v1.0.3 / 01 jan 04 / greg goebel / public domain
* Frauds are a part of day-to-day life, with messages promising easy money flooding over the Internet, and the telephone ringing with someone with a big story to sell. Such frauds are annoying not just because they are scams, but because they are artless. However, there have been a few confidence artists with considerably more class. They were certainly crooks and generally got what they deserved in the end, but they didn't think small and some of them had style. This document tells the story of some of history's greatest confidence artists.
* Charles Ponzi was a little Italian immigrant to the United States who became one of the greatest swindlers in American history. Most people have never heard of Ponzi, but the term "Ponzi Pyramid" is fairly well known, and even those who haven't heard of that know about its modern version, the MAKE MONEY FAST schemes that were popular at one time on the Internet before they were replaced by better scams.
Parts of Charles Ponzi's life are hard to determine for certain, as Ponzi himself was an incurable liar. He was born in Parma, Italy, in 1882, and emigrated to the United States in 1903. He would later claim that he had been a student at a university in Italy and decided to emigrate when he ran out of money, but other accounts suggest he was an inept petty thief who always got caught, and his family finally decided to get rid of him by shipping him across the Atlantic.
Whatever the case, the new arrival was a short fellow, only 158 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches) tall, but with boundless self-confidence, a big smile, and a fast line of talk. However, Ponzi suffered from a severe mismatch between his grand assessment of his own capabilities and his actual talents. He arrived in the US almost penniless, having been cleaned out in card games during the voyage across the ocean.
He was undiscouraged. He learned how to speak and read English, and got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He slept on the floor of the restaurant as he had no other place to live, but managed to work his way up to the position of waiter. Unfortunately, he shortchanged the customers and played games with the bills, and so he was fired.
Ponzi was unfazed. In 1907, he moved to Montreal, Canada, and became an assistant teller in a bank. Among his talents was a certain glib talent with numbers, and he found out that the bank was in serious financial troubles because of bad real-estate loans. He schemed to take over the bank, but was caught forging checks in the name of an elderly woman who had a deposit at the bank. This exercise got him three years in a Canadian prison. He wrote his mother that he had found a job as a "special assistant" to a prison warden. When he was released in 1911, he decided to return to the US, but got involved in a scheme to smuggle Italian immigrants across the border. He was caught and spent two years in an Atlanta prison.
* When Ponzi was released he went to Boston. There he met and in 1918 married a pretty, wide-eyed Italian girl named Rose Gnecco, who was swept off her feet by Ponzi's sparkling charm. Some accounts claim that Ponzi was working at different jobs and bumbling them, others that he was actually finding success with J.P. Poole, an import company. In either case, he finally had a vision.
The vision was the "postal reply coupon". Early in the 20th century, the US was full of immigrants who wanted to keep in touch with their families in the old countries. However, many of these families were terribly poor, as Europe was in desperate shape following the First World War. Very often the families were hard-pressed to afford postage. The postal reply coupon was a chit that the American son or daughter could include with the letter, which could be redeemed at the local post office for enough postage to allow the family to mail a letter back to the US. The scheme was devised by an international postal congress in 1907 and persists today.
In November 1919, Ponzi realized that, on paper at least, international trading of postal reply coupons could yield 400% returns. Essentially, he was considering a form of "arbitrage", or currency trading, and perfectly legal in itself.
Ponzi began to canvass his friends and associates to get backing for his scheme. He offered them a 50% return on their money in 45 days, or double their money in 90 days. The great returns available from postal reply coupons, he explained to them, made such incredible profits easy. He started his own company, the "Securities Exchange Company", to promote the scheme. His sales pitch was smooth and low-key. He managed to get a few investors, and paid them off as he had promised. The word spread, and investors began to come in the door at an increasing rate. He hired agents and paid them generous commissions for every dollar they brought in. By February 1920, Ponzi's total take was $5,000 USD, a tidy sum for the time. That was just the beginning.
By March, he was up to $30,000 USD. A frenzy was building, and Ponzi began to hire agents to take in money from all over New England and New Jersey. If investors were doubtful, he would overwhelm them with his line of talk. By throwing numbers at people, he could make their eyes glaze over and passively go along with the game.
By May 1920, he was up to $420,000 USD. He began depositing the money in the Hanover Trust Bank, in hopes that once his account was large enough he could impose his will on the bank or even be made its president. He in fact managed to get a controlling interest in the bank.
