Interview with art forgers who sold fake painting to Steve Martin

A fascinating interview/profile in The Guardian of a husband and wife who ran a two-person art forgery business. Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi made and sold forged paintings of Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and others. They went to great lengths to fabricate false provenances for the paintings, creating a fake photo of a 1924 art exhibition that showed one of their Léger forgeries on the wall.

Wolfgang said he had never forged pictures with compositions that would unnerve the onlooker. "I have to create something beautiful … I want to make people happy," he said.

He described forgery as "almost incidental": "We enjoyed selling the paintings. We got a kick out of it. We got rich," he said. "I got to paint, and we enjoyed doing the research too. Forgery was a way of combining all these things. And I got to sit around the pool for days, reading and daydreaming and sleeping."

Helene added: "The more successful we were in selling the pictures, the higher we set the bar and the more extra stories we came up with, because we were really enjoying this game. Sometimes we laid trails so elaborate that nobody would ever have discovered them."

They were caught when experts found traces of titanium white in a forgery of Heinrich Campendonk painting, a pigment Campendonk never used. The painting had been purchased by actor Steve Martin for $850,000.

Beltracchi had run out of zinc, which he used to mix with his white colour himself, and he bought a pure zinc white from a Dutch manufacturer that did not disclose that the paint contained traces of titanium white.

That was his "fatal error". It sparked a police investigation. Panic spread through the art world and, in 2011, a German court sentenced Wolfgang and Helene to six and four years respectively.