Art is what you can get away with. — Andy Warhol

Sometimes, instead of imitating life, art imitates art. This is more commonly known as forgery. If you can get away with it, I suppose you’re an artist of sorts.

Here’s a real-life story of some forgers that didn’t.

The picture on the front page of Lausanne’s local paper: a man in a suit, wearing a “scream” Halloween mask, climbing the steps to the city courthouse.  “The colorful theories of a gang of forgers,” the headline blared.

I wanted to wear a DSK mask, said Christian*, but they asked me not to be provocative…

Leonard*, aka Johnny, wasn’t as circumspect as he posed for the photographers: It’d be a shame for me to hide this handsome mug.

Christian, Leonard and five others are accused of running a forgery ring, selling at least 120 forged paintings over a five-year period, for more than 400,000 Swiss francs. It took a Lausanne detective specializing in art theft five years to unravel the mystery.

It all hung on a nail.

Christian, who is an art dealer and expert on the painter Bosshard, and Johnny, a more lowlife character, both claim to have tried for several years to convince an elderly Lausanne woman to sell the Giacometti hanging on her living room wall. She balked.

Christian had a hard-of-hearing painter friend make a copy from a Polaroid (I told him not to work too hard on it, and it’s a terrible copy), in the hope of offering it to the woman so that she would agree to sell the original. With the copy, he argued, her wall wouldn’t be bare. No go. She still won’t sell.

So they move to plan B. A young blonde woman rings at the door, claiming that her budgie has escaped. Perhaps it has flown into the woman’s home? The woman lets her in.  She manages to get another accomplice, Bernard* (un Jenisch fauché, which translates roughly into “a thieving gypsy”), in as well, distracting the woman while Bernard exchanges the original for the copy.

But when he tries to hang the copy on the wall, the nail comes out. So he leaves it propped up against the wall and makes his getaway.

Bernard sells the Giacometti to Christian for 40,000 francs. Christian, in turn, allegedly sells it through a middleman to a Zurich gallery owner for three times that amount, in cash, the transaction taking place in the back of a car.

Meanwhile, the elderly woman isn’t totally clueless, and notices the painting is on the floor and that it is a pathetic excuse for the original. She calls the police. And everything starts to unravel.

More gems from yesterday’s paper, as the case continues to unfold:

The group’s modus operandi is to scour flea markets and salvation army-type stores, buying paintings, adding authentic-looking signatures to them, and then selling them to galleries in Lausanne and Geneva. Christian’s painter friend made forgeries of existing paintings, as well, passing them off as originals.

The court expresses astonishment that gallery owners could be so credulous.

A Braque for 4,000 francs? Don’t you find that just a tad bizarre? Then a second, and a third, and then a Fernand Léger or a Van Dongen? Next week, it’ll be, what, the Mona Lisa for ten francs?

Christian, the art expert, testified that an original Braque would sell for 70,000 to 400,000 francs. Are the gallery owners in on the scam? Sorry, but these gallery owners are “pigeons” (suckers). Are they igoramuses? I don’t know. But they should have gotten appraisals before buying these “croutes” (crusty pieces of crap). I’m not in the best position to say this, but it strikes me as dishonest and unethical on their part. 

The detective agrees. They should have known it was a racket. The prices were too low. Some of them resold the “croutes” for a tidy profit. Perhaps they should also be on trial?

On the third day, the members of the ring hurl insults at one another as the court tries to figure out who has done what, and who is the brains behind the operation.

The blonde admits only to having come up with the idea of the missing budgie.

Bernard, the “Jenisch fauché” only did it for the money, but said Christian told him where the painting was hanging.

Christian says it was Johnny who sold him the painting after it had been stolen, and he was completely unaware of the theft. During our discussion about the sale of the painting, I could tell something wasn’t quite right. 

You had a fake Buchet, too. You wanted me to sell it for you.

Leonard, aka Johnny, aka the “Jenisch sanguin” (irascible gypsy), turns out to be the ex-husband of the blonde, and keeps yelling at everyone. At Christian: One day I’m going to kick your ass. You’re a (expletive). At the deaf artist who painted the forgeries, he yells: You’re not just deaf, you’re a moron, too. 

The paper promises more to come as the trial continues on Monday.

I never read anything this colorful in the papers in the US. Real-life drama, unfolding before my very eyes! Maybe the journalists have more freedom to report on what happens in the courtroom here. Whatever the case, it makes for great reading. I’ve learned a whole slew of new words in French, too. Jenisch. Pigeon. Croute. Faussaire.

This is life! I wonder if Christian trafficked in Munch, too. The mask could be a clue…

*not their real names (I think).


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