHI: THE ART OF FORGERY.  ©Fruitmarket/Wolfgang Ennenbach. Courtesy of KimStim.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, subject of Arne Birkenstock’s documentary BELTRACCHI: THE ART OF FORGERY. ©Fruitmarket/Wolfgang Ennenbach. Courtesy of KimStim.

August 19, 2015.  As a teacher of sociology and media I found myself intrigued by the new documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery,” now playing at Film Forum. It is a documentary which takes its place among some very good documentaries about art, specifically the perception of art, value of art and the business of art. My list includes “The Art of the Steal” (2009), “Art and Craft” (2014), “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010) and “Herb & Dorothy” (2008). I use all of these films in my classes to make points about art and the role played by the media to present art in different ways.

Beltrachhi” concerns Wolfgang Beltracchi, a very successful German art forger who was finally found out after about 40 years. He escapades included fooling museum curators, art experts, art dealers, the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, not to mention movie star Steve Martin, who bought a painting.

Frank, relaxed and unapologetic about his exploits, Beltracchi proves to be a charming raconteur. His explanation (rationalization?) for what he has done brings up fascinating issues about art and the business and culture of the art world. Beltracchi explains that there is a large market demand for paintings which has created a willingness to believe that a particular artwork is authentic, especially by those who should know better. He reasons that goods are in demand and they should be produced. The film also explores the issue of authenticity in the art world. The point is made that, “There are more people who know how to make money than there are works of art.”

Beltracchi and his wife (and partner in crime) Helen are, in addition to being forgers, story tellers. Beltracchi used his knowledge of the histories of twentieth century artists to find gaps in their histories. He would then produce paintings in the styles of these artists. In other words, Beltracchi’s forgeries are not copies of existing works but, in effect, a sort of alternative universe in which these paintings could have been created. The aritsts that Beltracchi emulates include Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Heinrich Campendonk, Max Pechstein and Andre Derainto. Beltrachhi even has the temerity to claim that, in some cases, he improved on the artists’ styles. One has to wonder why Beltrachhi, with so much knowledge and talent, did not establish himself as a painter. After all, the point is made that, a painting is not a forgery until Beltracchi puts the name of an artist other than himself.

Director/producer Arnie Birkenstock keeps “Beltracchi” moving at good pace, with the conviction that he has a great story to tell. He has been given great access to his subject, due, no doubt, to the fact that his father is Beltracci’s lawyer. The revelations about the forgeries and extent to which Beltracchi went to bring off his works are nicely mixed in with the points of view of various art experts and Beltracchi’s son and daughter who admit that, growing up, they were not aware of what their parents were up to.

Perhaps Beltracchi’s being found out now gives him the recognition which, on some deeper level, he always craved. Could it be that now, with Beltracchi being famous for being infamous, his forgeries will take on a value of their own? After all, they are the subject of a movie!

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” is now playing at Film Forum at 209 West Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue. For more information visit


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 19, 2015, in Documentary, Film Forum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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