The $50m Art Swindle: Even the name’s a bit of a fraud

Review: A fascinating documentary about art dealer Michel Cohen gets its sums wrong

Michel Cohen: A mathematical memory for auction valuations

Michel Cohen: A mathematical memory for auction valuations

 

Perhaps The $50m Art Swindle (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm) made for a zippier title, but Michel Cohen, the French art dealer who defrauded his US colleagues in 2000, actually swindled them out of $55m.

Then again, maybe the rounded down figure of Vanessa Engle’s documentary, which follows Cohen’s career with a kind of scandalised glee, suggests that it too has been taken in by this phlegmatic character; a little stunned that this fugitive, having lain so low for so long, would participate at all.

Sure, shaving $5m off the scale of such a fraud doesn’t exactly exonerate him. But given Cohen’s breezy reflex to minimise his transgressions, every little bit helps.

Related with a salad bowl of visual motifs – Post-It notes on a window pane, a magician’s sleight of hand, the dizzy thrill of gambling dens, vintage graphics of the Icarus myth – Engle’s take on Cohen reads like a Catch Me If You Can chase caper.

His origins are humble: a high-school dropout who supported a broken family, became a leading encyclopaedia salesman, then took his serial entrepreneurship to America. With neither insight or regard, he got into the art market with a mathematical memory for auction valuations. That is enough to climb his way into “the middle Impressionist market”, where Chagalls, Picassos, and Monets move for one or two million, and a 10 per cent commission earns you a tidy fortune.

Here the documentary is at its most fascinating, because the art market already seems like a complete scam, where arbitrary value is built on trust, and Cohen’s mixture of chutzpah and charm exploits it merrily. (His satisfaction with Damien Hirst’s The Pharmacy, a display of medication bottles he presented that sold for $2m, makes it seem no less a swindle.)

Money was Cohen’s compulsion, the only thing in which he saw safety, and his gravitation to the stock market initially earned him millions, then lost him millions more. Exploiting the marvellously unsound art market, he sold paintings he did not own to multiple buyers, amassing $55 million.

hen he was eventually found out, he fled for Brazil, audaciously beginning again as a trader. Eventually caught, he escaped from prison in suspiciously daring circumstances that the documentary chooses to believe. Then he disappeared from the face of the planet.

Perhaps not quite believing her luck, Engle doesn’t question why Cohen, who is widely believed to have both the FBI and hit men on his trail, makes himself available to her. Even sitting placidly for interview, Cohen remains fascinatingly elusive. The paintings were not stolen, he says, because he had invoices. The money not defrauded, he says, because he would have paid it back. If he were caught red-handed he would calmly explain that the colour was actually chartreuse and those aren’t his hands.

Showing emotion only once, at the memory of being introduced to his youngest child, abandoned with the family for five years following his escape, Cohen could be a remorseless psychopath (“It’s not in my mentality to have regrets”), a gambling addict with impregnable powers of self-delusion, or a practised con artist securely hidden in France from where he cannot be extradited.

Finally, the documentary just has a sneaking regard for him, this nerveless figure. That it has caught up with Cohen is one thing. But could anyone say they got their man?

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