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Wolfgang Beltracchi is back. This time, however, the world’s most renowned art forger has ventured into digital realms: Beltracchi has launched his first collection of NFTs. The focus of each of the 4608 unique pieces is no less a motif than Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting in the world to date. Starting price: A whopping 10 000 ETH, or 35,1 Million US-$. But the collection is also a statement against the established art world – and not just the digital one.
Imposing halls, walls with precious stucco decoration, dark marble tiles, and precisely staged works of art: When entering "The Greats" gallery, nothing is left to chance in terms of atmosphere. But before visitors reach the works of art, they first have to pass a massive bust. The bust depicts the artist behind the exhibition: Wolfgang Beltracchi.
Whoever thought that "The Greats" would be a physical gallery in one of the world's great art metropolises, was mistaken. This gallery is an online one. It’s precise location is in the metaverse of the Ethereum blockchain, which Beltracchi is using as a stage for his latest coup - his first and so far only NFT collection. NFTs, which stands for Non-Fungible Tokens, refer to the digital representation of intellectual property. Songs, poems or, in Beltracchi's case, pictures and paintings can be produced as NFTs. Each of these NFTs is non-replicable and its owner and transaction history can be transparently traced on the blockchain (Forbes reported, read more in: "Punks, Kitties and a Revolution").
Upon close examination of the paintings, those with some knowledge of art history will quickly discover: amidst the distorted forms of Picasso’s and Warhol's cartoon characters, the painting "Salvator Mundi", which is officially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (more on this later), pops up recurrently. In November 2017, Mundi was sold by New York auction house Christie's to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for a dashing 450.3 million US-$. With proceeds of almost half a billion dollars, it is the most expensive painting in the world to date.
The fact that this very painting serves as a model for Beltracchi's first NFT collection is no coincidence. There are various theories about the history of the painting itself, as well as its current location. At the beginning of the 16th century it had been in the possession of the French King Louis XII, a few years later it crossed the channel, ending up in the house of the Stuarts to the art-loving King Charles I. After his execution, the painting was sold on the market for 30 GBP at that time. The painting eventually returned to the British crown, but by 1900 it had become forgotten to the international art market; copies of the motif were now ubiquitous.
After restoration work and changing hands for insignificant amounts a couple times, the work received international attention for the first time in 2008. A team from the Metropolitan Museum of Art officially recognized it as the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and verified it as such. After sales in the range of 75-128 million US-$ Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman finally broke all records in 2017: for 450.3 million US-$, he acquired “The Savior” via Christie's auction house for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. But: It has never been displayed to the public since. This has led the art world to question its whereabouts: is it even in Saudi Arabia? Some hypotheses suggest that the painting could also be in Swiss hands. Questions about its authenticity has also arisen. Could it be the work of one of Da Vinci’s pupils? Some art experts as well as the French filmmaker Vitkine think this might be so. In April 2021, a documentary by Vitkine caused a stir in the media, as it questioned the painting’s origin.
...was born in 1951 as Wolfgang Fischer. He flunked out of school, dropped out of art school and led a wandering life through Europe and North Africa. In 1992 he met his wife Helene. Over many years, Beltracchi forged several hundred paintings, which he sold to collectors and gallery owners. In 2011 he was caught, had to go to prison for six years. Since his release, he has been painting again as a "regular" artist.
Beltracchi knows only too well what it is like to be the center of media attention. The former art forger and painter gained international notoriety when he confessed to having forged hundreds of artwork by famous painters such as Max Ernst or Fernand Leger. Despite scrutiny by art experts, he was able to deceive the art collecting world for almost 40 years. Forbes DACH first met Beltracchi along with his wife and accomplice Helene in 2018 in his Swiss studio, which was previously a dance hall, near Lucerne (click here for the interview). At that time, it hadn't even been that long since he finished serving his six-year prison sentence. Already during that 2018 conversation, when asked what changes they would like to see in the art market, the two criticized the lack of fairness for artists. Beltracchi said: "Especially for young artists. But you first have to know how the art trade works to understand that. The art trade is not as big a story as people often think. The volume is perhaps 50 billion US dollars worldwide. That's not so much. That's why the trade is dominated by a very few people - and that's what bothers me. At the bottom, it still starts harmlessly, there are many small galleries that take care of artists and try to sell their works. These gallery owners and artists don't earn much, but these are the ones who put in the most effort and time."
