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MONTREAL — A highly enjoyable look at a career spent duping the art world, Arne Birkenstock‘sBeltracchi: The Art of Forgery introduces an artist who made millions selling fake paintings that allegedly made their way into museums, definitive art books, and collections including that of Steve Martin. Martin and others who spent fortunes on forgeries by Wolfgang Beltracchi may cringe at his unrepentant attitude here and be reluctant to find him likeable. But moviegoers with no stake in his crimes will take to the arthouse-ready film, which was awarded the Lola for best doc at May’s German Film Awards and has plenty of Stateside appeal.
The longhaired sexagenarian says he didn’t intend to be a fraudster. Drawn to painting from childhood, he later would scour estate sales for work by others that he could sell to galleries; he began to “improve” on anonymous works, making them more salable, and segued into more conventional forgery. Soon, he was studying the careers of established (but not super-famous) artists, creating work that was mentioned in biographies but had been lost; in the case of artists like Heinrich Campendonk, some collectors proclaimed his fakes among the finest examples of a painter’s output. (Martin’s painting was a bogus Campendonk landscape.)
Gallerists, scholars and auctioneers show up here, speaking both to generalities surrounding forgery — with limited supply and a vast pool of filthy-rich collectors, there’s little incentive to prove a work isn’t legit — and the specifics of Beltracchi’s career. With his wife (and other helpers not mentioned here), he crafted an elaborate backstory for his fakes, claiming that his wife’s dead grandfather had amassed a large collection; they would stage faux-vintage photos and leave clues for investigators to find, a tactic they replicate for us here.
As in the recent theatrical release Art and Craft, the forger walks us through the tricks of his trade, in this case buying a genuine but worthless old painting at a flea market and using the signs of authenticity on the canvas to bolster his illusion. (The two films complement each other well, with the frank and accessible Beltracchi contrasting with Art and Craft‘s skittish, opaque Mark Landis; their motivations and lifestyles are polar opposites as well.) This process is fascinating — and one of the final steps, involving vintage dirt, earns a huge laugh. More aesthetically tantalizing is Beltracchi’s work on a piece in the style of Max Ernst; this “Ernst-Beltracchi” could easily pass for one of the Surrealist’s better “forest” paintings.
The fact that many of Beltracchi’s works surely are passing for the real thing — he claims to have sold around 300 drawings and paintings since 1970, but only a few dozen have been uncovered — is the main source of friction in the film. For viewers who think it’s offensive that any individual should be able to spend millions of dollars on a painting, the thought of plutocrats unwittingly funding this talented man’s lavish lifestyle is hardly a downer. If only his exploits hadn’t also muddied the history of art for the rest of us, leaving us unsure if our favorite modern works were even made in their ostensible painters’ lifetimes.
Production companies: Fruitmarket, Tradewind Pictures
Director-Screenwriter: Arne Birkenstock
Producers: Arne Birkenstock, Helmut G. Weber, Thomas Springer
Director of photography: Marcus Winterbauer
Editor: Katja Dringenberg
Music: Murbeck & Dohmen
Sales: Global Screen GmbH
No rating, 101 minutes
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