CULTURE & ARTS
10/10/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

The Incredible Rise And Fall Of High-Flying Art Scammers Helene And Wolfgang Beltracchi

Nobody in Freiburg could remember a party quite like it. The date was September 22, 2007, and Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, affluent newcomers to this lively university town near Germany's Black Forest, had invited friends and neighbors to celebrate a milestone. Workers had just put the finishing touches on their $7 million villa, after 19 months of extensive renovations. Lanterns lit up the cobblestone walkway to the hillside house, a five-level minimalist structure with a glass and Siberian larch-wood façade, steel beams, pastel-colored tile floors, and contemporary paintings and sculptures filling every room. The staff of Freiburg's luxurious Colombi Hotel--where the Beltracchis had lodged in a $700-a-night penthouse suite when they were in town during the remodeling--had prepared the ample food and drink, including magnums of fine champagne. The Beltracchis had even flown in a celebrated four-member flamenco band from Granada to dance and sing for their 100 guests.

Spanish ballads floated across gardens and courtyards to the glass pool house. Inside it, the party-goers ogled a large painting by the French Expressionist Fernand Léger. Others admired art installations throughout the villa, including Baghdad Table, an intricate stylized aluminum model of the Iraqi capital by the Israeli industrial designer Ezri Tarazi. From the terraces, they took in the lights of the medieval city far below. Wolfgang, a long-haired, 56-year-old Albrecht Dürer look-alike, and Helene, an ingénue-like woman of 49 with waist-length brown hair cut into girlish bangs, had spared no expense to announce their arrival on Freiburg's scene. "Everybody was blown away," remembers Michel Torres, who had hired the flamenco dancers on the Beltracchis' behalf and who had befriended the couple during the years that they lived in southern France. "It was unforgettable."

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