In a cheeky nod to art authenticity, the infamous art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi has entered the NFT market.
Beltracchi’s new project, which he titled “The Greats”, consists of multiple versions of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. In total, Beltracchi will be selling 4,608 NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain. The NFTs will be on sale 5 days from the publication of this article. In another humorous poke at ownership, Beltracchi said that the buyers will not know which version of his Salvator Mundi they will get.
A bit of context is needed to understand just how much of a statement Beltracchi is making with this project. In 2010, Beltracchi was arrested and eventually sentenced to six years in prison for forging multiple artworks and conning multiple institutions of roughly $45 million. Some of the forgeries he and his wife managed to sell include works purported to be painted by Heinrich Campendonk, Max Ernst, Auguste Herbin, and Louis Marcoussis. What’s clever about Beltracchi’s forgeries is that he claimed to have never made an exact copy of an existing painting, rather using the artist’s distinct style and fabricating a fake provenance to convince experts that these paintings were genuine.
It’s without a doubt that Beltracchi is talented in his own way. We can see it through the recreations of the Salvator Mundi in his NFT series. With Leonardo’s work as the basis, he emulated the styles of other renowned artists like Salvador Dali, Picasso, and even Roy Lichtenstein. These works would not look out of place if placed next to confirmed pieces by each respective artist. It shows the breadth of knowledge Beltracchi has in addition to the skilled hands to bring these works to life.
But many in the art world could not forgive the damage Beltracchi has done. After he was released early from prison, he continued working as an artist, but no one was willing to give him the time and space to promote him. After all, what if he conned them again?
Enter NFT. As many, including us, have mentioned, the NFT market gave artists the freedom to monetize their craft without being dependent on institutions like auction houses and galleries. What better way for a shunned artist to make a living out of his art than a market completely free from the institutions that wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole?
The Salvator Mundi is one of the most controversial paintings in current existence. After the painting was purchased by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for $450.3 million, it became the most expensive painting to date. But rumors of its authenticity began circulating, with the Louvre at one point planning to display the work as “from the workshop of” Leonardo Da Vinci, rather than a painting by the artist himself. This confusion around the painting certainly was not lost on one of the most famous forgers in the world, hence his decision to base his project on the painting.
So why would anyone buy a forger’s paintings? According to a spokesperson, because "he is a highly skilled artist," and "the art looks fantastic," they said to The Block. The reality is, the overlap between NFT collectors and traditional art collectors is small. While a more traditional art collector might put a value on factors like physical condition and provenance, these things don’t matter as much to NFT collectors. It remains to be seen just how popular Beltracchi’s NFTs will be. If you’re interested, you can take a peek at the virtual museum Beltracchi has set up on his website.