By July 1920, he was up to millions. Widows were mortgaging their homes, people were taking their life savings to invest with the clever Ponzi. Most did not collect their interest, but reinvested.
Ponzi was bringing in cash at a fantastic rate, but the simplest financial analysis showed that he wasn't making money he was losing it rapidly. For every dollar he took in, he went more deeply into debt. As long as money kept flowing in, he could stay one step ahead of the devil. If the cashflow faltered, the pyramid would collapse and take him to Hell with it. Ponzi was in a fool's paradise. He bought a mansion with air conditioning and a heated pool, and brought his mother from Italy in a first-class stateroom on an ocean liner. He was a hero among the Italian community, and was cheered wherever he went.
* The devil was gaining on him, however. A furniture dealer who had given Ponzi furniture when the little Italian was broke tried to sue to cash in on the gold rush. It was a nuisance lawsuit and went nowhere, but it did start people asking how Ponzi could have gone from being broke to being a millionaire in so short a time. There was a run on the Securities Exchange Company as some investors decided to pull out.
Ponzi paid them cheerfully and the run stopped. In fact, on 24 July 1920, the BOSTON POST printed a positive article on Ponzi and his scheme that sent investors into the offices of the Securities Exchange Company at a faster rate than ever. At that time, Ponzi was pulling in a quarter of a million dollars a day.
Despite this reprieve, one of the editors of the POST was suspicious and assigned investigative reporters to check out Ponzi. Ponzi was also under investigation by the state of Massachusetts, and on the same day the POST article was printed, he met with state officials. He managed to divert them from checking his books, which was fortunate because he wasn't keeping any worthy of the name, by offering to stop taking in money while he was being audited. This calmed the suspicions of the state officials for the moment.
By this time, Ponzi was casting about for another deal to get him out of the golden trap he was building for himself, but time was running out. On 26 July, the POST started a series of articles that asked hard questions about the operation of Ponzi's money machine. The POST contacted Clarence Barron, the financial analyst who published the BARRON'S financial paper, to examine Ponzi's scheme. Barron observed that though Ponzi was offering fantastic returns on investments, Ponzi himself wasn't investing with his own company. If this was such a good deal, why didn't Ponzi take advantage of it himself?
Barron then noted that to cover the investments made with the Securities Exchange Company, there would have to be about 160,000,000 postal reply coupons in circulation. There were only about 27,000. The US Postal Service added that nobody was buying postal reply coupons in quantity at home or abroad. On paper, there were fantastic profits in trading postal reply coupons, but they were a penny item. The overhead required to handle the trades would have eaten up the profits quickly.
The stories caused a panic run on the Securities Exchange Company. Ponzi paid out $2 million USD in three days to a wild crowd outside his office. He canvassed the crowd, passed out coffee and donuts, and cheerfully told them they had nothing to worry about. Many changed their minds and left their money with him.
* There was something clueless in Ponzi's cleverness. He had set a scheme in motion that was sure to collapse sooner or later. He was pulling in a pile of cash, but only at the expense of going into even greater debt. At some point, the smart thing to do would be to take the money and run to someplace where the law couldn't get at him. Instead, he stayed with it. The only reason that makes any sense is that he thought he could use the fortune he was accumulating to come up with a new scheme that would save him. He could figure out some way of diverting the fortune and the debt into a legitimate line of business, or maybe he could just hire lawyers and pay off judges to buy his way out of trouble.
On 2 August, the BOSTON POST ran a headline story that declared Ponzi was hopelessly insolvent, and cited Ponzi's own publicity agent, James McMasters, who was too honest to go along with the crooked scheme. On 10 August, Federal agents raided the Securities Exchange Commission and shut Ponzi down. No large stock of postal reply coupons was found, and never would be. The Hanover Trust Bank would be shut down presently as well. The POST continued their articles, with one revealing Ponzi's jail record and publishing his (smiling) Canadian mug shots. By 13 August, Ponzi was under arrest, with a Federal indictment citing 86 counts of fraud. Ponzi's fans were outraged at the officers who arrested him. 17,000 people had invested millions, maybe tens of millions, with Ponzi. Many who were ruined were so blinded by their faith in the man or their refusal to admit their foolishness that they still regarded him as a hero.
