Foreign Parasites and Their Prey

Vance Thompson in the Broadway Magazine September 1 1908

Foreign Parasites and Their Prey

Vance Thompson in the Broadway Magazine September 1 1908

Foreign Parasites and Their Prey

How Rogues, Tricksters and Swindlers Innumerable Make Dupes of Multi-Millionaires and the Newly Rich While Abroad by Selling Them Alleged Heirlooms and Works of the Old Masters at Fabulous Figures—Many Ingenious Ways of Separating Visitors From Their Cash.

Vance Thompson in the Broadway Magazine

OF all men the American is the most guileless. On his own ground he is master of himself and of his possessions. Indeed he is fearsome and predatory. But once abroad in the world

strangers may do as they will with him. Red-shirted mountaineers sell him gold mines; farmers jockey him in horse trades; French noblemen marry his daughters out of hand; and the rogues of the world, great and small, play with him as little children play with a lamb tied up in ribbons.

You would not fancy—no one who had met him would fancy—that Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan was in any sense of the word guileless. It is not the general impression. And yet innumerable rogues, tricksters, swindlers, forgers of one sort and another teach their children to bless the name of [Morgan nightly before being tucked into their beds. And other American millionaires. One and all they have paid tribute to the rogues of the Old World. It is not that our rogues are better than yours ; but the American money-getter goes outside of his legitimate business when he meets in the way of trade the suave dealer in spurious antiques or forged paintings. \\ hen [\Ir. Morgan goes forth to buy wonderful broidered tapestries of Spain—“once the property of the Bourbons”—he invites disaster. Those castles in Spain (where the tapestries come from) are too far away from Wall Street. And it is a rule, immutable and melancholy, that the New Yorker, or, for that matter, any astute American, is wise in the ways of men only so long as you keep him corralled among his kind on that island, river-girt, triangular, and imperial. When he fares abroad he is clad in guilelessness as in a garment ; and therefore the rogues thrive.

One might tell many tales of mighty men who have been thrown—like a worm in an ant-hill—to the rogues of Paris. Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite fair. They paid ransom to oblivion. And yet Paris faiidy swarms with sophisticated folk—with deadly criminals— who live on the fear and folly of those who have walked unscathed in Broadway for half a lifetime. How shall you know them? That were hard to say. I think, at the moment, of a rogue who has made many victims. He lives in one of the fashionable hotels. He has a wife. He once had respectable kin. He is a forthcoming, accessible, and courteous man. You would not hesitate to dine with him. Why should you? And yet this man is lean and dangerous as the guillotine. Robbery is his pastime ; some day he will add murder to it—and then we shall see him no more. In the meantime he has half devoured more than one innocent little wolf from Wall Street. Ile is a solitary, this rogue, he works alone —and single-handed the other night (a revolver in the single hand) he took from a Middle West publisher more than that good man dreamed of spending in many years. One may beat a lone rogue or run away from him. The “gangs” are deadlier.

At this hour there are probably twenty bands of “confidence” men in Paris. They are made up of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Englishmen. Well dressed, amiable, good talkers, they haunt the best hotels, the theatres, and the American bars. Usually they know some one that you know, for they are well traveled and have seen the world. Of course their methods vary. The “game” most popular at present was invented about fifteen years ago by a thief known as “Glass-Eye Alfred.”

He made over two hundred thousand dollars out of it in ten years or so; then he went to prison for a short term. He will be out this summer, and though he is seventy-two years old, he will find plenty of work in his curious trade.

This is “Glass-Eye Alfred’s” trick:

You are a man of wealth and (being an American) of innocence; in your hotel or in a theatre you meet a chatty man from home. While you are hobnobbing with him a third larron comes carelessly up and is introduced. At dinner—for of course you dine—the newcomer confesses that he is a man of wealth; also his uncle has just died leaving him a fortune of which a certain portion—say twenty thousand dollars—is to be distributed to the poor. Doubtless, too, he will add that he is on his way to Rome in order to give some of the money to the Pope. Need I tell you what happens? He asks you to distribute part of the money in gifts to the deserving poor of your acquaintance. But are you a man to be trusted? As a test of confidence you are asked to hand over a few thousands to the chatty man from home, who first made your acquaintance.

