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The Double Dealer

A week before Acquavella's money was due, he called Cohen and asked after his Picasso. Cohen promptly returned it. "I'm amazed I got it back," Acquavella says. "I think he thought I was going to make so much noise that I might have caused the whole scene to explode."

On Halloween, Michel telephoned Jean-François Gobbi, a dealer in Europe, offering a Monet, Le Repos Dans LeJardin Argenteuil, which happens to belong to the Metropolitan Museum. He said it was Nazi war plunder and that the Met had agreed to sell it for $5 million, with two thirds to go to the claimants. Michel said that he had found a buyer at $6.8 million. If Gobbi put up the dough, they would split the profit. Like most good cons, the back story -- that the painting was tainted goods -- was correct; it had been written up in the Boston Globe. Several days later, Gobbi wired $5 million to Cohen's lawyer.

On November 2, Muller Sr. arrived in Manhattan, curious about his money. Cohen put on the perfect act. "My father was received lavishly by Michel, who had his own chauffeur and apparently was taking a chartered plane to Martha's Vineyard every weekend," Muller says. "He proudly took my father to his new space."

The gallery was under construction between Fifth and Madison on 69th, alongside Cartier and opposite Porthault. Cohen chatted with the workmen. "So my father was rather impressed," Muller says. "He thought, Okay, there's no cause for concern."

Carrie Chiang of the Corcoran Group confirms only that Michel Cohenhad made an offer on the retail space, which was on the market at $300,000 a year.

"Michel had his own chauffeur and apparently was taking a chartered plane to Martha's Vineyard every weekend," Martin Muller says. "So my father was rather impressed and thought, okay, there's no cause for concern."

Meanwhile, Cohen was hard at work. On November 3, he also got Manhattan dealer Bill Beadleston to put up money for half the Met's Monet, a painting of a bridge. "At least it wasn't the Brooklyn Bridge," Beadleston says sheepishly.

Up to that point, Cohen could have been merely an overly ambitious dealer who was out of his depth. But with the scheme to sell the Met's Monet -- and the gumption to sell it Producers-style to two different buyers -- Cohen crossed the line into outright fraud.

Not that he was lessthan completely composed in public. Michel and his wife, Ulrike, along with their two children, watched the Thanksgiving parade from the Central Park West apartment of James Goodman, who has a gallery on East 57th Street. Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery was there with his kids, and neither dealer noticed anything untoward about Michel.

In mid-December, Sotheby's threatened to sue if it was not repaid. Cohen wrote two checks, one for $3.75 million, one for $1 million (he would stop payment on both in January). But on December 22, he arranged for the Richard Gray Gallery -- which happens to occupy Cohen's former space -- to deliver a $2.1 million Picasso so that he could show it to a client. Cohen never returned the painting -- or paid for it.

In the first week of January, Cohen approached the dealer Ruth O'Hara with a proposition. He could buy a Picasso in Japan for $1.9 million and sell it right away for $2.3 million.

O'Hara didn't care for the deal. "He looked a little spaced out," she says. "He was disheveled." She says she asked a friend: "Is he on drugs?"

On January 21, an art consultant visited him in his Manhattan apartment. She was startled to walk into what looked like a huge struckstage set. "The place was really, really empty!" she says. "There was no furniture. There was a dining-room table with hundreds of transparencies on it. The kids were crying, his wife was angry, and he was just scrabbling through this heap of transparencies. He was so jumpy and so nervous."

He showed up at her office a couple of days later. "He came running in and poured this group of transparencies onto the coffee table and was rummaging through them, like it was a bargain-basement sale," she says. "He kept saying, 'What about this? What about this? What about this?' "

A couple of days later, on January 23, a story -- just three dozen lines -- was posted on beneath the headline sotheby's sues malibu art dealer for $10 million. Both Michel and Ulrike were named. A few days later, Michel Cohen was gone.

The MSNBC story was read with understandably keen interest by Paul Kantor, the tart-tongued é minence grise of Los Angeles dealers, who had been Cohen's mentor. Kantor was digesting the fact that the $6 million he had recently paid Cohen made him the proud possessor of three Picasso transparencies. He called the Art Fair in Palm Beach, which both Acquavella and Beadleston were attending. Cell phones began to vibrate, faxes hummed, and e-mails blipped as dealer after dealer checked in, astounded to discover the breadth and sheer gall of Michel Cohen's swindle. The numbers ratcheted upwards. $15 million! Twenty! Thirty-two! Thirty-seven!

Michael Cohen -- he would always be Michael in California, Michel in more cosmopolitan New York -- arrived in Oakland from Paris some twenty years ago. He hustled prints -- Dali, Leroy Neiman, big-edition Picassos and Chagalls -- on the streets. "Very quickly he was selling more expensive prints," says the dealer Serge Sorokko. "He brought over his mother and sister and set them up in San Francisco. He was an amazingly hard worker. And he has a photographic memory."

Michael Cohen had charm and a knack for getting close to the well-to-do. Among his first supporters were the Galoob brothers, former toy manufacturers and collectors of twentieth-century American art, which Robert Galoob says Cohen advised them on. "He was a neat guy," says John Tompkins, whose older brother founded the clothing behemoth Esprit. "He pointed out a bunch of things for me to observe in art. And he didn't talk down to you."