* On 1 November 1920, Ponzi pleaded guilty to postal fraud, and was sentenced to five years in Federal prison. He was released after three and a half years to face state charges. He was found guilty again and sentenced to nine years. He jumped bail and fled to Florida, where he set up a scam to sell "prime Florida property" to gullible investors. Florida authorities got wise to Ponzi quickly. He fled to Texas, where he shaved his head, grew a mustache, and tried to flee the country as a crewman on a merchant ship. He was caught and sent back to Massachusetts to serve out his prison term.
In the meantime, government investigators tried to trace through Ponzi's convoluted accounts to figure out how much money he had taken in and where it had gone. They never did manage to untangle it, and could only conclude that millions had gone through his hands.
Ponzi was released in 1934. The flashy cockiness that had kept him afloat had faded by that time, and when he left the prison gates he was met by an angry crowd. Furthermore, he had never become an American citizen, and so the US government deported him back to Italy immediately. He told reporters before he left: "I went looking for trouble, and I found it." Rose stayed behind. She would divorce him presently.
In Italy, Ponzi jumped from scheme to scheme but little came of them. He eventually got a cozy job as the agent for the Italian state airline in Brazil, but during World War II, the Brazilians, who had signed up with the Allies, realized the Italians were using the airline to ship strategic materials and shut it down.
* Charles Ponzi spent the last years of his life in poverty. He had a stroke in 1948 and died in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro on 18 January 1949. His life had been characterized by one great moment of glory surrounded by failures. Ponzi always saw some glory in the wild ride he had given Bostonians: "Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over!"
Although pyramid schemes were nothing new when Ponzi discovered postal reply coupons, his scam was indeed one of the great shows in the history of fraud. He would have also been gratified to know that from that time on, the old game of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul on a massive scale would be known as a Ponzi scheme.
* One of the most talented con artists who ever lived was Victor Lustig. Victor had been born in Bohemia and gone west, demonstrating his talents even in his early twenties. He was a natural conman, glib and charming in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York, but eventually decided to stay in Paris for a while and see what he could find there.
In 1925, France had recovered from the First World War and Paris was booming. Expatriates from all over the world went to Paris to enjoy being at the leading edge of the latest trends. It was flashy, fast moving, and an excellent environment for a con artist.
Lustig's master con began one spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat run down. Lustig saw a story behind this article. Maybe the city would decide the Eiffel Tower wasn't worth saving any longer. What would happen then? Lustig outlined the possibilities in his head, and realized they suggested a remarkable scheme.
Lustig adopted the persona of a government official, and had a forger produce fake government stationery for him. Lustig then sent six scrap metal dealers an invitation to attend a confidential meeting at the Hotel Creon to discuss a possible business deal. The Hotel Creon was a meeting place for diplomats and a perfect cover. All six scrap dealers replied and came to the meeting.
There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained that the dealers had been selected on the basis of their good reputations as honest businessmen, and then dropped his bombshell. Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was to be kept secret until all the details were thought out. Lustig said that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry out the task.
The idea was not as implausible in 1925 as would be today. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909 and moved someplace else. It didn't fit with the city's other great monuments like the gothic cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe, and in any case at the time it really was in poor condition.
Lustig took the men to the tower in a rented limousine to give them an inspection tour. The tower was made of 15,000 prefabricated parts, many of which were highly ornamental, and Lustig showed it off to the men. This encouraged their enthusiasm, and it also gave Lustig an idea who was the most enthusiastic and gullible. He knew how to be attentive and agreeable, and let people talk until they told him everything he wanted to know.
Back on the ground, Lustig asked for bids to be submitted the next day, and reminded them that the matter was a state secret. In reality, Lustig already knew he would accept the bid from one dealer, Andre Poisson. Poisson was insecure, feeling he was not in the inner circles of the Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Eiffel Tower deal would put him in the big league. Lustig had quickly sensed Poisson's eagerness.
However, Lustig knew he was walking over dangerous ground. Fraud was bad enough, but the authorities would be very displeased at his having put over the fraud while impersonating a high government official. And Poisson's wife was suspicious. Who was this official, why was everything so secret, and why was everything being done so quickly?
To deal with the suspicious Poisson, Lustig arranged another meeting, and then "confessed". As a government minister, Lustig said, he did not make enough money to pursue the lifestyle he enjoyed, and needed to find ways to supplement his income. This meant that his dealings needed a certain discretion. Poisson understood immediately. He was dealing with another corrupt government official who wanted a bribe. That put Poisson's mind at rest immediately, since he was familiar with the type and had no problems dealing with such people.
