Think Like Genius: Wolfgang Beltracchi

The crazy story of the most successful art forger of our time (and perhaps all time).

Wolfgang Beltracchi is an artist and a con man who made over $100 million selling art forgeries.

What can he teach us about thinking well and why you should take notice?

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Beltracchi has been called the “evil genius” of the art world.

For nearly 40 years, the forger managed to fool the experts, auction houses, art dealers, and major collectors.

His works have:

– exhibited in top museums
– been on the cover of Christie’s catalogs
– sold in top auction houses like Sotheby’s
– got into art books listing the best paintings of the 20th century

His method was genius.

Art forgers usually try to copy a painting of a famous artist and sell it as an original.

This “making a duplicate” is a flawed strategy, and you can easily get caught. 

Beltracchi as a true innovator, found a better way to do it.

He didn’t copy the paintings of great artists.

Instead, he created new works that he imagined the artist might have painted if had the time or which might have gotten lost.

So in a sense, every Beltchahhi painting is an original. He just lied about who painted it.

But it gets even better.

Besides being a master forger, he was also a master salesman.

He understood that to sell the paintings; he needs to come up with a believable story.

In comes Helen – Wolfgangs wife and partner in crime.

Helen said her grandfather hid his art collection before the war to protect it from the Nazis. 

When he died, she said she inherited it. 

To back up their story, they found an old box camera, dressed Helen up to look like her grandmother, hung up some forgeries behind her, and took some bogus photos on pre-war paper.

They searched flea markets for canvases of the suitable period and created fake labels from an actual German dealer of that age, staining them with coffee and tea to make them look old.

Together, the Bonnie & Clyde of the art world netted a total of over $100 million in sales over 40 years.

Until getting caught in 2010 by using a pigment that wasn’t available in the period of a “Max Earnst” painting that got sold for $7M.

He served three years in prison and had to pay millions in restitution.

Beltracchi claims to have forged 100’s of paintings by more than 50 different artists.

He is probably the most exhibited living artist in the world and currently makes millions from selling his original work.

What can we learn from him?

Don’t use the wrong kind of paint.

Just kidding. 

The main takeaway from the story is that you can imitate the thinking of geniuses in your specific niche to create original authentic work.

You don’t need to figure everything out yourself. Just master the best of what others have already figured out and go from there.

Beltracchi, in a way, got inside the head of the great classics and thought like them by understanding their thinking models about painting (themes, style, method, etc.)

He didn’t copy the work. He copied the essence – the thinking – behind it.

This was his genius.

Imagine if you could think with someone else’s mind to solve your own specific problems?

Whose mind would you pick and for what problem? Elon Musk’s to build a product? Warren Buffet’s to make a bet? Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, you can with the help of mental models. 

In short mental models are frameworks for thinking – it’s the essence. They are representations of how something works, and we all use them even if we’re not aware of it. This is how our minds work.

If you map the mental models of geniuses, as Beltracchi did with great artists, you can leverage your thinking and make better decisions.

In this way, you stand on the shoulders of giants in your niche and reach new heights (just don’t say they created the work).

Learn more about mental models and how to think like geniuses: Mechanics of Thinking

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