After the Release of a New Movie on a Notorious Art Fraudster, the FBI Is Seeking the Owner of a Dubuffet Painting Connected to the Case

The French-born con man at the heart of the scandal is now the subject of a new BBC documentary.

Jean Dubuffet's Site avec 5 personnages (1981). Courtesy of the US Department of Justice.
Jean Dubuffet's Site avec 5 personnages (1981). Courtesy of the US Department of Justice.

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice sent out a press release seeking the owner of a painting by Art Brut master Jean Dubuffet, Site avec 5 personnages (1981), which was seized as part of a long-running case against a notorious former art dealer named Michel Cohen (not to be confused with now incarcerated Trump consigliere Michael Cohen), who fled charges in the US after defrauding clients out of $50 million.

Now, Cohen’s story is the subject of a documentary by Vanessa Engle, who spent 17 years tracking the con artist. The film follows Cohen’s life, which began in a poor suburb of Paris in 1953. He was a natural salesman, who moved to the US and began a business selling French paté, eventually graduating to selling art prints, and working his way up trading big names like Chagall, Picasso, Monet, and, yes, Dubuffet.

When his business went south, Cohen started committing wire and mail fraud, ultimately to the tune of some $50 million. He’s been under indictment for the crimes since 2003. Cohen “induced numerous national and international galleries, collectors, and investors to consign expensive works and to give him large sums of money as part of fraudulent transactions,” according to filings in a New York district court.

Former art dealer and con man, Michel Cohen. Photo courtesy of BBC, The 50 million Art Swindle.

Former art dealer and con man Michel Cohen. Photo courtesy of BBC, The 50 million Art Swindle.

The Dubuffet painting, which was originally owned by the late artist’s estate and is listed in his catalogue raisonné was sold to an Asian buyer in 1993, though its whereabouts between 1993 and 1996, when Cohen bought it, are unknown. Cohen, who appears to have taken ownership of the painting, left it with the New York art dealer Jerry Solomon in 2001 with the belief that Solomon would attempt to find a new buyer for the work. When Cohen’s crimes were brought to light in New York in 2001, Solomon turned the painting over to the FBI, which has held it ever since.

Cohen was indicted for criminal charges in 2001, but he eluded the authorities for two years, until he was captured by police in Rio de Janeiro. He was jailed in Brazil, but managed to escape custody while being transported for a medical exam. He has not been caught since and, even if he were, the Brazilian government said he could not face extradition back to the US because he fathered a child in Rio de Janeiro.

Because it remains unknown how the Dubuffet painting came into Cohen’s possession, the FBI is asking the public to come forward if they have a claim to the painting, or knows who might.

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