During the dark days of Nazi Germany, when Hitler's henchmen banned modern art as "degenerate", a well-known Jewish art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, fled the country. He sold his collection of paintings by Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Heinrich Campendonk to a construction magnate from Cologne named Werner Jagers who saved them for posterity.
There is one problem with this story. It is not true. Werner Jagers did not collect art. When he died in 1992, his two granddaughters Helene and Jeanette - described by everyone as "charming" - began flogging paintings to galleries and auction houses around the world. They were actually painted by Wolfgang Beltracchi, Helene's husband. The scam lasted 14 years and netted €33 million (Dh174 million).
One expert described the forgeries as "gold standard". They are not direct copies but in the style of an individual artist during a particular period of his development. Heinrich Campendonk's Red Picture With Horses, for example, supposedly dated from 1914. But on the back of the painting, the "Flechtheim Gallery" label depicted a crude image that has been compared to a Disney cartoon - hardly the stuff of high art. This led to the discovery that the painting's titanium white pigment did not exist in 1914.
As reported yesterday, the conspirators are in jail and the art world is in shock. The moral of this story: high art is a matter of perception.