Max Ernst's widow once judged La forêt to be his greatest piece. It was not actually his.
When Rotes Bild mit Pferden by Expressionist painter Heinrich Campendonk went up for auction in 2006, it was lauded as a "defining piece in modernism" by the Süddeutsche Zeitung. It sold for 2.4 million euros, a record for Campendonk's works.
But like La forêt and hundreds of pieces believed to be by over 50 artists including Ernst and Campendonk, it was revealed as a brilliant fake painted by artist and art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi.
In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Beltracchi defends his status as an artist, insisting that "counterfeiting was a creative process." He has a point. Unlike many forgers, he did not copy works—instead, he created pieces that he felt would have completed a specific artist's portfolio. He notes that at times, his biggest challenge was simply to refrain from making a piece better in order to more accurately reflect the realities of the era and the weaknesses of the artist in whose name he was painting.
Beltracchi was a meticulous researcher as well as a gifted artist in his own right. He spent days in the locations artists had painted. He delved deep into their lives and the times in which they lived. "It wasn't just about money," he explained, "but also the joy of painting."
In terms of technique, Beltracchi's forgeries are impressive. But the irreplaceable, inimitable aspect of the original artists are what add true—albeit intangible--life to their paintings: they are pieces of their biographies and testaments to their lives, their beliefs, their passions. Beltracchi, on the other hand, had a passion for filling in the gaps. He masterfully appropriated artists' skill sets and demonstrated astounding insight and dedication, but in the end, a forgery, no matter how technically brilliant, can achieve greatness only as a forgery. Rotes Bild mit Pferden cannot be a defining piece in modernism, even though it possibly should have been.