The $50m Art Swindle: an astonishing film about an absurd scam

As you listen to the victims, you can’t help but queasily sympathise, even as you wonder at their credulity.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Michel Cohen, a French-born con man and all-round fantasist who disappeared in 2001, began his working life as a teenager, selling encyclopaedias. Having discovered early on that he could palm off just about anything on just about anyone, he made a brief detour into pâté, before diving into the art world as if into one of David Hockney’s swimming pools. Splash! First there were posters and lithographs, then there were paintings by Dubuffet, Monet, Picasso and Gerhard Richter: mammoth names that fall so casually from his lips, he might as well be dictating his weekly shopping list.

In New York, where he pitched up in the Eighties, he was trusted by other dealers and galleries to the point where he was able to take delivery of a painting in order to show it to a possible buyer without the necessity of any paperwork. From where did this blind faith in him spring? Partly, it was reputation. Cohen was always as good as his word (until, that is, he wasn’t). But perhaps his Frenchness worked in his favour, too, not to mention his lifestyle, which was as gilded as that of his clients (penthouses, ponies, private jets). People – even those who wear bow ties and claim to know the difference between a minor Renoir and a major one – are gullible, aren’t they? In the US, a French accent can take you quite a long way, and a uniformed doorman standing outside your building further still.

In Vanessa Engle’s astonishing film about Cohen (23 September, 9pm), who had swindled the art world out of some $55m by the time he finally went on the run, his victims speak with eloquence of his plausibility, their cheeks only really reddening when it comes to the moment when they must admit that, yes, their multi-million dollar invoices were left unpaid. As you listen, you can’t help but queasily sympathise, even as you wonder at their credulity.

But there’s something else at play here, too: a deliciousness born of the viewer’s complicity with the film’s director. What the victims seem not to know as they face her is that Engle has succeeded where the FBI long failed. She has found Cohen, alive and well. Even more unlikely, she has persuaded him to talk about his crimes and misdemeanours on camera (he appears on screen, like some giant rabbit pulled out of a hat the size of a cooling tower, only minutes in). What I wouldn’t give to read the emails she must have received from this lot in the minutes after the film was first screened.

Engle (The Cult Next Door, The Funeral Murders) is a brilliant and singular film-maker, and this one comes with all her trademarks. Punctuated with wobbly old footage of Houdini types wrestling chains, its soundtrack features Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, and her manner, as she quizzes Cohen, is typically wry. But while she has always been dogged – she has the trench coat instincts of an old-fashioned investigative reporter – in this film, her tenacity reaches another level. The product of a 17-year-long obsession on her part, it has everything, including an immaculately reconstructed South American prison break – one so preposterous-seeming, you half wonder if she hasn’t been conned, too.

Most documentaries are in the business of neatness; a bow must be tied in the moments before the titles roll. This one, however, is like whack-a-mole when it comes to questions, a dozen more rising mistily in your mind for each one answered. Above all, you ask yourself: where did all the money go? Cohen’s yawning wallet seems not fully to account for its disappearance – unless, of course, the way he appears to live now, small and shabby and shuffling, is just another elaborate deception. This isn’t a criticism. What I like most about Engle’s film is the way it hints at a second chapter. (Will his victims now track him down themselves, gathering in their massed ranks outside his house like tourists outside the Uffizi? Did he consider this when he agreed to be interviewed?) Nevertheless, if she doesn’t one day return to Cohen and his exploits, I will be disappointed. I don’t want only to see the exhibition. I want – show me the postcards! – a full tour of the gift shop,  too, and other forms of high drama. 

The $50m Art Swindle
BBC Two

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace