Bernard Madoff, A Con Man for Our Times

The New York con is reminiscent of history's notorious art forgers.

By + More

Jonathan Lopez is the author of The Man Who Made Vermeers, a biography of the art forger Han van Meegeren.

"It's all just one big lie..." Those were the words that Bernard Madoff reportedly used 12 weeks ago when he explained to his sons Mark and Andrew that the family's money management business was nothing more than a giant Ponzi scheme.

But Madoff, who pleaded guilty on Thursday to 11 felony counts, including securities fraud, money laundering, and perjury, could easily have been describing much else that has gone wrong in the conduct of America's financial affairs over the last few years—liar loans, toxic debt, bogus credit ratings, an orgy of heedless spending, in both the public and private sectors, facilitated by borrowed money that will someday have to be paid back—the whole sorry, sordid mess.

Writing in Slate, Chadwick Matlin observed that Madoff is a monster whose villainy fits the Zeitgeist. His handiwork inspires anger and disgust in people who never knew him and were never harmed by him because it is easier and more cathartic to hate Bernard Madoff than to hate a credit-default swap or a multitude of hapless, greed-besotted bankers who managed to shoot themselves, as well as the world economy, in the foot.

Truly great swindlers often seem to capture the spirit of their times, perhaps because their métier requires them to understand and prey upon people's fondest hopes while blending anonymously into the background. Holding a lens and a mirror to the world, a con man must strike the perfect balance between what people want to perceive and what he wants them to believe.

Art forgers, for instance, do not necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which they imitate the distant past but upon their ability to sway the contemporary imagination. Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long dead artist, they tend to incorporate the visual culture of their own times. Most people can't perceive this: they respond intuitively to that which seems familiar and comprehensible in an artwork, even one presumed to be centuries old. It's part of what makes fakes so seductive.

Indeed, the notorious Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren made an enormous fortune before and during World War II, duping everyone from Andrew Mellon to Hermann Goering with fakes that not even a complete layman could ever take seriously today. Mellon's two pseudo-Vermeers, in storage at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, now look terribly dated—like a strange cross between 1920s society portraiture and real 17th-century Dutch pictures. And Goering's Vermeer, more startlingly, mixes the Delft master's style with Nazi Volksgeist art.

Much like Bernard Madoff, Van Meegeren cloaked his crimes behind a scrim of respectability. The forger exploited the aura of greatness surrounding Vermeer to distract the wealthy and the learned from what ought to have been fairly obvious deceptions. Madoff, a pillar of the community, with close ties to the worlds of philanthropy and charitable foundations, gave the appearance of doing good while he did well, although, in truth, he did neither, as his clients have since discovered to their sorrow.

Van Meegeren managed to pull off one deception that even Madoff could never match: he transformed himself into a folk hero in the popular imagination. Although he was an avid Nazi sympathizer who did propagandistic artworks under his own name for the German occupation government of the Netherlands, gave large sums to Nazi causes, and once even sent an admiring note to Hitler as a token of esteem, Van Meegeren has gone down in history as the man who swindled Goering, a merry scamp who got the better of the number two man in the Nazi Party hierarchy.

In truth, swindling Goering had been mere happenstance—the result of a middleman's mistake, not of Van Meegeren's cunning. At the end of the war, however, the thought of Goering as Van Meegeren's fool was far too amusing for the public to let technicalities get in the way.