So Lustig not only received the funds for the Eiffel Tower, he also got a bribe on top of that. Lustig and his personal secretary, an American conman named Dan Collins, hastily took a train for Vienna with a suitcase full of cash. He knew the instant that Poisson called the government ministries to ask for further information the whole fraud would be revealed and the law would intervene.
Nothing happened. Poisson was too humiliated to complain to the police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris, selected six more scrap dealers, and tried to sell the Eiffel Tower once more. This time, the mark went to the police before Lustig managed to close the deal, but Lustig and Collins still managed to evade arrest.
* There were others who made a profit selling civic landmarks, of course. In the early 1920s, a fast-talking Scotsman named Arthur Ferguson found out that he could obtain a tidy profit by selling Americans visiting London such items as Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square (for the sum of 6,000 pounds), Big Ben (1,000 pounds for a down payment), and Buckingham Palace (2,000 pounds for a down payment).
Ferguson's success in suckering gullible American tourists suggested to him that America was indeed the land of opportunity, and so he emigrated there in 1925. He sold the White House to a rancher on the installment plan for yearly payments of $100,000 USD and tried to sell the Statue of Liberty to a visiting Australian, who went to the police. The authorities had been looking for the mysterious salesman of public landmarks, and Ferguson went to jail, to be released in 1930. He profitably continued his trade in Los Angeles until his death in 1938.
Lustig, too, finally emigrated to the US, and conducted a number of scams. Eventually his luck ran out. He was arrested for counterfeiting and sent to Alcatraz Prison. He died in 1947. The clerk who filled out his death certificate had to pause when he came to the entry titled OCCUPATION. He finally wrote: SALESMAN.
* Medical quackery has always been a profitable hunting ground for conmen. Electricity was a good hook to draw in the gullible, as it had long been regarded as something of an elemental life-force. After all, it could make disembodied frog's legs move. Mary Shelley's novel FRANKENSTEIN, published in 1818, reflected this impression by having Dr. Frankenstein's patchwork monster brought to life by electricity.
In 1795, an American doctor from Connecticut named Elisha Perkins developed what he called the "Perkins Patent Tractors", which were a pair of rods, one made of iron and one made of brass, that could be used to draw out disease and pain by passing them over one's body. The Connecticut Medical Society loudly condemned the tractors as "delusive quackery", which was saying something considering the medical standards of the time, but the tractors proved popular, and even George Washington bought a set.
Elisha Perkins died of yellow fever in an epidemic in 1799. He may have actually believed in the value of his tractors, though it appears they didn't help much with yellow fever, but his son Benjamin Perkins was clearly a greedier sort, who amassed quite a fortune with the tractors as well as more legitimate business ventures before he died in 1810.
The practice of "tractoration", as it was known, did not live much longer than Benjamin Perkins. Attempts to use tractors in veterinary medicine failed, since animals tend to be more resistant to powers of suggestion than humans and have not the least faith in placebos. Two medical practitioners named Hygarth and Falconer administered the lethal blow to the practice by building duplicates made out of wood that proved every bit as effective.
* The Perkins tractors were only faintly electrical in nature, but they led to further interesting medical technologies, such as electric belts and corsets, which incorporated batteries and were in principle able to cure a wide range of ills. They were used through the 19th century and into the 20th, and as late as 1927 a California huckster named Gaylord Wilshire was bringing in the bucks with an AC-powered belt named the I-ON-A-CO. Incidentally, magnets were also used as elements in cure-all gear, and when radium was discovered late in the 19th century it was actually incorporated into oral medicines, with well documented cases of horror-movie results.
The plausibility of electrical techno-cures was enhanced by the fact that electrical machinery was actually being put into practical use in medicine. Electrocautery machines proved much more effective than hot irons and other primitive cauterization tools, for example, and in the 20th century all types of valuable medical electronic instruments were developed. However, as the scope of medical electronics widened, so did the scope of medical electronic frauds. The king of all the medical quacks was Dr. Albert Abrams of San Francisco. Nobody ever approached Dr. Abrams for sheer nerve, and few ever enjoyed such great success.
