How to Fake a Medieval Fresco in Third Reich Germany

Down in the schwahl, Malskat and the Feys set to work, attempting to reclaim history by scraping away the paint with which Olbers had tried to recapture the past. But subtracting what their predecessor had done—whether on account of Olbers’ pigments or the Feys’ incompetence—left almost none of the original paint. A nearly 700-year-old national treasure had vanished, and Ernst Fey was legally responsible for the disappearance.

Most likely Fey was the one to think of a fix. Unquestionably Malskat was the one who achieved it. Over the next several months, the erstwhile housepainter whitewashed the brick, discoloring his lime with pigment to give the walls an ancient tint. Onto this fresh surface he painted freehand his own version of the murals. Necessarily these were based on Olbers’ 19th-century restorations, reverse engineered to approximate the early medieval originals by reference to period examples in the professor’s catalogues. Drawing his figures in earth tones, Malskat took up the spare 14th-century style with preternatural ease and an utter lack of inhibition. He rendered his father as a prophet, and gave Christ the face of an old classmate. For the Virgin Mary, he had to look farther afield to find a suitable model, choosing a woman already widely worshipped—the Austrian movie star Hansi Knoteck. (Apparently 20th century art forgers had a thing for actresses. For the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, it was Greta Garbo.) Ernst Fey then aged the contour drawings using a procedure he called zurückpatinieren—a fancy word for rubbing them with a brick.

Jonathon Keats writing in Art & Antiques Magazine about how Lothar Malskat crossed the line between art restoration and forgery in a bombed-out church in wartime Germany.

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