Wolfgang Beltracchi went out antiquing with a list of very particular items in mind. Searching diligently through the goods at a local flea market, he soon found just what he was looking for: a vintage 1920s camera and a few rolls of old film to go along with it. He also picked up some enlargers and trays to develop the film. Beltracchi had a bit more difficulty finding 80-year-old paper from the prewar era, but eventually he succeeded there too. With his photographic wares in hand, he headed home and studied the items, intent on creating authentic-looking period pictures.
Beltracchi's wife, Helene, a slim woman with strong features and graying light- brown hair, was excited by her creative husband's find and a willing and eager subject for his foray into period photography. Donning what she described as "the kind of blouse that grandmothers used to wear" and a strand of pearls, she pulled her long hair back, adopted the somewhat dour expression of her grandmother Josefine Jägers, and sat up straight at a simple two-chair table upon which rested a cup of tea and a small bouquet of flowers. Wolfgang snapped a few photos of her, careful to include the paintings that hung behind her on the wall — works attributed to masters of surrealism, including Max Ernst and Fernand Léger. These paintings, and many others, were part of a large collection of art that was said to be long absent from the waiting eyes of art lovers everywhere, and that would soon be unleashed to the world from the "Jägers Collection."
Wolfgang developed the black-and-white photographs of Helene-as-Josefine and closely examined the results. That they were slightly out of focus only added to the impression that they were taken in a bygone era. The finished product lacked but one feature, which he quickly and masterfully improvised by taking scissors and crimping the edges. The couple, who proudly described themselves as hippies, looked at their finished product, quite pleased with their results. But this wasn't some fun little project for a scrapbook, or a simple form of cosplay between the pair. Instead, the Beltracchis had created something more cunning, and even devious. They had created provenance.
Provenance is proof of the ownership history of a work of art. It is invaluable in establishing authenticity and, in turn, plays a vital role — perhaps the vital role — in determining value. While ironclad scientific proof of authenticity can often be extremely difficult to establish, solid provenance can make or break the sale of a painting. Because Helene had taken to selling valuable artwork that she claimed her grandfather — Josefine's husband — had left her, the Beltracchis were well aware of the need to prove that the paintings were what they purported them to be. Helene — the salesperson of the pair — had no sales records or receipts for the paintings, no decades-old titles to the works left behind by her family. Nothing aside from Helene's story of her grandfather and, of course, the obvious skilled handiwork and creativity displayed by each artist in the treasure trove of Impressionist paintings she had for sale. And, thus, the need to produce a record of ownership — like a historic family photograph — became important. After all, the story behind each and every artwork in the world is different, and the art world can be a very murky place, costly to enter and often subject to intrigue.
There are a large number of missing paintings in the world. Some have simply been misplaced by cash-strapped museums unable to retain a skilled registrar on staff to manage the many paintings bequeathed to them by generous art lovers. Others have been destroyed, perhaps by an unfortunate fire or some other accident. Some are in the possession of anonymous collectors who do not wish to make public the value of their irreplaceable works, or have obtained the art under less-than-ethical circumstances. Still others have been stolen and simply disappeared, the thieves unable or unwilling to return them to their rightful owners, even in cases where "no questions asked" and rewards are offered.
Other perilous conditions for cultural property include wars and political upheavals. And while national crises can mean jeopardy for collections both public and private, the evils of the Nazis during World War II marked a particularly vulnerable time for the world's great art and antiquities. From widespread looting, to collectors hiding their fine art, to the bombing of buildings and churches holding untold beauty, the scale of the disruption to the world's art is difficult to comprehend, never mind measure. With a large portion of the Second World War fought in European nations rich in masterworks, it's no surprise that an enormous number of paintings were put at risk under a variety of circumstances, including the wicked looting of art conducted by Hitler's Sonderauftrag Linz (Linz Special Commission) in an effort to meet his vision for the world's greatest museum — the Führermuseum — in his Austrian hometown. The Third Reich also implemented a program to rid the world of what it described as Entartete Kunst, or "degenerate art." This term was used to describe the work of the Modernists of the era, including such notables as Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and Wassily Kandinsky. Such was the Nazi contempt for Modernism that the party curated an exhibition of the so-called degenerate art featuring 650 works, each accompanied by a label describing for the viewer exactly what was wrong with coexisting with such deviant works. Never mind the fact that one of National Socialism's leading figures, chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels (who himself utilized a perverse form of bigoted Impressionism in an effort to pollute the national mood), had expressed approval for some pieces in the degenerate art show; this paradoxical exhibition was meant to show the people what the party believed they should no longer see. As the art writer James Gardner writes, "How ironic, however, that in their desire to purge the nation of this Expressionist threat, the Nazis set out to destroy what was, in fact, the first truly original form of German art ... to have emerged in nearly five centuries, since the time of Dürer and the elder Cranach."
