On the night of March 28, 1942, the British Royal Air Force carpet-bombed the German city of Lübeck. With nearly 300 tons of incendiary bombs, the entire city burned, including its St. Mary’s Church, otherwise known as the Marienkirche.
In the heat of the flames, plaster peeled off the church walls, revealing Gothic frescoes which were previously hidden since the church’s construction in the 1200s. In the smoldering ruins of the city, the sight of these emerging frescoes was a sign of hope, they were a “miracle of Marienkirche.”
After the war, it was time to rebuild, so the church authorities and the government paid art restorer Dietrich Fey and his assistant, Lothar Malskat, 88,000 German marks (according to my — probably wrong — calculations, that’s around 300,000 US dollars) to fix up the Marienkirche frescoes. So Malskat got to work.
Three years later in 1951, the new church was unveiled to the public, and the public loved it. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer loved it. The church officials loved it.
Everyone loved it so much that reproductions of the murals were printed on two million postage stamps. It was the symbol of a rebuilt Germany, a sign that despite the devastation of war, the country could redeem itself.
And then in 1952, Lothar Malskat sued himself for being an art forger.
Malskat would reproduce pieces by Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt and others, and Fey would sell them. Fey got paid the 88,000 German marks. Malskat got paid a fifth of that payment. Fey got all the credit for restoring the Marienkirche. Malskat got anonymity. He painted with the skill of the masters with none of the recognition. And he absolutely hated it.
So he told everyone that the Marienkirche restoration was all a fraud, that he and Fey had swindled them all. Except no one believed him. No one wanted to believe him. They refused to believe him.
This was just some salty, egomaniacal rejected artist seeking the adoration of the German people. The last time that happened, there was a world war.
But Malskat could prove that the restoration of the Marienkirche was fake. The original fresco’s paint proved to be too fragile to work with and simply crumbled at the touch of a brush. So Malskat just got rid of all of the originals and started with a clean wall and his own imagination. Mary Magdalene didn’t have any shoes in the new piece. The faces of the monks were the faces of nearby laborers. Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin was the face of a king. Contemporary Austrian actress Hansi Knoteck’s face was hidden in the background. There were some turkeys in the painting, which wouldn’t have been discovered in the 13th century.
There was no hiding it, especially the turkeys. The German people had been duped and Malskat reveled in the attention. During the five-month long trial, he freely pointed out how the praises he received for the restoration were baseless. Not only did he reveal himself to be a fraud, he dragged everyone else down with him.
In this great betrayal of public trust, the people turned against the church officials, the art curators and the institutions that perpetuated Malskat’s hoax. He served his 18 months in prison and emerged hoping to receive the embrace and adoration of art fans.
He did earn recognition, but not as a master artist he so desired but as the forger he always was. For the next 32 years, he became a struggling expressionist artist and died in the shadows of art history.
And as for Malskat’s frescoes in the Marienkirche? They were all removed from the walls of the church and the memories of the people. All were removed except for a section above a nave of the church which serves as a warning to the future charlatans and liars seeking to take advantage of the sentiments of masses.