Art and commerce are the rich man’s game in ‘Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery’

It’s hard not to admire Wolfgang Beltracchi, the documentary’s titular Robin Hood figure. He’s an unabashed art forger consummate enough to cheat the art world out of millions. Experts the world ‘round have verified his forgeries as genuine, and he’s still doing it. Director Arne Birkenstock is chummy with his subject because of this, treating him as a rebel angel no matter the pushback to his work.

In its most striking moments, “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” drops its sympathetic eye and watches the artist work. Besides actually painting, he sprinkles dirt between the canvas and frame, scrapes some of the wood away, and peels back layers of paint to make his work look old. He truly is a sensitive artist with a killer eye for detail, but he does little, if any, original work. So what is he adding to the narrative

large_beltracchi_the_art_of_forgery_xlg.jpgThe documentary forces viewers to ask the same question of the art world itself. These works, commodified and exalted as they are, have abstract value. So who determines their value? Answer: droves of rich people. People rich enough to send assistants to spend millions of dollars for them at international art auctions. Everyone from the auctioneers to the owners of the art and people in their stead benefit from the system and are actively invested in it continuing.

So, of course, seeing them lose at their own game is satisfying, but in winning it, Beltracchi becomes just like them. Just as disconnected, just as trusting of the system. The documentary doesn’t make this clear, though it begs the question: it’s one thing to imitate an artist’s style, but it’s another to sell those imitations for profit. It’s a theft of a different, more personal kind. Taking away from the academic narrative or robbing some wealthy benefactor of millions is beside the point. Beltracchi is making his fortune stealing the work of other artists.

Ultimately, that the documentary inspires these questions is a testament to its power. Birkenstock is sensitive a storyteller as Beltracchi is an artist, always looking for the next honest moment. He’s just enamored with his subject, and while he presents every side of the argument, Wolfgang Beltracchi ends up being the most sympathetic of all. While it’s a beautiful portrait of the artist against the art world, it’s not a particularly nuanced one. And if you’re not in sympathy with it, it’s a frustrating grind, but if you are, it’s a rich, if hokey, character study. But it refuses to be anything in between.