An art dealer disappeared with $50M. 17 years later, a documentary crew found him
'We never really anticipated finding him because no one had ever found him,' says filmmaker Vanessa Engle
Vanessa Engle's new film tells the story of Michel Cohen and how he pulled off one of the biggest art cons in history before disappearing for nearly two decades.
The $50 Million Art Swindle debuted on BBC earlier this week and details Cohen's arrival from France, his many failed business ventures and his eventual rise in the world of high-priced art dealing.
When Cohen started trading stocks, he watched his fortune multiply and then erode. Desperate and broke, he turned to theft.
"I first clocked this story in 2001 when it was in the papers and it just struck me as an amazing story," Engle told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
"I think I am a bit of a fanatical person by nature, and I just continued to do online searches looking for Michel Cohen whenever I had an idle moment."
The film is as much as anything a character study. He's a very complicated character and a fascinating character.- Vanessa Engle
That went on for 17 years. Eventually, her obsession turned into a fully funded project with staff and a travel budget. She hoped to find Cohen but admits it was very unlikely.
"If I'm honest, we never really anticipated finding him because no one had ever found him," she said.
However unlikely, that's exactly what happened. Engle credits her colleague's resourcefulness for the team's success.
"One of my magical powers was hiring a very amazing young woman called Billie Shepherd ... she is very, very good and very dogged," Engle said.
Shepherd tracked down court documents in the United States and Brazil and used them to create a circle of people who knew Cohen. Engle contacted all the leads, effectively getting the word out.
"They are difficult letters to write. I didn't know if I was writing to people who maybe were harbouring a fugitive or people [who] were extremely angry with him."
Those letters led the filmmaker to Cohen. Below is part of Engle's conversation with Brent Bambury.
What was it like to finally meet him?
It was his wife who responded to one of my letters. She wouldn't really talk to me on the phone so she said, "Come and meet me in this other country," which I did.
And I talked to his wife for a number of hours in a cafe. She told me her story, which is an amazing story, but said she didn't want to appear on camera.
She, at this point, still hadn't told me where he was or even that they were still together. And then I said, "Well, why am I here?" ... Then suddenly this man appeared at the table … and I did a bit of a double take because I wasn't really sure it was him.
And then I realized it was — and in fact he and I were both sort of overcome with shyness, because I suspect he'd been waiting years and years for someone to come in search of him, and I'd been waiting years and years to meet him. And we were both a bit overwhelmed.
How big was Michel Cohen in the New York and Los Angeles art scene?
He had an extraordinary lifestyle. We went [and] filmed in his house in Malibu, which is the most incredible house on the cliff in Point Dume overlooking the ocean. It's an iconic [and] very beautiful house ... I've never been in a house like it. It's quite amazing.
So he was living in that house. They had horses that they bought for tens of thousands of dollars. They had a lot of staff and he had a habit of buying and trading in extremely expensive cars.
So he was living the high life. No question.
How did he steal more than $50 million from art collectors?
He sold paintings that were not his to sell. Art that had high prices ... Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall.
He would take them on consignment from art galleries and sell them to his clients and either trouser the money or trouser the paintings.
After he disappears he is arrested in Brazil. What happened there?
He lived in Brazil for two years and then he was arrested. Interpol caught up with him and he was arrested and imprisoned in Rio.
The way he tells it in the film is that he noticed the ambulance that took sick prisoners to hospital had broken down, that he spied this through the window of his cell. And so he had the idea that if he feigned illness he would be taken to hospital and it wouldn't be in an ambulance.
And indeed he was taken to [hospital] in a private car belonging to a prison guard and he was not in handcuffs, even though the prison guards had guns.
And at a traffic light in Rio's very congested traffic system, he jumped out of the car and ran for his life.
What I would say is — and this is not in the film — I mean, we allow him to tell that story in the film in this extraordinary, grandiose way.
What I actually also know is that a prison guard was convicted of helping him to escape, and I don't think it's far-fetched to imagine that some money must have changed hands.
But Michel does not acknowledge that. He pretends that it was some extraordinary, miraculous act that came about through his own agency.
There are some seriously angry people out there; they lost a lot of money. Do you think anything will happen for them now that your film has pulled back the curtain on Michel Cohen's story?
I think the reason he felt safe in taking part in the documentary is because he is in a country where he is beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
And yet he doesn't have money ... so there's no point in anyone coming after him because a civil suit wouldn't get them any money at all, and the FBI can't get him because he's out of their reach.
Did he show remorse for what he did?
Well I suppose, as well as being an extraordinary story of this huge swindle, the film is as much as anything a character study. He's a very, very complicated character and a fascinating character.
There is a certain point in the film where there's a little flicker of remorse, but more than anything he feels that his actions were in some way justifiable.
And whether that's because he's had the best part of 20 years to think about it … [and] managed to construct a narrative in his mind that somehow justifies and defends his actions, or whether he always did that — I suspect he maybe always did that.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Vanessa Engle, download our podcast or click Listen above.