There's a crook operating in the shadows of the antiquities market. He's known as The Spanish Master, and his clever forgeries have earned him tens of millions of dollars. Who is this elusive figure, and how has he been allowed to thrive undetected among the art world elite? The new documentary The Mystery Conman travels from Europe to the United States in search of answers.
On the trail is German archeologist Stefan Lehmann. He's shown in the midst of a meticulous investigation, combing through auction house inventories, and examining every nuance for evidence of fakery. In some instances, the discrepancies are apparent. The facial features on classical busts depicting figures like Caesar and Napoleon are far too expressive, and clearly out of sync with the period in which they were supposedly sculptured. Nevertheless, apathetic dealers sell these pieces to unsuspecting collectors for massive amounts of money.
Therein lies one of the most interesting issues raised in the film. It is estimated that as many as half the items sold in the antiquities market are fakes. For many dealers and auction houses, the sale is everything, and perception can mean the difference between a million dollar price tag and a worthless piece of art. For that reason, the industry is hesitant to open a dialogue on forgeries, or to put in the proper efforts to confirm the veracity of any particular piece. That's why archeological whistleblowers like Lehmann are so essential and rare. Their investigations are often complicated by the resistance of the establishment. Targeted museums and auction houses are not above threatening legal action against these crusaders.
The film also explores the growing market for sculptures, paintings and other antique artifacts. New wealth has increased the demand for these items, and prolific forgers are more than happy to fulfill this need. The dirty open secret is that these forgers drive the art market to a large extent, and their demise would be felt all the way to Wall Street.
At its most basic level, though, The Mystery Conman also works as a fascinating detective story. In every respect, the film is absorbing and informative.