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$50m art swindle/BBC 2

This documentary is the story of art dealer Michel Cohen who went from rags to riches and back to rags again.

Born in impoverished circumstance in France after the war he came to the USA with a friend in the 80s. He bought a stack of lithographs and sold them. He realised that he had a talent to sell art even though he did not actually like it and soon established himself as a successful dealer.

His business practice was one meets fairly often in the art world, namely to operate not from a gallery but a luxurious apartment as a middleman. Crucial to this is to be a reliable payer for the pictures from the auction houses and primary dealers and initially Cohen certainly was this.

He diversified into share options but after initial success sustained huge losses. His way of dealing with was to acquire – but not pay for – a Picasso, relying on his previous good reputation, and sell it up to three times to different clients.

He was eventually rumbled and fled the country in 2004, finishing up in Brazil. Here he was arrested, went to – and escaped from – prison, took a boat down the Amazon to French Guiana and returned to France.

His family there looked after him but after he took their money he was on the streets. His wife and three children came out and he lives in straightened circumstances as a house husband. He cannot be extradited.

The strength of the programme was that producer Vanessa Engel tracked him down and interviewed him.

He was not at all contrite. He referred to the monies he took as loans he could not repay.

He was clearly a highly intelligent man, a very good chess player, conforming to the principle that the first person a con artist should deceive is himself.

The documentary was also a fascinating insight into the art world in New York and Los Angeles. Picasso and Chagall were/are always in demand. Cohen’s problem was he tried to copy the high end life style of his clients with a home he owned in Malibu, an expensive rented apartment in New York, watches, Porsches, flying everywhere by private jet, you name it when he no longer had the money to afford it.

I watched the programme on Catch Up and after it Rise of the Nazis came up. This too was engaging and featured Hitler in power in 1933 burning down the Reichstag. Unlike the UK today there was no robust Judiciary to prevent him.

There are critics of the BBC with justification but here were two outstanding programmes.

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts