A popular TV genre for many people my age, is true crime but for me, the gore and horrific nature of many true crime series are too unpleasant to find interesting. Instead, my interests have turned to the intrigue and beauty of con artists’ work.
It is always mystifying how con artists carry out their mischievous swindles around the world successfully — before inevitably getting caught.
These people are not to be looked up to nor admired, but the interesting nature of their lives and how they are capable of fooling people into giving them copious amounts of money is absurd.
Two of the best documentaries that are quick and to the point cover two topics that any average Joe or millionaire could get swindled by all the same: wine and art.
The beauty of both wine and abstract art is that most people don’t have the skill or eye to determine the authenticity of the product. Also, wine and art are subjective if someone is not a master sommelier or artist.
Both the documentaries begged the interesting question about the swindler-swindled dynamic: The swindled individual subconsciously wants to be a part of something larger than themselves and in turn believes the con to achieve that end, which helps the swindler continue deceiving.
“Sour Grapes” is the first documentary I saw a few years ago, and I recommend it to people all the time. As you can guess, this is the documentary that tells the story of a conman who sold around $35 million in fake wine in the early to mid-2000s until he was caught by the counterfeit wine stains. To be clear, he wasn’t selling fake wine; it was real. But the thousand-dollar bottles that were being sold by Rudy Kurniawan were not from the region, vineyard or year that the labels claimed them to be. He was simply mixing wines and refilling bottles with fake labels to sell as rare vintages.
Kurniawan was described as a young, Gatsby-esque character that entered the wealthy wine auctioneering and tasting scene to gain familiarity in that community before selling his false wine to his peers and other wealthy individuals. It was clear that some of the people who trusted Kurniawan to be their friend believed his innocence following a guilty conviction. The people that supported him were adamant his wines were authentic.
The people who were duped followed the proposed theory of swindler-swindled; they wanted to be in on the con and have something more rare than others, even if it is false. Eventually, the FBI entered his house with a warrant to find wine bottles soaking in the sink to cleanly remove labels, and notebooks full of experimentation about how wines tasted when combined. The con was over.
Even if you aren’t a fan of wine or con men, it’s still an interesting story about the rise and fall of a man, and how people stood by him when the truth came out.
A more recent documentary, “Made You Look” on Netflix is centered on the Knoedler Gallery in New York City and how it sold more than $80 million in fraudulent paintings from the 1950s-1960s American abstract era. The curator at the gallery, Ann Freedman, maintains her innocence that she unknowingly was selling fake paintings.
Behind the scenes, there was a counterfeit artist creating replicate works in the abstract styles of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, and signing them as such. This con is different from “Sour Grapes” because professionals and art galleries accepted the counterfeit works into their collections, whereas master sommeliers smelled the fallacy of the wine.
The approval of professionals only emboldened Freedman into thinking the paintings were real, allowing her to sell more paintings for millions of dollars each. One of Freedman’s biggest arguments is that anyone who bought the counterfeit paintings from her didn’t ask any questions about their authenticity until later. That statement correlates with the theory that the swindled want to be a part of the most famous American artists movement.
Both of these documentaries are interesting because they’re begging the question of why and how people believed the stories they bought into. If you’re interested in crime but not the gruesome nature of most criminal cases, take a look into the world of con artists.
These two documentaries are a easy programs to ease yourself into understanding the art of a con.