NEW YORK - I wrote recently about the challenges of authentication and recalled the case of the convicted felon Wolfgang Beltracci, probably the best example of the problem. Along with brilliantly faking the works of mostly German Expressionists, Beltracci created documentary evidence to support the sham provenance of his paintings. For example, he staged an old-timey, black-and-white photo, featuring his wife dressed up as a dour-looking matron and seated alongside the some of his forgeries. “Oh look, it’s that Léger painting during the Depression,” we were supposed to think, and some did. But now Beltracci’s game is up, and he’s been sentenced to a six-year prison term (his wife got four). “It was bothering me more and more to sign my paintings with someone else’s signature,” Beltracci said in interview this spring with Der Spiegel. “I didn't feel good about it anymore.” I’m not sure whether I believe that, considering how successful he was until he got caught.

The black-and-white photo featuring Wolfgang Beltracci’s wife dressed up as a dour-looking matron, seated alongside the some of his forgeries.

But is a forgery not a work of art itself, in its ability to inspire, enrage and deceive? Orson Welles, the orchestrator of one of the greatest cultural ruses of the century with broadcast of War of the Worlds, asks this very question in his highly entertaining and little-known movie, F for Fake.

Movie poster from the Orson Welles film F for Fake
Via Janus Film.

The film is a quasi-documentary based on the life Elmyr de Hory, one of the greatest art forgers of the century. Elmyr couldn’t make much of a reputation for himself with his own art, but he could draw a “Modigliani” or a “Matisse” in a style that was indistinguishable from the genuine article. Welles makes Elmry out to be a wildly entertaining bon vivant, hosting decadent parties at his villa on the Mediterranean (paid for by an unnamed art dealer who was passing off his forgeries at the time for the real things). Elmyr is all smiles in this film, demonstrating on camera the ease with which he can draw at Matisse and then dismissingly throw it in the fireplace. This is his artwork, after all, and why shouldn’t he be able to do with it what he pleased? That freedom did not extend to Elmyr himself, who committed suicide before the French police could take him into custody in 1976. His pictures, however, are still on the loose.