Panic is spreading through the art world following the discovery of forgeries among major 20th-century paintings sold in recent years by leading auctioneers and dealers worldwide, including Christie's in London.
More than 30 paintings, thought to be by artists including Max Ernst, Raoul Dufy and Fernand Léger, have been unmasked as forgeries. The fakes have duped leading figures in the art world into parting with at least £30million.
Four of the paintings have gone through Christie’s, including forgeries of Ernst's La Horde, estimated at £3.5million and eventually sold to the Würth Collection, and André Derain's Bateaux à Collioure, sold for £2million. Six paintings were sold by the leading German auctioneer, Lempertz, one for £2.8million. The forger's strategy appears to have been to create compositions that would relate to the titles of documented works whose whereabouts are not currently known.
Dealers and collectors who have recently acquired works by the artists involved “are shaking over this scandal”, one insider said. "They are in a panic over whether their paintings are also forgeries. Everyone's taking a second look."
The panic is so acute that collectors are even seeking refunds on unquestionably genuine works.
One expert describes the forgeries as "gold standard". They cover many styles and include works by Heinrich Campendonk, the German Expressionist. Most are in the style of the particular artist, rather than a direct copy.
All are believed to have been painted by a German forger over the past 15 years. Police are now investigating whether that forger is Wolfgang Beltracchi, 59, an artist from Freiburg, aided by his wife, Helene, 52, and her sister, Susanne, 57 — women described as "great charmers". All three are now in police custody. Two men are also being investigated.