The Nazi effort to purge its burgeoning yet doomed empire of degenerate art resulted in the confiscation of thousands of works, with a relatively small but unknown number of them being destroyed. It was against this historical backdrop that the breathtaking collection of Werner Jägers was introduced to the world by his granddaughter, Helene Beltracchi.
According to Helene, Jägers was a frequent and faithful customer of Alfred Flechtheim, a renowned Berlin art gallery owner. Flechtheim enjoyed enormous success dealing in works by the biggest names in the art of his day, including Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne, as well as representing important up-and- comers in Germany such as Paul Klee and George Grosz. So great was Flechtheim's influence in the art world in his time that today a commemorative plaque marks the spot of his Berlin apartment. After a first gallery collapsed while he fought for Germany in World War I, Flechtheim reestablished a gallery in Düsseldorf in 1919 and opened another in Berlin in 1921. By then, Flechtheim was a leader in the art scene in Germany, living as extravagantly as the clients he served. As was the case with virtually all Jewish businesses, though, the rise of Hitler meant the demise of Flechtheim's galleries and collection, and his road from celebrity art dealer to exile was, of course, paved by the Nazis. Within just six months of their rise to power, Flechtheim was broke and living in France, his life reduced to one of intense panic and loss. His friend Thea Sternheim would write, "What horrifies me the most is the senseless fear that has taken hold of Flechtheim. In a completely empty restaurant, he looks left and right, even during the most harmless conversations, to make sure that no one is listening to us."
It's hard to blame Flechtheim for his paranoia. His impressive and important collection of art was gone, with most of it auctioned off by his requisite Aryan partner. To make matters worse, no documentation survived the sale of his property. And when he died suddenly in 1937 after contracting an infection, Flechtheim left no estate behind. Even his widow's art collection was lost to the Gestapo after she committed suicide rather than be deported to Minsk in 1941.
Now, decades later, some of the art that had been dealt by the great but tragic Flechtheim was emerging from darkness, as Helene Beltracchi began to offer for sale the paintings her beloved grandfather Werner Jägers had bought from him. But despite the fact that Flechtheim's story was well known among a wide array of European art dealers, some still demanded provenance from Helene, backing her into a corner to come up with some sort of proof that her family had owned the Modernist paintings she was selling. Thus, for the Beltracchis, the falsified photographs that she and her husband produced were a necessary evil. It was clearly fraud, but millions of dollars were at stake, and the staged pictures seemed a rather harmless crime considering the fortune at stake.
Additional efforts were made to prove the authenticity of the paintings in Helene's Jägers Collection. For instance, the Beltracchis paid esteemed art historian Werner Spies a huge sum — rumored at over half a million dollars — to appraise seven of their works attributed to Max Ernst. Spies's stamp of approval on the paintings would make their authenticity ironclad; the influential historian was not just well schooled and experienced, but had also been friendly with Ernst himself. Spies's conclusion: all seven were unquestionably painted by the late surrealist Ernst. Spies's fee was money well spent: the certificates of authenticity the expert provided proved to be a boon for the Beltracchis, allowing them to sell at least five of the Ernsts from the Jägers Collection, including La Forêt (2), which was purchased from the pair for $2.3 million and ultimately sold for $7 million.
Helene's first sale was much more modest. In the early 1990s, she approached one of Europe's leading auction houses, Lempertz, with a painting she said was by Georges Valmier, a French painter whose styles evolved from Impressionism to Cubism and finally to Abstractionism. Almost immediately, the appraiser sent by Lempertz was ready to make a deal, and Helene settled on a final price of 20,000 deutschmarks (about $15,000). Years later, the painting would sell for $1 million. Though it would be a few more years before she would present the Jägers Collection to the world, Helene was intoxicated by the thrill of selling her Valmier to Lempertz. As she would later tell Vanity Fair, "The first time, it was like being in a movie. It was like it had nothing to do with me. It was another person — an art dealer, whom I was playing."
