Unmasking Judas

Since the time I wrote this post in 2014, Big Big Train staged a set of fairly rare live gigs which, thankfully, were recorded. They’ve been sharing the results on YouTube, the second of which was “Judas Unrepentant.” Sounds like a good enough excuse for me to repost this. Watch, listen, read, and enjoy!

It took a while for Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard, released in 2009, to grow on me.  It’s successor, English Electric Volume One still hasn’t*, for whatever reason, with the exception of one track.  It’s a song about something that always strikes me as fascinating – art forgery.

“Judas Unrepentant” is about a guy who forges art, but does it in a very clever way.  Rather that churn out reproductions of known classics, he has a different scheme:

Establishing provenance
Acquiring old frames with Christie’s numbers
Then Pains a picture in the same style
Specializing in minor works by major artists

It’s quite brilliant, actually.  Reminds me of a story I heard Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick tell about their early days – where every other bar band played the radio hits by Zeppelin or The Who, they’d learn the B-sides nobody paid much attention to, so it sounded like original material (although they never passed it off that way).

I always wondered if the song was completely fictional or inspired by a real forger.  Last night, I think got the answer, thanks to a 60 Minutes piece on Wolfgang Beltracchi.  As the setup explains:

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a name you may never have heard before.  Very few people have. But his paintings have brought him millions and millions of dollars in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. They have made their way into museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world.  What makes him a story for us is that all his paintings are fakes. And what makes him an unusual forger is that he didn’t copy the paintings of great artists, but created new works which he imagined the artist might have painted or which might have gotten lost. Connoisseurs and dealers acknowledge that Beltracchi is the most successful art forger of our time — perhaps of all time. Brilliant not only as a painter, but as a conman of epic proportions.

Now, the song is not Beltracchi’s story.  For one thing, the song indicates that its hero wanted to get caught:

His time bombs are in place
And anachronisms
Clues pointing to the truth
If ever they are X-rayed

It’s clear from the story that Beltracchi didn’t want to get caught, which he did.  He was sentenced to six years in prison and his wife/codefendant to four.  As for how he got caught?

But then in 2010, he got busted by this tube of white paint.

The Dutch manufacturer didn’t include on the tube that it contained traces of a pigment called titanium white. That form of titanium white wasn’t available when [Max] Ernst would have painted these works and Beltracchi’s high ride was over.

Which is interesting, because in the song, our hero:

Wrote legends in lead white
to trick the experts
And hoodwink the trained eye

Coincidence?  Could be.  But Beltrachhi’s story must have been in the news in Europe sometimes before “Judas Unrepentant” was written, so it makes sense that one served as inspiration for the other.

One thing I will say for the song is that is provides something the 60 Minutes piece doesn’t, which is answering why go through all trouble?  Beltracchi is a staggeringly talented guy.  Presumably he could have been a successful artist under his own name, so why all the fraud?  “Judas Unrepentant” has an answer:

He’s painting revenge
Embittered by lack of success

* * *

Expressing contempt
For greedy dealers
Getting rich
At the artist’s expense

Revenge as the long con.  I like it, although it all comes to a tragic end, sadly.

I think what makes art forgets so interesting is that they tend to poke a finger in the eye of the art world, challenging its aesthetic bona fides and pointing out how, so often, people only care about the name attached to a work, not the work itself.  To that end, I applaud this collector:

This $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst is being shipped back to New York.  Its owner decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it’s one of the best Max Ernsts he’s ever seen.

Because, in the end, the important thing shouldn’t be whether the signature on the bottom makes your friends jealous, but whether the art moves you and makes you think about it.

* The similarly named English Electric by OMD, however, grabbed me right away, for what it’s worth.

This post originally appeared at my old blog on February 24, 2014.

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