Art Historian Werner Spies Doesn't Have to Pay a Fee for Mistakenely Authenticating a Fake Produced by Wolfgang Beltracchi

Art News

December 10, 2015

Good news for Werner Spies and other art experts around the world. The Versailles Court of Appeal overturned the previous verdict that imposed a €652,883 euros fine for the prominent German art historian. Werner Spies was originally ordered to pay the fine for authenticating a fake Max Ernst artwork entitled Tremblement de Terre (or Earthquake, in English), that was later sold for 1.1 million dollars at an auction. But now the Court of Appeal suspended the original ruling, stating that the expert's opinion wasn't made "in the context of a sale" which is why he cannot be held responsible for the transaction involving the fake art peace.

Werner Spies
Werner Spies via Spiegel

A Fine for Authenticating a Forgery

Back in 2013 French court ruled that famous German art expert Werner Spies should pay a fine for authenticating a forgery made by the conning superstar Wolfgang Beltracchi. The notorious forger who sold over 60 fake paintings on the worldwide market, owes his success to a new revolutionary technique in forgery. Wolfgang Beltracchi managed to deceive various collectors and art experts by making "newly discovered works" by famous artists, that were thought to be lost with no known reproductions to compare the fakes with. Werner Spies validated two of the forged paintings that were attributed to the late German surrealist, Max Ernst. One La Forêt (2) reached international fame, after it was sold for whooping $7 million to Daniel Filipacchi, New York art collector. And while there were no charges made for authenticating this particular artwork, the other piece Tremblement de Terre ended up on French civil court after the buyer of the forgery, Monte Carlo Art gallery filed charges against the art historian.

Wolfgang-Belgracchi while paingthing La Foret via cbs news
Wolfgang Belgracchi while Paingthing the Infamous La Forêt (2) via cbs news

The Accountability of an Expert

After being sentenced to a substantial financial fine in 2013, Werner Spies filed an appeal and won. In the conversation with Le Monde the art expert claimed that he "never issued an official certificate" and that he only stated his opinion and his plans to include the artwork in Max Ernst catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive, annotated listing of all known artworks made by the artist). The court has stated that the expert that "expresses an opinion outside of a particular transaction can not be held accountable in the same equivalent as an expert consulted in the context of a sale." The court elaborated on the ruling by saying that, when validating an artwork that's about to be sold, a series of scientific assessments must be made. These evaluations include various tests that involve the removal of small fragments of the painting and are quite expensive. Being an art historian Werner Spies, couldn't have used this technique to detect modern pigment found in the artworks that were supposedly painted in 1925. The court ruled that a person that makes the validations for other reasons (such as including it in the catalogue raisonné), doesn't have to subject every work to the pricey scientific tests and therefore cannot be charged with the same responsibility as experts consulted during a sale.

Tremblement de terre (Earthquake) by Wolfgang Beltracchi, via zersaugt
Tremblement de Terre (Earthquake) by Wolfgang Beltracchi, via Le Monde 

The Problem of Art Authentication

Before the scandal that eventually lead him to court, Werner Spies was known as the world's leading expert on the work by Max Ernst. Since the mid 60s, he has indexed about six thousand artworks by the prominent surrealist painter. Unfortunately, seven of his authentication were false which is not bad statistically, but is quite frustrating for the collectors who actually bought the fake artworks. The problem of authenticity has been troubling the art world for decades and there have been claims that almost half of the world's art is in fact fake, although many of the forgeries were validated by experts. That's why the scientists are constantly searching for new methods for authenticating artworks. The forgeries of Wolfgang Beltracchi were discovered after detailed scientific analyses that shown that these works contained pigments that were not available at the time these paintings were allegedly created. So, when authenticating the artwork its probably best to turn to scientists rather than art historians, or at least make sure that the art expert is consulted within the process of the actual sale. That way, even if you happen to buy art that's fake, you might get at least some of your money back.

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Featured image : Werner Spies via focus ; All images used for illustrative purposes only

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