Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery is a good con.

“You have to stop at some point or you’ll paint it to death.”

In April I watched a documentary called Sour Grapes, about a con artist who mixed cheaper wines together to mimic the flavours of expensive wines. What made the documentary different is that the con artist, Rudy, wasn’t some uncultured fellow exposing the bullshit of the wine industry. He was actually a wine genius, with a phenomenal palette who just happens to use his brains, knowledge, and talent for evil instead of good.

There are definite shades of that in Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, a 2014 documentary about Wolfgang Beltracchi, an art forger. Together with his wife Helene, they forged potentially hundreds of paintings, making millions of Euros over the course of 20 years. We jump in just as they’re about to be sent to prison.

Beltracchi doesn’t paint pictures of existing paintings and then flog them off to dummies. Rather, he researches an artist and figures out what’s missing from their known works. Then puts himself in the mind of that artist, and fills in the gap.

It’s amazing, really. He trawls through books and biographies, looking for descriptions of an artist’s work that perhaps hasn’t been discovered yet. That perfect story, the “Painting X” that everyone has read about but never seen, that has either been destroyed or is lying in someone’s collection, undiscovered.

And then he “discovers” it.

Oh look, I found this at the end of my brush.

So the paintings Wolfgang Beltracchi produces are like completely new works from famous artists. He’s actually an artistic genius, because he dives into an artist’s psyche and world view so thoroughly that the new work is indistinguishable from everything else the artist has produced.

And he’s an amazing art historian, able to trace the movements of an artist back to a particular time and place. Tracking down the right canvas, paints, and even collecting dust from the location where the work was supposedly painted to line the back of the frame.

Like all fraudsters who get caught, Beltracchi was discovered through a simple error. In a small rush, he lazily used some Titanium White to finish off a painting. It was the one pigment he didn’t mix himself, and as it turns out, it’s one of the few pigments that wasn’t available in the era the work was supposedly composed.

Occasionally he expresses resentment for being such a talented artist, but getting none of the glory for it. “Sometimes when you see your own painting in a museum you think, damn, I’m in all these museums, and no one knows it’s mine!” he says with a laugh. But you can tell that there’s some seriousness to what he’s saying.

But setting aside Beltracchi’s romantic roguishness for a moment — what is the documentary like? Well, it doesn’t come down on any one perspective. Both of the Beltracchis are easy folks to like, so with no guiding hand, the camera falls in love with them, and so does the audience. But they did con people out of millions of dollars, and haven’t really been punished for it. They’ve lived well for 20 years, but spent just three years in a part-time prison for their sins. They’ve had to liquidate assets to pay back their victims (yes, victims). But Beltracci’s real paintings are doing very well on the market by all accounts.

So is what they did good? Bad? Neither? I’d call Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery’s position “softly positive”. Which is a disconcerting. Wolfgang is such a magnetic and confident person that I came away feeling a little bamboozled. It’s easy to see why people were so ready to believe, when he can make such a non-committal documentary so easily likeable.

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