* Dr. Abrams had one of the traits of a good con artist: he looked real. His credentials were excellent. Born in San Francisco in 1863, he had received a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg while he was still a teenager; he had been chief pathologist at the Cooper Medical Institute, later the Stanford Medical School; and in 1893 had been president of the San Francisco Medical-Surgical Society. He was regarded as a guru by other doctors in the city, and had published many articles in prominent medical journals. His patients were the rich and powerful, and he was a member of San Francisco's social elite. Exactly why a reputable and successful physician like Dr. Abrams turned to the "dark side" is hard to understand. His letters hint at a degree of megalomania, a desire to obtain stature at any cost, or maybe it was just simple greed.
During the First World War, Abrams promoted a theory that electrons were the basic element of all life. He called his theory ERA, for "Electronic Reactions of Abrams", an egocentric designation that lends some credence to the megalomania hypothesis. Abrams introduced a number of different machines that operated on the principles of ERA. One of the most important was the "Dynomizer" that could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood. Sometimes it appears to have involved using a healthy subject as a reference, with the blood sample "polarized" by a magnet before being inserted into the machine, which would then sense the frequencies of the vibrations.
By the way, the blood didn't have to be very fresh. Abrams performed diagnoses on dried blood samples sent to him on pieces of paper in envelopes through the mail. Apparently Abrams even claimed he could conduct medical practice over the telephone with his machines, and that he could also determine personality characteristics.
The Dynomizer looked something like a radio, and it was not too much of a stretch to believe that if a radio could tune in distant radio communications, a similar device could interpret the electrical signals of the body. Well ... OK, it was a pretty big stretch, but it might have been more believable in the days when radio was new and mysterious, and making a connection between the two technologies a clever touch on Abrams' part. Abrams also built his devices to look very pretty, with fine hardwood cabinets and high-quality accessories.
The Dynomizer was big business by 1918, and then Abrams decided to take the next step. Diagnosing a disease was more or less a one-time operation, but treating a disease, particularly one not strongly based in reality, required repeated treatments. Abrams came up with a new and even more impressive gadget, the "Oscilloclast", apparently also known as the "Radioclast". It came with tables of frequencies that it was to be set to that allowed it to attack specific diseases.
The Dynomizer tended to give very alarming diagnoses, involving combinations of such maladies as cancer, diabetes, and syphillis. Abrams often included a disease called "bovine syphillis", which mystified proper medical practitioners since they had no idea what it was. Of course, the Oscilloclast was capable of defeating most of these diseases. It didn't always get them all, but of course no machine was perfect, not even the Oscilloclast.
Students flocked to Abrams' San Francisco clinic for training courses at $200 USD a head, a goodly sum at the time, and then leased the good doctor's marvelous devices to take back home. It appears that Abrams developed quite a range of different devices besides the Dynomizer and Oscilloclast to service the demand for ERA technology. The rules specified that the boxes could not be opened, as it might disrupt their delicate adjustments.
By 1921, there were 3,500 practitioners using ERA technology. Conventional medical practitioners were extremely suspicious, not merely because they doubted ERA was for real and thought it likely to lead to disasters, but because ERA practitioners were cutting into their business.
In 1923, disaster struck. An old man who was diagnosed in the Mayo Clinic with inoperable stomach cancer went to an ERA practitioner, who declared him "completely cured" after treatments. The man died a month later and an uproar followed. The war between Abrams and his followers and the American Medical Association (AMA) went into high gear.
Defenders included American radical author Upton Sinclair, and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It must be noted in this context that Conan Doyle was notoriously gullible. He believed in fairies, accepting as evidence laughably faked photographs, and Harry Houdini commented after meeting him that Conan Doyle was absolutely astounded at novice-level sleight-of-hand tricks.
The only way the dispute could be resolved was through the intervention of a scientifically respected third party. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine, a well established and prestigious publication for decades, decided to investigate Dr. Abrams' claims. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN also a perfectly impartial reason to be interested in the matter, since readers were writing letters to the editor and saying that Abrams' revolutionary machines were one of the greatest inventions of the century and so needed to be discussed in the pages of the magazine.
What was the truth? Was Abrams a genius, as his partisans claimed, or a fraud, as the AMA claimed? SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN assembled a team of investigators who worked with a senior Abrams apostle named "Doctor X" to find out the truth. The investigators developed a series of tests, and the magazine asked readers to suggest their own tests, another measure indicating the publication's impartiality.
The investigators gave Doctor X six vials containing unknown pathogens and asked him to verify what they might be. It seems likely that Doctor X honestly believed in his Abrams machines, since he wouldn't have agreed to cooperate if he hadn't, and in fact he allowed the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN investigators to observe his procedure. He got the contents of all six vials completely wrong. He examined the vials and pointed out that they had labels in red ink, whose vibrations confounded the instruments. The investigators gave him the vials again with less offensive labels, and he still got the contents all wrong.
