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by Henrike von Spesshardt
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A number of people in Germany and other countries have been duped by what we can call the Jägers Collection Forgery Ring: auction houses, including Christie's and Lempertz; modern art scholars such as Werner Spies; and well-heeled collectors like the German industrialist Reinhold Würth, the Italian publisher Daniele Filipacchi (who paid €5.5 million for a bogus version of Max Ernst’s La Fôret) and the actor Steve Martin (who forked out around $700,000 in 2004 for a fake  Heinrich Campendonk painting).

After months of investigation they are now on trial in Cologne, Germany: the four members of the Jägers Collection Forgery Ring, which for almost two decades made fake modernist paintings and smoothly slipped them into the international art market. Fourteen pictures have now been clearly identified as coming from the hand of the alleged fraudster, Wolfgang Beltracchi, with another 33 cases under investigation. The cost so far: €16 million in forgeries, resulting in total damages of €27 million.

The list of fakes reads like a Who’s Who of Modern Art. They are:

Max Pechstein: Liegender weiblicher Akt mit Katze and Seine mit Brücke und Frachtkränen

Heinrich Campendonk: Landschaft mit Pferden, Else Lasker- Schüler gewidmet and Rotes Bild mit Pferden

Max Ernst: La Horde, La Mer, Oiseaux, Vogel im Winterwald and La Fôrret

André Derain: Matisse peignant à Collioure and Collioure

Kees van Dongen: Akt mit Hut

Fernand Léger: Nature Morte

The forgery ring worked smoothly and efficiently. While the bon vivant Beltracchi made the paintings in his sunny studio, supposedly from memory, his three accomplices were busy organizing their sale. Beltracchi's co-defendants are his wife, Helene Beltracchi, plus her sister, Jeanette S., and a fourth member of the ring, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus. Under German law, the defendants face a possible prison sentence of between one and ten years. All but Jeanette have already been in custody for some time.

As the trial begins, the question remains. How could a fraud of such magnitude come about? How did all the control mechanisms in the art market so obviously fail? Or do they not really exist at all?

In the early '90s, the sisters, Helene and Jeanette, visited the leading auction houses and informed them about the art collection they had supposedly inherited from their grandfather, Werner Jägers. As the story went, he had been a client of Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937, the famous Jewish gallery owner whose business was seized by the Nazis. Jägers had supposedly bought art from Flechtheim and hid it during the war in the mountains near Cologne.

The collection’s authenticity was confirmed by documents and photographs -- also phony. Cleverly, the ring almost exclusively forged paintings that had once existed but had been registered as missing after the turmoil of World War II. Later on the sisters brought along a second large art collection, this one dubbed the “Knops Collection," which is today considered to be totally made up, too.

The auction houses were initially pleased at the opportunity to acquire these purported masterpieces for sale. Apparently, no one thought to take a close look at the supposed Jägers Collection -- in fact, experts were soon found to confirm the paintings’ authenticity, presumably for a nice fee. The first warning that all might not be copasetic came in 2008, when George Grosz expert Ralph Jentsch questioned the authenticity of the Gallery Fechtheim labels on the back of the pictures. Two years later, word of possible forgeries had leaked out, and the Berlin state criminal police started an investigation.

In hindsight, the signs of forgery were obvious: fake labels, misspelled artists’ names, frames from unmatched pictures made out of the same wood, and perhaps most tellingly, the use of titanium white, a pigment that was only developed after the first world war. A little more detective work at the right time could have exposed the so-called Jägers and Knops Collections, but sometimes the art market seems to resist, almost hysterically, any discussion or disclosure.

So what can be done in the future? It would be worthwhile to rethink the strict rules of confidentiality, which leads to the provenance of works being couched in the vaguest of terms. Additional legal protection may be helpful for those in possession of a skeptical eye, to encourage them to go public with their doubts. The argument that efforts to prevent forgery can only serve to improve the forger's techniques is hopelessly silly. Precisely at this time of increasing digitalization of artworks and the proliferation of databases, it is feared that perfect forgeries could increase rather than decrease, as the bad guys use the new provenance sources just like the good guys.

So it is also worthwhile to cultivate more good guys and to promote a greater interest in the art itself, rather than only thinking about it as a commodity on the art market. Loss of confidence, which not only individual affected sellers have to struggle with, would hardly justify a continuation of wheeling and dealing and secrecy. Openness, networking and consistency are the order of the day. Self-imposed guidelines, of which there are many, are helpful and good. But it would be better if there were ramifications for non-compliance with the guidelines, rather than mutual expressions of sympathy and quiet gloating. When you put your nose in the water, your cheeks can get wet as well.

HENRIKE VON SPESSHARDT is editor of Magazine.