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Giacometti, Target Of Con Artists, On Display At Bechtler

The most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction was by a Swiss artist named Alberto Giacometti. It went for $104 million in 2010 - and because Giacometti's work has become so valuable, it's now a top target for counterfeiters. Charlotte has its own small claim to the artist - the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art houses a distinctive collection of Giacometti work now on display.

The largest Giacometti counterfeit case to date was the work of the Count of Waldstein. He traveled to Germany in fancy cars - often a Rolls Royce, never less than a Mercedes. He claimed to have known Alberto Giacometti's younger brother Diego.

Diego helped his brother in the studio, and when Alberto died in 1966, his wife and Diego fought over the inheritance. The Count of Waldstein claimed that Diego told him about a stash of sculptures he hid from the wife out of spite.

When Diego died, some of those sculptures came to the Count - who wrote the whole amazing story down in a book called "Diego's Revenge," which he self-published and slyly passed along to wealthy art collectors.

"And people believed that!" says Veronique Wiesinger, curator of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris. "They think, 'Wow, we have a find and it's wonderful!' But it's not wonderful. Beware, beware!"

Wiesinger was an expert witness in the trial of the Count of Waldstein who turned out not to be a Count at all. He was just a former employee of the German rail system.

But he had the key to a good con.

"The forgers find the weak point - or something they can exploit," says Wiesinger. "For Giacometti, it is the fact that after Giacometti died, the brother and the wife did not get along so well together, so it was very easy to make up a story of works that had been hidden by Diego from Annette."

Investigators say the scheme went on for seven years and raked in more than $10 million. Last year, a German court sentenced Lothar Senke - aka the Count of Waldstein - to nine years in prison, mainly for fraud.

But Giacometti forgery continues to thrive - especially online.

"You have websites where you can buy thousands - literally thousands of forgeries each day," says Wiesinger.

In April, the Giacometti Foundation joined the estates of other major artists, including Picasso, to form a new organization that will push for international laws against the circulation of counterfeit art. Right now, Wiesinger says brands and trademarks are far better protected than fine art - meaning it's easier to get across an international border with a fake Giacometti than a faux Gucci bag.

"The big difference between your Gucci bag and a sculpture is that you won't pass it to your children and the children of your children, and it won't end up in a museum," says Wiesinger.

And once the sculpture is shown in a museum, it no longer matters that it came from a fake German Count with a fishy store. The marble floors and spotlights have blessed that sculpture with legitimacy that will command a higher price next time it's sold.

"It's like (trying) to empty the sea with a spoon!" says Wiesinger. "Once it's out, it's out - it's terrible."

Museum curators must be constantly on guard these days.

Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte - where more than 80 works by Giacometti are now on exhibit -  is lucky in that regard. 

"The good news is the pieces we have in our collection, Hans and Bessie Bechtler acquired most of the pieces during the lifetime of their relationship with Alberto Giacometti himself," says Bechtler Museum president John Boyer.

The Bechtlers had a habit of befriending the artists whose work they collected and cultivating up-and-comers. At a gallery in Paris where Giacometti worked they bought their first - and most valuable - piece of his: "Femme Assise."

"It was at the same moment they met Giacometti and it's been in (the Bechtlers') hands until it came to us," says Boyer.

"Femme Assise" is an elegant, bronze figure in that elongated, bumpy style so distinctive to Giacometti - and so attractive to forgers.

How easy it must be to dupe an amateur art collector who knows just enough to recognize Giacometti's drippy-style but not nearly enough to notice the nuances that make a piece genuine.

But what's the harm really? If you love Giacometti but can't afford the real deal, why not get close with a fake?

Wiesinger is adamant: "The kind of pleasure it will give you will be the kind of pleasure you can get from your fake Gucci - but it won't give you real pleasure, I don't believe that."

"This is what I would argue," adds Boyer.  "You can still turn to institutions like ours and all around the world and have a great engagement with the thing itself and use that inspiration to go out and support some new artist the way the Bechtlers did."

You can cultivate the next generation of Giacomettis who may one day become so sought after they find themselves the target of a counterfeit Count.