Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger and artist, currently serving a six year prison sentence.

Werner Spies, the former director of the modern-art museum at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the world’s leading Max Ernst authority, made a pilgrimage to Domaine des Rivettes in early 2004 to inspect Max Ernst’s long-lost painting, The Forest (2). The large canvas depicted a sun of concentric circles of red, blue, white, and yellow, rising over a coppice of cypress trees.

Beltracchi had painted the large work in two days, employing the same method that Ernst often used: rubbing a spatula over blocks of rough wood, seashells, and other found objects that he had placed beneath the painted canvas. The phony Ernst hung on the wall behind his bed. Spies came in, took one look, was overcome with excitement, and declared, ‘There is no doubt … it is authentic’.

And so Max Ernst’s long-lost The Forest (2) was sold to a company called Salomon Trading for $2.3 million. The painting then passed to a Paris gallery, Cazeau-Béraudière, which sold it in 2006 to [renowned French collector of surrealist art] Daniel Filipacchi for $7 million. The widow of Max Ernst [Dorothea Tanning] saw the painting and said that it was the most beautiful picture that Max Ernst had ever painted.

The game was up when Beltracchi was eventually foiled in 2010 by the one detail the perfectionist had overlooked when painting a Max Ernst – a tube of paint that contained traces of a pigment called titanium white, which the Dutch manufacturer had not listed in its ingredients and critically also did not exist when Ernst painted.

But the curious thing is that the painting hadn’t changed at all. All that had changed was what people thought of the painting — which of course changed everything. The actual, physical painting didn’t matter. What mattered was the story about the painting — Daniel Filipacchi had paid $7 million for the story.

Brands work in the same way. Brands exist way beyond functionality – what something does – in a world of creation, imagination, and story. And the bottom line = What something means is MORE IMPORTANT than what it does.

Consider the ultimate in utensil functionality: the salt and pepper shaker. Yes, the Alessia salt and pepper shaker does actually cost $426 in The Strand Arcade. And no, it doesn’t make your meal taste any better.  Same function,  two stories, two price tags.

We’re all like Daniel Filipacchi, we don’t buy the object we buy the story. Whether it’s your jeans, the watch you’re wearing, the car you drive, or the cologne you spray on yourself in the morning — we all buy the story.

Oh, and here’s a video of Beltracchi in action.

— Idea and inspiration from Dave Trott’s blog

Richard Sauerman
Richard Sauerman
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