Recession careers: "Con" Artist


As millions of people sadly contemplate the job market, the criminal life is increasingly starting to look like the fastest and most enjoyable route to the American dream. The downside is that, unless one is a truly impressive thief with the ability to steal millions of dollars -- someone along the lines of a Bernie Madoff or Dick Fuld -- chances are that crime will not pay.

Luckily, however, there is another route for the dashing and criminally-minded: Art. Art doesn't require a MBA from an Ivy League school, nor does it necessarily involve creating collateralized or securitized debt. It doesn't require a gun or brass knuckles and, if played properly, can allow one to circulate among the rich and infamous for decades.

In the art world, the line between legitimate genius and con artist is sometimes almost transparent. Mark Kostabi, for example, is the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Con Artist," and revels in the fact that his assistants create most of the art that goes out under his signature. Kostabi also hosts a game show, Name that Painting, on which he lets contestants come up with titles for his works; he then awards $50 for the name that he likes the best.

Even so, Kostabi has his supporters, as does Jeff Koons, a former commodities broker cum artist whose work seems designed to undermine the very concept of art as a legitimate profession. His Puppy, for example, is a 43 foot high topiary of a West Highland Terrier, while his mylar-coated balloon dogs are mass produced and sold in "editions" to a hungry -- and disturbingly gullible -- public. Of course, the question of whether or not he is a grifter is rendered largely moot by the fact that his victims are so desperate to be fleeced.