As millions of people sadly contemplate the job market, the criminal life is increasingly starting to look like the fastest and most enjoyable route to the American dream. The downside is that, unless one is a truly impressive thief with the ability to steal millions of dollars -- someone along the lines of a Bernie Madoff or Dick Fuld -- chances are that crime will not pay.
Luckily, however, there is another route for the dashing and criminally-minded: Art. Art doesn't require a MBA from an Ivy League school, nor does it necessarily involve creating collateralized or securitized debt. It doesn't require a gun or brass knuckles and, if played properly, can allow one to circulate among the rich and infamous for decades.
In the art world, the line between legitimate genius and con artist is sometimes almost transparent. Mark Kostabi, for example, is the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Con Artist," and revels in the fact that his assistants create most of the art that goes out under his signature. Kostabi also hosts a game show, Name that Painting, on which he lets contestants come up with titles for his works; he then awards $50 for the name that he likes the best.
Even so, Kostabi has his supporters, as does Jeff Koons, a former commodities broker cum artist whose work seems designed to undermine the very concept of art as a legitimate profession. His Puppy, for example, is a 43 foot high topiary of a West Highland Terrier, while his mylar-coated balloon dogs are mass produced and sold in "editions" to a hungry -- and disturbingly gullible -- public. Of course, the question of whether or not he is a grifter is rendered largely moot by the fact that his victims are so desperate to be fleeced.In many ways, Koons' excesses are no more than a natural continuation of a trend in art. For example, according to some rumors, Salvador Dali authorized cheap prints of his work in order to fund his lavish lifestyle. For that matter, Andy Warhol's decision to name his studio "The Factory" said a lot about both his perspective on art and the methods that he used to create it.
On the sleazier side of the street, Hungarian artist Elmyr de Hory forged dozens of artists and created thousands of works. In fact, he clogged the market with Modigliani knockoffs to the point that some authenticators allegedly verified de Hory "Modiglianis" as the real thing, claiming that actual Modigliani works were poor copies! In the process, de Hory became something of a folk hero, inspiring a biography by Clifford Irving, the writer who later went on to forge a Howard Hughes memoir. Irving is, apparently, helping to put together a screenplay about the famous hoaxster.
de Hory also was the subject of F Is for Fake, a slavishly admiring documentary by Orson Welles. This, in itself, is hardly surprising: people seem to like movies about clever rogues. Kostabi, for example, is the subject of Con Artist, a documentary that is going to be released at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. And therein lies another attraction to being a con artist: if you play your cards right, you might just be the subject of a movie!
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