Dr Nicholas Eaustaugh: How I uncovered the forger of the century
For Dr Nicholas Eastaugh, rooting out notorious forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was all in a day’s work. He tells Private Art Investor how he achieved it.
Famous art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, dubbed ‘the forger of the century’, was released from prison in January and is currently holding a solo exhibition at artroom9, a gallery in Munich. For the first time he is selling work bearing his own signature.
Meanwhile, the man whose expertise helped catch him is continuing with his job of uncovering forgeries, helping to authenticate art and providing revealing insights into what lies beneath each painting through his London-based company Art Analysis & Research.
Dr Nicholas Eastaugh’s fortunes became entwined with those of Beltracchi nearly a decade ago when questions started to be asked about a painting attributed to Dutch artist Heinrich Campendonk, which had fetched a record price at auction.
“The questions regarded the absence of the normal documentation you’d expect with a high value item: an art historian’s authentication letter, for example,” says Eastaugh.
“In situations like that, one of the approaches you typically reach for is some form of scientific explanation to complement the art historical and provenance side of things.”
Eastaugh was perfectly placed to step into the breach: originally a physicist, he had gone on to study conservation and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where he completed a PhD in scientific analysis and documentary research of historical pigments. In other words, he was equipped to tell if the paints used in the Campendonk were appropriate to the time period it allegedly came from.
“The painting had been examined before me by a German institute but they didn’t come to a conclusion over it, so they came to me and I identified a particular flaw in it that allowed a civil case to precipitate the criminal case – and it snowballed from there,” he says.
The flaw in question was the use of a pigment called titanium white.
“People were developing titanium white in the second decade of the 20th Century but in essence no artist was actually using it that early, and we don’t really find it in paintings until the 1940s and 50s. Basically, the Campendonk painting contained a material it is highly unlikely for the artist to have used.”
At the point when Eastaugh discovered the titanium white, nobody knew the true extent of Beltracchi’s astonishing career as a forger. In the 2011 trail that eventually ensued, Beltracchi was found guilty of forging 14 forgeries, which had sold for a total of £28.6 million. This is believed to be the tip of the iceberg: he is estimated to have forged hundreds of paintings in a career spanning more than three decades, during which time he and his wife led lives of luxury.
His wife Helene was sentenced to four years for her part in the scam: she worked as his accomplice, selling the paintings – often by passing them off as family heirlooms.
No doubt many of them still hang in private collections, believed to be genuine works of art.
“Identifying titanium white in that painting turned out to be a highlight of my career, but at the time it was just another job that came in,” says Eastaugh.
“Since then, we’ve been able since to look at quite a few of Beltracchi’s works, so we have a good handle on him as an artist. We also went and interviewed him, asking questions about how he worked.”
Beltracchi was very obliging, giving details of how he purchased old paintings from French provincial auctions before using them as the base for his forgeries.
“He would find paintings dated around the period that he wanted, then scrape down the painting on top and create his new works over them.”
He even built his own oven so that he could heat the paintings and make the paint crack to give an appearance of age. However, Eastaugh also discovered that in his efforts to pick the right pigments, Beltracchi had given himself away to anyone with the right historical knowledge and the ability to analyse the materials.
“Besides the titanium white, there was a particular pigment he felt was historically appropriate, but he actually got it wrong because it was the wrong variety of that particular pigment – to us, it was a rookie error.”
Learn more about Dr Eastaugh’s work in our follow-up feature, next week.