Frenchman Michel Cohen was a successful stock trader who amassed a fortune, until he wasn’t.
As he watched his business ventures fail and his fortune disappear, Cohen turned to the world of high-priced art dealing and swindling. Seventeen years ago Cohen pulled off an art con worth $50 million, selling paintings by Monet, Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse on consignment from art galleries and then pocketing the money.
And then he disappeared; that is, until documentary filmmaker Vanessa Engle and her crew found him.
“If I’m honest, we never really anticipated finding him because no one had ever found him,” Engle said to CBC Radio. She added: “One of my magical powers was hiring a very amazing young woman called Billie Shepherd … she is very, very good and very dogged.”
According to Engle, Shepherd used court documents in the United States and Brazil to find people who knew Cohen. Each lead was meticulously contacted as the crew tried to get the word out.
“They are difficult letters to write. I didn’t know if I was writing to people who maybe were harboring a fugitive or people [who] were extremely angry with him,” Engle told CBC Radio.
They worked. The trail of letters eventually found Cohen’s wife, who then contacted Engle and agreed to meet with the filmmaker on the condition that she didn’t appear on camera. Cohen’s wife and Engle met at a café and talked for hours as she learned Cohen’s amazing story. Then suddenly, Cohen himself appeared at their table.
“I did a bit of a double take because I wasn’t really sure it was him,” Cohen told CBC Radio. “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.”
Cohen agreed to tell his story, allowing Engle to make the documentary The $50 Million Art Swindle, which recently debuted on BBC.
“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,” Engle told CBC Radio. “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.”
To hear the full interview with Vanessa Engle, click HERE for access to the podcast.