Art Market

The U.S. government is looking for the owner of a Jean Dubuffet painting left behind by a fleeing art swindler.

Christy Kuesel
Oct 10, 2019 4:12PM, via U.S. Department of Justice

Jean Dubuffet, Site avec 5 personnages , 1981. Via U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is looking for the rightful owner of a Jean Dubuffet painting seized from the collection of notorious art dealer and swindler Michel Cohen. The painting—Site avec 5 personnages (1981)—is one of Dubuffet’s late canvases. Cohen left it with a New York dealer in 2001 to try to sell it, unsuccessfully, and it was subsequently deposited with the FBI.

By the time he tried to sell the Dubuffet, Cohen had conned members of the New York art world out of $50 million by putting artworks on the market that weren’t his to sell. He was indicted for wire and mail fraud in 2003, and was arrested in Brazil that same year. He escaped shortly thereafter, and disappeared for 16 years. He was tracked down by a documentary filmmaker, whose film about Cohen, The $50m Art Swindle, came out earlier this year. To this day, Cohen insists he only sold paintings on loan to him, and that he never stole anything outright.

Site avec 5 personnages was the property of Dubuffet’s estate before being sold to a collector in Asia in 1993. Records of it are scant until 1996, when it came into Cohen’s possession. A U.S. Attorney’s Office press release notes: “Similar paintings from this series have sold at auction in recent years for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” According to the artnet price database, Dubuffet’s auction record is $24.8 million, set at Christie’s in New York in 2015.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement:

Michel Cohen fled the United States rather than face charges that he used others’ expensive artworks to defraud his numerous victims. With this civil action, we ensure that a valuable painting that he left behind when he fled will end up with the rightful owner.
Christy Kuesel