'Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery' Almost Hits the Mark

This isn't an failure but it's not an unqualified success. Its greatest triumph is that it encourages to look beyond its own frames, whether it means to or not.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery

Director: Arne Birkenstock
Cast: Wolfgang Beltracchi, Helene Beltracchi
Distributor: Icarus
Rated: NR
Release date: 2015-11-17

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery attempts to make its titular character, convicted art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, a kind of folk hero. Sure, he’s a con man who swindled the art world out of untold millions, but he’s kind of likeable, you know? A guy who has that je nais se quois and sure, some joie de vivre, too, but he might just also make you scream sacre bleu!

He was sentenced to six years in prison back in 2011 for his forgeries, including faked works by Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk and others. Beltracchi was convicted of forging a relatively small body of work compared to the countless numbers he’s boasted of creating.

If he sounds like the kind of guy whose shoes you might want to spit on, well, that’s part of the charm. And director Arne Birkenstock knows that. How else could this guy have thrived if not for his undeniable charms and, face it, craftsmanship. What Beltracchi did was, in its way, a work of imagination: Rather than copy existing works, he created new ones. He looked for gaps in the oeuvre of painters and made his move. These were lost works, some that had languished here or there for decades, were unknown, forgotten, too personal, whatever story you want to provide for them.

Their provenances could be traced to the collections of people who Beltracchi and his wife not so much made up but reclaimed as established art collectors. (Despite, we discover, that if you’re in the art world and have a good collection, you’re going to be known. So, the invention has to be a greater than you might think.) These works are sometimes breathtaking in the life that Beltracchi gives them. Forgery or no, they are works of art. Ones that many were in fact proud to add to their collections.

Beltracchi walks us through the process of creating forgeries: finding canvas that was the right age, getting the right materials; then he had to work through the act of making the new work, carefully crafting something worth the going price; he’d bake the canvas, add dirt to the fame and, he offers, in certain instances, make sure that the picture smelled as though it were authentic to the time and place from which it was said to have emerged.

It’s fascinating to see him work, a bit annoying to hear him claim that he’s improving upon the work the artists themselves did, and a little sad that we don’t really get the particulars of his total deception. There are other parties involved whose inventions and deceptions, accidental or otherwise, are as important as those of Beltracchi, but those stories are really only hinted at and then in a manner that is, in a word, cursory.

Beltracchi’s full story never really emerges, either. Perhaps he’s hopeful that some of that will be told in grand style on big screens by big actors, but perhaps it’s also that Birkenstock couldn’t see these flaws in the film that he was making. Not knowing who Beltracchi deceived and when and for how much makes it easier to like him, one supposes, and the film asks us to do that. He's only doing what the art world demands, after all: Filling a void. It’s a market for people who love art and if art emerges they will buy it. That argument only goes so far, of course, and Beltracchi seems to acknowledge the glory days of his forgeries are over.

Our subject is able to capture our attention and imaginations for the bulk of the film and his sparring with art historians is remarkably civil. The problem is that the film’s focus on him becomes so close and closed off that it’s dizzying. It’s only in the final moments that we meet his children, for example, that we are given the full view of a man who is more complex than we might first think.

Still, even with its flaws, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery provides a fun view and a good starting point for a deeper discussion about the wild ways of the art world and those who fall victim to or become forgers just like Beltracchi.

The film is shot in German with English subtitles and features an interview with Beltracchi and his wife, Helene (she was imprisoned at the same time as him), an interview with Birkenstock and a featurette with art authenticators visiting the artist’s studio.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.