The results were published in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and led to a predictable "flame war" in the letters pages of the magazine between advocates and critics. The investigators continued their work. Abrams offered to "cooperate" with the investigators, but he always begged off when they stipulated conditions he didn't like. Abrams never actually participated in the investigation, and in fact in ERA publications he tried to paint himself as a victim of unjust persecution.
Then an AMA member sent a blood sample to an Abrams practitioner, and got back a diagnosis that the patient had malaria; diabetes; cancer; and of course syphillis, presumably bovine syphillis. Actually, the blood sample was from a Rock rooster. Similar tricks were played on other Abrams practitioners, and a few found themselves facing fraud charges in court. This was what the critics had been waiting for, since in a case in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Dr. Albert Abrams was called to be the star witness. Dr. Abrams managed to avoid appearing in court, however, by the effective if somewhat drastic measure of dying of pneumonia at age 62 in January 1924. The fact that his machines hadn't been able to cure him was not lost on the critics.
With Dr. Abrams gone, the AMA then publicly opened up one of his machines. Its internals consisted of nothing more than wires connected to lights and buzzers and so on. It was a prop, and it wasn't very a very good prop at that. It was clear that Dr. Abrams was a deliberate fraud.
The fad was over, but as long as there was a buck to be made, other people moved into the vacuum and built devices based on similar principles, such as they were. None would achieve the remarkable stature of those of Dr. Albert Abrams, who the AMA said "easily ranked as the dean of twentieth-century charlatans."
* Although Lustig and Abrams were clearly scoundrels, the greatest art conman of all time, Han van Meegeren, ended up being a hero. He'd never planned on being a hero, but he cheated all the right people at the right times.
Van Meegeren's life was linked to that of the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who died in 1675. Vermeer had not been particularly famous until around the beginning of the 20th century, and only about 40 of his works had survived. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies came upon a salt mine in Austria where the top Nazis had hidden works of art they had plundered from the occupied countries of the Reich. The military brought in art experts to ensure that the treasures were properly handled, identified, and repatriated. Among the treasures were artworks from the collection of Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering. Goering's collection included a Vermeer that none of the experts were familiar with, and investigation traced it back to a Dutch citizen who was running a nightclub in Amsterdam named Han van Meegeren.
The Dutch authorities pegged him as a collaborator when he could not explain the origins of the Vermeer, and arrested him in May 1945. Van Meegeren was potentially in very serious trouble, as he could be charged with treason, which carried the death penalty. After several days of intense interrogation he told them the authorities the truth, which they did not believe at first: He had painted the Vermeer himself.
* Exactly how van Meegeren became a fraud is an interesting story, because he didn't do it for the money, at least not at first. He had been born in Holland in 1889, and had developed skills as a painter and a strong interest in the Dutch classic painters. His father violently opposed his work as a painter, but Han van Meegeren had a passion for it and could not be swayed from his life's work.
Still, he had chosen a difficult path. He had turned away from modern art and there was no way he could achieve recognition painting in the styles that were popular centuries earlier. He was belittled by the critics to the extent that he could no longer exhibit his work. Van Meegeren thought the local art critics were mean and ignorant, and he decided to prove it by publicly embarrassing them. Van Meegeren was intimately familiar with the painting techniques of the Dutch masters, and decided to produce a fake Vermeer. He would let the art critics praise it, and then reveal that it was a fraud, proving their ignorance. His specific target was Dr. Abraham Bredius, who was a recognized authority on Vermeer and who van Meegeren particularly despised.
Van Meegeren was a painstakingly methodical forger. The painting not only had to be executed in Vermeer's style and skill, it had to look ancient as well. Van Meegeren found a 17th-century canvas to paint on, created his own paints from raw materials by old formulas to ensure that they were authentic, and used the same kind of brushes that Vermeer was known to have used. He came up with a scheme of using phenol and formaldehyde to cause the paints to harden after application, as if they were centuries old. After completing the painting, he baked it to dry it out completely, rolled it over a drum to crackle it a bit, and later washed it in black ink to fill in the cracks.
