A view from Dave Trott: Just forge ahead
A view from Dave Trott

Just forge ahead

Dave Trott recommends

Big data is blind faith

Read more

In 1995, Helene Beltracchi wanted to sell her art collection. Her grandfather, Werner Jägers, had bought all the paintings in 1933.

He bought them from a Jewish collector, Alfred Flechtheim, who was fleeing Berlin.

Her grandfather kept the paintings in his lodge in the countryside.

Helene had some photographs of her grandmother sitting in the lodge, with the paintings on the walls.

Art experts could see the resemblance between Helene and her grandmother in the photographs.

They checked out the actual paintings: the canvas, the frames, the pigment.

They checked out the style against the artists’ catalogues of work.

Sure enough, in each case these were pictures that were missing from the catalogues.

The paintings were verified and sold via Christie’s, Sotheby’s and other auction houses.

There was just one problem – they were all fakes.

Her husband, Wolfgang Beltracchi, was a forger.

He had forged Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Raoul Dufy and André Derain.

By his own admission, he forged hundreds of paintings by 50 different artists.

But his genius was more in the method than the end result.

Wolfgang would only ever forge early 20th-century German and French artists.

That way he could visit flea markets in the area where the artist painted.

He could buy canvases from the time they painted, so the materials would be authentic.

He would get dirt from the area to rub into joints in the frame.

He would go through the catalogues to find gaps in the artists’ paintings: portraits or landscapes, different subjects, different themes.

That way his forgeries wouldn’t get compared to what already existed – they would seem like undiscovered works.

Even Ernst’s widow said Wolfgang’s forgery was her husband’s best painting.

But the real brilliance for me was the photographs of Helene’s grandfather’s collection.

The art collection never existed.

The woman in the photograph wasn’t Helene’s grandmother at all – it was Helene.

That’s why there was such a family likeness.

Wolfgang dressed her in the style of the period, used the right furniture, and made sure it was all slightly out of focus.

Then he distressed the photos with tea stains.

Wolfgang’s real brilliance wasn’t in the forgeries of the paintings.

It was in recognising that people believe ancillary evidence above everything else.

Art experts validated the paintings because the supporting evidence was so convincing.

They barely looked at the actual paintings

When Wolfgang and Helene were eventually caught, they pleaded guilty to 14 fakes that had been sold for $22m.

The police identified another 58 fakes that they couldn’t prove.

The fascinating thing is that it’s very similar to our business.

We would rather believe the evidence of the peripheral data than what’s in front of us.

We believe the ability to judge something is irrelevant.

We can no longer trust ourselves to judge whether something is good or not.

We have an algorithm to decide that for us.

We have research, we have experts, we have data.

Thinking for ourselves is irrelevant – in fact, we have lost the ability to think.

As Albert Einstein said: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.

"We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift."

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.