Art dealer of the Avantgarde

The Jägers Collection

What is certainly the largest art forgery scandal in Germany since the war is closely connected with Alfred Flechtheim in the most dubious of ways possible. The criminal group with Wolfgang Beltracchi (born Fischer) – a failed artist who had since advanced to become a successful forger of artworks – at its centre, instrumentalised the gallery owner persecuted by the Nazis to certify forgeries of classical Modernist works as originals, using precisely the Flechtheim provenance to raise the status of the works, claiming they had previously been owned by him. This was done in a number of ways including gluing labels supposedly from Alfred Flechtheim on the reverse of paintings or on the frames. Just like the paintings themselves, the labels also turned out to be fakes.

The said labels from the ‘Flechtheim Collection’ were adhesive labels bearing a picture based on a miniature woodcut in portrait format, the lower half of which had a roughly sketched, three-quarter length, caricature-like image of the gallery owner in profile set against an undifferentiated background. Space has been left for adding the artist’s name or the title of the work by hand; in the upper third, rough capital letters on a black background boldly spell out the words SAMMLUNG FLECHTHEIM.

It was in fact this forged label that led to the unmasking of the art scandal. Several experts consulted were suspicious of its authenticity as, up until that time, such a label had not been seen. It was, above all else, difficult to believe that such a poor quality design would be used as proof of a work coming from Alfred Flechtheim’s collection as he already had his own stamp which was unmistakable and aesthetic. None of the known labels or ex libris of Flechtheim’s were as poorly executed, either artistically or graphically, as this new label. Forensic research of the labels on the forged works of art revealed that the paper had been artificially made to look old and that the glue used was a modern product, something the perpetrator later admitted to in court.

A legendary provenance was invented by the forgers for the fake pictures from the fake Flechtheim Collection, claiming the works had been part of the ‘Sammlung (Werner) Jägers’ and ‘Sammlung (Wilhelm) Knops’ as previous owners. Werner Jägers and Wilhelm Knops, however, were not contemporaries of Flechtheim but the grandfathers of the forgers. According to the story invented, the works were supposedly bought directly from Flechtheim and, to substantiate this historical provenance, the forger and his accomplices created fake interior photographs of the collection using an old roll-film camera and appropriate photographic paper. The forger’s wife, Helene Beltracchi, was pictured as ‘Mrs. Jägers’ dressed in period costume with the fake works of art hanging on the wall.

The forger, Wolfgang Beltracchi, adopted the principle of creating new works of art. He acquired art catalogues, examined catalogues raisonnés, studied different artists’ œuvres and visited authentic places. Where there were references to missing paintings in the catalogues raisonnés or exhibition catalogues Beltracchi set about creating these very works – for which no illustrations existed – from scratch.

What was helpful in obscuring the provenance of works – which, conversely, was the reason why many experts, mediators and purchasers of the fake pictures started to have doubts – was the fact that it was not possible to itemise precisely what works of art Alfred Flechtheim had actually owned. Although many works can be traced using gallery catalogues, photos of business premises or rooms in Flechtheim’s private residence, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to filter out – due to the lack of accounting records or inventories – which works formed part of the gallery’s holdings and which were privately owned or were there on a ‘sale on commission’ basis. It should also be born in mind that there were no clear divisions between business and private assets and that collections are, therefore, to be seen as flexible entities that are extremely difficult for present-day researchers to identify. Due to tax-related and insurance aspects, considerable amounts of money depended on inventories with precise labelling.

picture gallery