Helge Achenbach has been a free man for about a year now. The celebrity German art dealer, who spent four years in prison for cheating wealthy customers, runs “Culture without Borders,” a center for persecuted artists in the town of Kaarst, west of Düsseldorf. These days, he steers clear of art fairs and exhibition opening nights.
Writing Self Destruction. Confessions of an Art Dealer was therapeutical, he told DW. “What I went through resembles a plane crash,” the 66-year-old said, adding that he began to write the memoir in custody, “the darkest hours of my life.”
Cake from the discount supermarket
In 2014 a court had found Achenbach guilty of overcharging customers, including the late Berthold Albrecht, the heir of the Aldi supermarket chain.
It was at Aldi’s, of all places, that he bought his first piece of cake in freedom last year — for the simple reason, he said, that he could no longer afford anything fancy. The store reminded him of the forged bills he presented the Albrecht family and two other collectors. “I rewrote invoices three times in my favor,” he said. He still owes the Albrecht family millions of euros.
Achenbach forged the purchase prices of works of art worth millions. He billed amounts in euros that had in fact been incurred in US dollars. In addition, he added a nice sum for himself.
Number one art powerbroker
In his memoir, he reminisces about his childhood and his years as the powerful “Big Daddy” of the art business. Achenbach, who had studied social education, opened an art agency in 1977. As an art consultant, he made sure that contemporary works of art found their way into the foyers and onto the walls of big banks, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises nationwide. He was sought-out also because he pitched in with his own money where needed: Achenbach financed a pavilion at the Venice Biennale for video artist Nam Jun Paik, and a sculpture by Jeff Koons.
Artists and the customers alike loved him. Achenbach worked with mega-rich collectors, and gave them access to the world’s most expensive and important art works.
Greedy art market
The art works Achenbach brokered for the Albrecht billionaires are now worth far more than they were at the time of their purchase. Perhaps this is why Achenbach could not understand why he was being labeled a fraud — in the end, it came down to a 5% commission for him, he said, which was not that much in the first place. The works’ enormous increase in value should have also been taken into account, he added.
“The most fatal mistake of my life” — instead of quitting when a deal didn’t seem lucrative enough, he would fix the bill, he said. “I did not know that would mean the loss of honor and money.”
Art industry a pool full of sharks
Helge Achenbach hopes his memoir will set straight the image people have of him. He also wants to show readers the world of the ultra-rich. Achenbach tells the impressive story of how the entire art market has gradually turned into a money market. Today, only very few people are interested in content. The turning point was in the mid-1980s, he said — since then, prices have been out of this world. It’s all about speculation, and everyone joins in cheerfully, Achenbach said. In 1987, he told DW, Swiss art dealer Ernst Beyerler was interested in buying artwork from him, telling him that “once a month he would send 50 to 60 photos of masterpieces and lesser masterpieces to Japan, double the prices — and sell it all.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that cake?
Helge Achenbach worked in this system for years. He has a way with people, and even enjoyed privileges in prison, where he was responsible for sports activities and gave classes in art history. His memoir provides an insider’s view into the shark tank that constitutes the arts industry.