Massive Art Forgery Scandal Unravels in Germany

If Thomas Crown had been an acid-dealing hippie instead of a billionaire, this might be his story.

New details are emerging about Wolfgang Beltracchi, the mysterious figure at the center of German history’s largest art-forgery scandal, Der Spiegel reports.

Described as a “luxury hippie,” Beltracchi spent time throwing lavish theme parties, attempting to to direct movies and living on a commune in Morocco. In his earlier days, he sold drugs to American soldiers on military bases.

But Beltracchi was also a gifted artist who was able to paint from memory. He was described by a friend as “touched by God,” and art was ultimately how he made his fortune. Now he is suspected of having passed off 35 paintings as valuable masterpieces from the early 20th century. Authorities believe he painted at least some of the forgeries himself.

Beltracchi allegedly escaped notice by forgoing forgeries of paintings by famous artists like Picasso. Instead, the “newly discovered paintings” he hawked were said to be done by lesser-known artists whose work — while still valuable — wouldn’t attract the same attention.

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Beltracchi claimed he acquired the paintings from the collection of an obscure businessman named Werner Jaegers, who he said had hidden a giant art  collection during the Nazi era. The Nazis famously stole untold amounts of property and artwork from Jewish Germans, and, in the chaos that surrounded the Allied invasion, massive fortunes in art went unaccounted for. (In fact, a significant cache of Nazi artwork recently surfaced during subway construction in Berlin. Nearly a dozen bronze and terracotta sculptures officially derided by the Nazis as “degenerate” were uncovered at the site of a building that burned down in 1944, according to the Associated Press.)

But telltale signs in Beltracchi’s art began to give investigators pause. One painting, for example, employed a color that had been invented after 1914, when the artwork was said to have been painted. Finally, investigators discovered that the “Werner Jaegers” that he had been using in his cover story had never actually been an art collector.

Beltracchi was detained at his lavish villa in the hills above Freiburg and is being held in custody by the German police for crimes they say he committed over the past 15 years.

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