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The Practical Value of Art
written by: Aarón Monsiváis
Everyone seems to have the value of art all wrong. Van Gogh is one of the most valued and sought-after painters of our time, and yet he never tasted anything but a life of misery. He grew up, lived, and died destitutely. Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players was reportedly sold between 250 and 300 million American dollars, or about 1919550000.00 Japanese yens. It would seem rich people have a vulgar lack of good taste to not need something unless some auction house tells them it is valuable. The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens, valued at around 120 million Canadian dollars, can be seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario for only $19.50, saving yourself 119 999 980.50 dollars, Canadian. Money that can be used instead for a good cause; but that is of no interest to rich people. However, there is also a practical side to art. One morning, about fifteen years ago, an elite squad of the Colombian forces broke into a bunker-style apartment building. They made their way to the top floor. The rest of the apartments in the building were empty. When they got to the top floor of the six-story building, a man waiting for them opened the door and threw himself on the floor without saying a word. Upon entering the apartment, they found a lady in her early thirties, sitting calmly in the living room of the grandiose penthouse. The view from the living room, as one of the members of the squad, would later describe, still wearing a ski mask, “was simply magnificent.” Midget palm trees surrounded the endless swimming pool, adorning and contrasting with the white marble terrace. “If the word ‘ostentatious’ didn’t exist, the term ‘magnificent opulence’ would have to be used,” he added later. Nevertheless, the lady was just circumspectly looking at her nails. There had been no response from her when one of her security guards tried to grab a knife from the kitchen on the floor below and a squad-assaulter had shot him. The man screamed and was shot a second time. The commotion didn’t seem to have affected the lady. She remained stoic.
While the policemen were still registering and securing the penthouse making sure there were no guns –not a single firearm was found, by the way–, a member of the squad team moved one of the eight paintings that decorated the living room. “Don’t touch it”, said the lady, in a stern tone. The leader of the tactical unit took a closer look and made a rather surprising discovery, the paintings were: a Chagall, two Matisses, a Max Ernst, a Dalí, a Picasso, a Rembrandt, and a Van Gogh. Well, technically, though. Because all of them turned out to be Beltracchis. The creations of Wolfgang Beltracchi, the greatest art forger in history, so far. The man who managed to sell hundreds of fake paintings, making a fortune in the process, and who single-handedly brought down the field of art authentication experts and forensic art analysts. He even sold a painting by the German Expressionist Johannes Molzahn, to the own artist’s widow. On another occasion, the widow of the dadaist artist Max Ernst, saw a Beltracchi painting and said that it was the most beautiful picture that Max Ernst had ever painted. And that’s because he didn’t copy the paintings, but rather created paintings that the great artists might have painted, claiming they were unknown works by the artist themselves.
His works of art took Beltracchi no more than a couple of days to produce, sometimes just a couple of hours. He conned art dealers and connoisseurs all over the world. In a 60 Minutes interview, Beltracchi said he had forged about a hundred artists. When asked who he couldn’t do, he candidly replied, “Maybe a Bellini. A Bellini is really difficult”. He went on to say, “I think I’m one of the most exhibited painters in the world”.
In 2010, Beltracchi was busted by a tube of white paint made in the Netherlands he used to forge a Max Ernst. The Dutch manufacturer had failed to disclose that the white paint, called Titanium White, had traces of a pigment not available at the time when the painting would have been created. Beltracchi’s 40-year prolific career was over. How did he manage to fool the “art experts” for so long? “I was too good for them, that was the only problem”, the forger genius said.
The reporter then asked Beltracchi if he thought he had done anything wrong. To which he replied, “Yes, I used the wrong Titanium White, yeah”. Beltracchi was eventually asked whether he knew the woman from the penthouse. A picture was held in front of him, he glanced at it rather quickly and said, “I’ve never seen her. And I know all my good customers.” The woman was the wife of a notorious drug trafficker, the leader of a criminal empire. When the Colombian investigators were questioning her about her strong liking for art, she looked at them perplexed, paused for a brief moment, and with a smirk on her face said, “You know how much space takes up 30 million dollars in cash? It’s easier to keep all that money in the form of a painting, it’s just convenient; plus the rats can’t eat up the bills.”