“The Time of Forgers”: Bettina Wohlfarth plays on fake pictures

Nazi leader Hermann Göring (left), visiting an art exhibition in Munich, July 18, 1937.

“The Time of Forgers” (Wagfalls Erbe), by Bettina Wohlfarth, translated from German by Elisabeth Landes, Liana Levi, 384 p., €23, digital €18.

Welcome to the fake factory. Its manufacture, its secrets, its trade… These are indeed the birth and the destiny of a great painter forger that the German journalist Bettina Wohlfarth, based in France and specialist in the art market, depicts here. At the root of this gripping story – published in Germany in 2019 and crowned best first novel at the Chambéry festival the following year –, a simple idea: the scammer is often himself a talented artist, a true enthusiast, but God knows where this inner fire can lead him if circumstances and history get involved…

From talented copyist to authentic forger

This is what the protagonist, a certain Viktor Wagfall, learns the hard way. Poor boy this Viktor, whose real first name is in reality Viktor Emanuel and who, in the years 1920-1930, does not support either this royal surname, nor the expectations that his bourgeois family places on him. To escape this burden and slip into someone else’s shoes – duplicity, already! –, the child invents an avatar, Isidor, to which he “delegate” especially his lifelong passion: painting. Because, under his tidy exterior, Viktor-Isidor indeed lives only for art. “The scents of paper, slate, chalk, charcoal” intoxicate him. The pigments transport it to “the depths of his self”. As soon as he comes across a new image, he studies it, analyzes it, copies it with intoxication. And the sign: Isidor Schweig.

Fast forward… In Paris, shortly before the Second World War, Isidor frequented Pablo Picasso and Pierre Bonnard. He perfected his art to the point of counterfeiting the French masters of the 19th century.e century. Delivered to a gallery owner and presented, if necessary, as originals, his canvases flow without difficulty. From a talented copyist, Isidor gradually became an authentic forger. As for Viktor, he led the life of a German officer in Paris during the Occupation. And it is this double life that allows Viktor-Isidor to observe from the inside the trafficking of works of art (real and false) orchestrated by the Nazi power, as well as the systematic spoliation of collections belonging to Jews. .

Fast forward again… When, years later, Viktor’s daughter, Karolin, discovers the pot of roses in her father’s notebooks, she embarks on the footsteps of Viktor-Isidor with more than ambivalent feelings.

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