If she saw herself as an actress, she had found herself a dream role. And Helene rose to the occasion. She offered a painting called Mädchen mit Schwan (Girl with Swan) to Christie's, and when they raised the topic of provenance, Helene smoothly explained the story of her grandfather Werner's collection; to bolster the provenance, she pointed to a label that was affixed to the reverse of the painting that read "Sammlung Flechtheim" (Flechtheim Collection), and beneath it, "Heinrich Campendonk." This was more than enough to convince the esteemed auction house's expert, Dr. Andrea Firmenich, who authenticated the work. Christie's proceeded to include Mädchen mit Schwan in its October 1995 auction of German and Austrian art, featuring it in its catalog and writing in the lot notes section: "This large colourful work is typical of Campendonk's style between 1917 and 1919 when Flechtheim was his dealer." It goes on: "The composition of a nude in a landscape with animals, a recurrent theme in Campendonk's work, stands as a symbol of purity — both of Man's unity in his natural state with Nature and of his original innocence in Paradise." The lot notes conclude "Dr. Andrea Firmenich has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work." The catalog lists the provenance of the painting as "Alfred Flechtheim, Dusseldorf" and "Werner Jaegers, Cologne" and states that the painting was exhibited in Düsseldorf at the Galerie Flechtheim in 1920. At the October 11, 1995, auction, held on King Street in London, the painting, lot number 158, sold within its estimated range at a price of $106,178.
Works by Heinrich Campendonk figured prominently in the Jägers Collection. While the German Expressionist's paintings regularly fetch prices in the six figures and more, he struggled with financial woes early in his career, falling out of favor with his parents, who had urged him to follow a more profitable path as a clothing designer. Fortunately, the break Campendonk needed soon came: in 1911, he caught the eye of none other than Alfred Flechtheim, who convinced him to move to Bavaria. Flechtheim provided him with a monthly stipend that brought stability to his life and allowed him to live in Sindelsdorf, near the homes of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. This new setting and community had a positive impact on Campendonk's career, influencing his work and elevating his place among the famous German Expressionists. So it's certainly no surprise that a number of his masterpieces would end up in the hands of Flechtheim and, in turn, Werner Jägers.
Helene had other Campendonks for sale, one of which would eventually be purchased by legendary comedic actor Steve Martin. Aside from his success on the big screen, Martin is a passionate art collector and the author of a highly successful art-based novel, 2011's An Object of Beauty. The book showcases the comic's incisive observations of the world of fine art dealing in Manhattan, telling the story of a young art broker grappling with the moral issues of her chosen line of work; it also dabbles in art crime. At the center of the story is the world's most valuable stolen painting: Johannes Vermeer's The Concert, stolen in 1990 from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In 2004, the fine art — loving comedian paid $860,000 to Cazeau-Beraudiere, a Paris gallery, to add Campendonk's Landschaft mit Pferden(Landscape with Horses) to his private art collection, which already included works by Picasso, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Edward Hopper.
The Campendonk painting from the Jägers Collection that made the most significant splash in the art world was undoubtedly Rotes Bild mit Pferden (Red Picture with Horses). Presented to Lempertz for auction by Helene's sister Jeanette on behalf of the Jägers family, the painting was offered at auction on November 29, 2006, at its modern arts auction. Lempertz described the painting in its catalog as having been completed in 1914 and featuring "an incomplete vertical composition of a profile, half-length female nude with yellow mask and rooster" on back. The Lempertz lot notes went on to describe a woodcut label affixed to the reverse from the Flechtheim Collection: the same Sammlung Flechtheim label seen on the back of Mädchen mit Schwan. This one included the handwritten inscription in ink, "Heinrich Campendonk/Seeshaupt/Rotes Bild mit Pferden." There were also stickers from the Sturm Gallery in Berlin and the Emil Richter Gallery in Dresden.
Based on the labels and the Jägers family's backstory, Lempertz described the provenance of Rotes Bild mit Pferden as "Alfred Flechtheim; private collection, France, purchased from Flechtheim ca. 1930, since then in family possession." Again, Dr. Andrea Firmenich's work — this time in terms of her published study on Campendonk — was cited. Clearly, Jeanette, like her sister Helene, had done well in establishing the provenance of key pieces of her inheritance. And it paid dividends: Lempertz, which had listed an estimated price of 800,000 to 1.2 million euros for the painting, sold it at a "World Record Price" of 2.9 million euros to Trasteco Ltd. of Malta.