The art elite, the top 1%, would be no more than a circle of one or two dozen people worldwide. For the seasoned artist, who jokingly refers to his extraordinary talent for painting through the eyes of others as a genetic defect, the motivation to enter the still fairly novel world of NFT art lies in the liberalization of the market: "NFTs are a big step forward, towards liberalization. Everyone has the opportunity to find out about artists and their art, then make their own decision. Gathering a collection is no longer dependent on physical space."
The page of The Greats gallery also states: "The current state of the art world is comparable to a cartel; the most influential people are not artists, but bouncers. They dictate what art is and who may own it."
Still the Salvator Mundi motif at its core, Beltracchi embarked on "a journey through art history" for his first NFT collection: the 4608 artworks are divided into seven distinctive eras. From the Renaissance to Surrealism and Pop Art to Cubism. Christ is portrayed here in the various art styles of great masters such as Picasso or Van Gogh.
Beltracchi's bidding system, however, differs from the common methods currently seen in the NFT market: in a classic auction, the winning bidder is the highest bidder whereas in a Dutch Auction the bid-price drops at regular intervals. The twist in Beltracchi's auction is that after the first, highest, bid is placed, the price decreases within a certain period of time until the last bid is placed. The last bid, as in the Dutch Auction, is the lowest in the sequence. If this is the case, everyone who has bid in the auction pays only the price of the last bid. That is, the lowest price, the rest will be refunded. In addition, each user can only bid for one of the 4608 pieces with his wallet, which prevents, for example, a single user from gaining possession of 200 pieces and thus securing a monopoly position. The starting price according to the Greats has been placed at 10 000 ETH for one artwork, which translates to approximately 35,1 Million US-$.
If you were to browse digital marketplaces for NFTs today, you would quickly notice that they have reached another peak and the abundance of offers is greater than ever before. After Beeples' "The first 365 days," which sold for a whopping 69.3 million US-$ at Christie's, artists like Tyler Hobbs aka Fidenza are following suit and celebrating immense success - the current floor price for a Fidenza is 150 ETH (the equivalent of 541,000 US-$). One of the projects that triggered the second big wave of hype in the NFT market in 2021 is Bored Ape Yacht Club, which experienced its heyday in July and August 2021. The club grants access to exclusive events, platforms, and other NFT assets in addition to holding the NFT. Pop culture icons such as Jay-Z or Reddit founder Alexis Ohanan publicly profess to be in possession of Cryptopunks and use it as a status symbol on their social media or even on the red carpet (note: Ohanian bought his wife tennis champion Serena Williams a Crypto Punk and wore it as a pin at the MET Gala). The market capitalization of NFTs so far this year is at 14.19 billion US-$, with 10.7 billion US-$ in the third quarter of 2021 alone, according to Reuters news agency.
Amidst the graphic designs of digital artists like Beeple or the computer algorithm-driven Fidenzas, Beltracchi almost seems a little out of place. After all, his playground as a visual artist is still a traditional canvas rather than an iPad screen, and he uses paintbrushes instead of an Apple Pen. Beltracchi drew a considerable number of paintings by hand in his studio for the NFT collection. The details within the digital images are on par with Beltracchi's physical works. All components of each artwork are painted exclusively by Beltracchi using the techniques of the respective grand masters. More modern art forms such as photography and graphic design are also used by Beltracchi to create various components that can be fused into new creations - "to be able to reflect the possibilities of today's world".
Since his imprisonment, various restrictions have been introduced, making it impossible for Beltracchi to make his artworks available to the public in museums, galleries and auction houses. He was denied the right to exhibit and even sell in such establishments. However, the Ethereum blockchain does not care about past crimes and restrictions because of them. A gallery of one's own, exclusively for thousands of Beltracchi's works, has been made possible thanks to today's Metaverse and accessible to everyone on the internet. If nothing else, the NFT market could mean a liberalization of Beltracchi as an individual and an artist.
Text: Chloé Lau
Fotos: Alberto Venzago