A Wild and Crazy Art Scam: Steve Martin Among Those Duped by Germany's Largest-Ever Forgery Ring

A Wild and Crazy Art Scam: Steve Martin Among Those Duped by Germany's Largest-Ever Forgery Ring

Charges have been filed in Cologne against four people for running what authorities believe is the largest-scale art forgery ring in German history. As ARTINFO previously reported, Helene Beltracchi sold paintings said to have come from her grandfather's art collection and to have been hidden during the Nazi regime. Now, her husband Wolfgang Beltracchi now stands accused of painting the works himself. Among the victims of the fraud is art-collecting actor and writer Steve Martin, who purchased a fake Heinrich Campendonk painting from a Paris gallery in 2004.

Martin bought "Landscape with Horses," ostensibly a 1915 work by the German-Dutch modernist, from Cazeau-Béraudière gallery for a hefty €700,000 (about $850,000 at the time) in July 2004, Der Spiegel reports. Martin, an active art collector who has published "An Object of Beauty," a novel about the New York art scene, went on to offload the work in 2006 at a Christie's auction. It was purchased for €500,000, a full €200,000 loss for the actor — but now that the forgery is revealed it looks like the joke is on the Swiss collector who bought it.

The Cologne public prosecutor is bringing charges against the four people implicated in the forgery ring: Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi and two accomplices whose last names have not been released, one Otto S. and Helene's sister, Jeanette S. The group stands accused of selling fake works by artists including Campendonk, Max Pechstein, Fernand Léger, and Max Ernst.


The forgeries first came to light when a cautious buyer, the Maltese company Trasteco, purchased an alleged Campendonk through Cologne auction house Lempertz for $3.7 million and had the work scientifically tested. After testing, the painting, "Red Picture with Horses," was shown to contain a color that had not yet been invented at the time when it was supposedly painted.

According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 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.