It took van Meegeren several years to work out his techniques, and when he was done he was pleased with his work. It wasn't just that he thought it was a convincing fraud. He had always wanted to walk in the steps of the masters, and he felt that his forgery, CHRIST AT EMMAUS, was a fine work in its own right. Van Meegeren put his fraud in motion, and Dr. Bredius was completely taken in, just as van Meegeren had hoped. The Dutch art establishment was completely fooled as well, though when the painting was shown in Paris one perceptive or possibly merely cynical critic called it a "rotten fake".
Van Meegeren was enjoying this wild ride, but it was only starting. He wanted to reveal the fraud, but when he sold the fake Vermeer for the equivalent of what would now be several million dollars, he unsurprisingly had second thoughts. He had proven to his own satisfaction that the Dutch art establishment was ignorant, and that would have to do as long as he could make good money.
Between 1938 and 1945, he produced six more fake Vermeers, as well as fakes of works by Frans Hals as Pieter de Hooch. It would seem that people would have become suspicious of someone with an uncanny ability to find lost works of art after a while, but with the distractions of the war and Nazi occupation van Meegeren was able to continue his activities essentially unmolested. Since there was an active and secretive trade in artwork anyway during the occupation, his fakes could ride along with the process as parasites.
One of van Meegeren's forgeries was sold in 1942 for the 1.6 million Dutch guilders, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The last of van Meegeren's fakes was CHRIST WITH THE ADULTRESS, which changed hands a number of times and finally ended up in the collection of Reichsmarshall Goering, who handed over an outrageous sum for it. Goering wasn't too concerned about the money, however, since he paid in counterfeit currency.
* CHRIST WITH THE ADULTRESS was found in the Austrian salt mine by Allied forces, and led to van Meegeren's arrest. When he told the police that it was a forgery, they didn't believe him, and challenged him to show he could paint a copy of one of the supposed fakes. He replied that he could create an entirely new fake. He was put under house arrest, and in three weeks he painted a new forgery, THE YOUNG CHRIST TEACHING IN THE TEMPLE, under the eyes of undoubtedly flabbergasted police. The story got into the press and attracted worldwide media attention. The charge was changed to one of forgery. In the week before the trial, a poll showed he was the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the prime minister.
The trial began on 29 October 1947. Van Meegeren, then 58 and in failing health, was delighted with the show and the media attention. He really wanted to be found guilty, simply as confirmation that he was a master forger. The art experts didn't want to testify, since it would confirm they had been duped, but a committee was put together to investigate the forgeries.
Van Meegeren knew his paintings would be X-rayed to see what was painted on the old canvas underneath, and he told the committee what they would find. They did so, and after only two days on trial, van Meegeren was found guilty of forgery. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
His health was so bad, however, that he went to a clinic instead of prison. He died on 29 December 1947. Although van Meegeren may have not been much of a role model, he had walked in the steps of the Dutch masters as he had always wanted to do; made a fortune for himself in trying times; made fools of the art establishment that had reviled him, and who nobody else liked; even tricked the Nazis; become an international celebrity and a national hero of sorts; and then made an exit effectively unscathed. All in all, a person could do a hell of a lot worse.
* Except for the half-penny frauds who send me email or call me on the phone, I've only met one blatant confidence artist in my life. When I was living in the state of Oregon, I met a woman who was a professional hypnotist. The truly baffling thing about this woman was that she was at one time both a complete charlatan and completely sincere. She honestly believed she was trying to help people even though she was an obvious fraud, and not even very good at it. I could not believe she actually fooled anyone.
She left town after a while. I think people like that can't stay in one place too long. I've had a few other acquaintances who had some unusual New Age leanings, but these people were hardly confidence artists. I just considered their passions on a level with, say, unorthodox religious beliefs, and deserving of the same level of cautious tolerance.
* This document is mostly a set of notes from a TV special program, THE WORLD'S GREATEST SCAMS, hosted by noted magician and debunker James "The Amazing" Randi, and an installment of the History Channel's IN SEARCH OF HISTORY program on Charles Ponzi. Finding other materials on such an obscure topic has proven difficult, but I was able to flesh out the section on Dr. Albert Abrams with one article:
I hope to learn more about interesting con artists in time, and if I do, I will be sure to expand this document.
* Revision history:
v1.0 / 01 oct 00 / gvg
v1.1 / 01 nov 00 / gvg / Minor cleanup and update.
v1.0.2 / 01 jan 02 / gvg / Minor cosmetic update.
v1.0.3 / 01 jan 04 / gvg / Minor cosmetic update.