Multi-million dollar scam duped collectors including actor Steve Martin
The trial of three people arrested in Germany last year, accused of defrauding rich art collectors, including the actor Steve Martin gets underway in Cologne Germany today. This is one of the highest profile cases of its kind. The accused conned several dealers, auction houses and museums into paying millions for forged modern art. Experts and Police have identified 44 fake art works, by names including Kees Van Dongen, Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Fernand Leger. Several of the Ernsts were declared authentic by Werner Spies, a doyen of the German art scene and editor of the Ernst catalog. A frenzy of buyer interest occurred over the last six years when Cologne galleries and auctions were offering previously unknown works by modern masters. Dealers, museums and Art lovers were duped into thinking the masterpieces had been hidden for years by a secretive Cologne collector. But several months ago the Germany’s art-dealing world was rocked by the revelation that the so-called Werner Jaegers collection was a clever plot to cheat and deceive buyers with fake art.
Police began looking for the scammers and embarrassed museums removed the pictures from display, Cologne prosecutors stated that they have identified seven suspects in this case of organised fraud. The forgeries first came to light when a buyer purchased an alleged work by Campendonk through the Cologne auction house Lempertz. The buyer had the work scientifically tested for ‘insurance purposes’. After testing, the painting, “Red Picture with Horses,” was shown to contain an oil pigment that had not yet been invented at the time the picture was dated.
The fraud amounts to 16 million euros (20 million dollars), but art experts have estimated the real loss to museums and unwary collectors may be even more. Five of the works were brought into the art market by the auction house Lempertz, in Cologne.14 paintings sold by the accused forgers have been tested for their pigments and shown to be fakes, while another 33 still await testing. Some buyers have already sought damages from Lempertz and more are likely to seek compensation as further evidence is revealed.
The Cologne public prosecutor has brought charges against at least four people implicated in the forgery ring: Wolfgang Beltracchi, 60, is said to be the mastermind behind this scam which defrauded art collectors internationally. Beltracchi’s wife Helene, his sister-in-law Jeanette and her husband, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, were also arrested last year, accused of playing a role in the fraud. More than 160 witnesses are expected to appear over 40 days of the trial.
According to German detectives, this Heinrich Campendonk painting titles “Landscape with Horses” (see illustration) was allegedly forged by the German criminal ring. It was sold to actor Steve Martin by the Cazeau-Beraudiere gallery in Paris at what would have been considered the cheap price of €700,000, or $850,000.Martin later sold the picture through Christies at a loss of $150,000.