Too simple, you say?

Too simple by far if you are sitting in a Broadway cafe, with the noise of that thunderous thoroughfare, in your ears. ’Tis a different thing in Paris. You would be wholly convinced of it could I mention the names of some of the men who have fallen into the trap. One victim, who made no concealment of the matter, was Mr. James Rice, of Columbus, Ohio. The buccaneers got from him $5,000, his diamond ring, his watch and chain. One of the swindlers was caught and convicted. Usually the victim prefers to say nothing and pocket his loss. There was a man from South Africa who lost $60,000 in this wicked game of Glass-Eye Alfred’s devising.

He was a stranger and they took him in.

Thieves, swindlers, bullies with revolvers —even the ingenuous Broadwayfarer may escape them; but there is a fearsome person. You have met him in Naples; a prassophagian rogue. He has whispered you of a marvelous little statuette in Terre-cuite of Tanagra—a Drunken Silenus, a Young Girl Mastering a Bull—and only $600.

And you bought it; it stands in your cabinet to-day ; you could have had it at the

Neapolitan shop round the corner for precisely $1.20, neither more nor less. It is at Naples, too, that one buys the amphoras, the Etruscan vases with Homeric paintings; forgeries all; and forgeries so clever that both the Louvre and the Berlin museums have exhibited them as veritable antiques. Only a few years ago the Baron' Edmond de Rothschild bought $60,000 worth of these Neapolitan trinkets, which had been “dug up at the foot of Mount Vesuvius”—if you please. It is no wonder that the less-tutored American is victimized. And it is my business here to point out the commonest rogueries of this sort; a serviceable business I aver; for in these days everyone comes to Europe and everyone “collects”—if it be only postage stamps or hotel labels.

Apropos : you have seen the home-coming suitcase spangled with labels of various great hotels from Petersburg to Palermo; it’s a ten-to-one shot even these labels were false—you may buy them by the score in London ; they are even given away with the popular English magazines. A deceptive world !

There is a tremendous trade these days in armor. He is indeed a poor millionaire who has not taken home the metal fighting shell of a Crusader ; now it is exactly true that there is not one genuine suit of mail in the United States. There are two in the Metropolitan Museum of New York (so rich in fraudulent works of art) and both of them-are false. Their history is interesting. One was made by the elder Randcar out of a few ancient scraps of armor, while the other was vamped up out of a few fragments of the famous suit of armor once in possession of Sir Horace Walpole which was rescued from the fire and bought for a few dollars. It was Zerspit who tinkered up this thing of lead and white metal at which you have so often reverently stared. Some day I shall write the romance of these venerable frauds.

Do you remember the “Luther autographs” discovered a few years ago? Many of them crossed the Atlantic to keep company with the “Dickens manuscripts,” the letters of Madame do Pompadour, of Louis XVI., of Lafayette, of Byron and Walter Scott. Germany is the headquarters of this sort of fraud, but they do them very well in Paris, too. Photographic processes have brought the “historic, authentic autograph

letter" of any celebrity you please within the means of the humblest traveler.

Of old the antiquary lay in wait for you in a dingy shop—shallow and malodorous, it was like a hawk's nest filled with bones and feathers and strips of fur and skin ; you entered defiantly or not at all. The time has changed all that. Xow you and I glide in our eight-cylindered cars along the white roads of France, dining at quaint inns, loitering in country places. And that reminds me of a Normandy inn I know ; it is by a pleasant river. Under its ancient rafters of smoky oak a half-dozen centuries have reveled, drinking deep. To-day the motorists stop there. In the dining room there was a wonderful bronze clock, ancient, superb. I admired it from afar. It might have been real. Three American ladies, whose car was purring outside the window, were enraptured. I heard them bargaining for it. The indignant proprietor refused all their offers ; it was an heirloom ; it had stood there since his great-grandfather’s day ; it had been given by a queen to her chief cook—his ancestor ; he would never part with it. Oh. shameless man, he sold it for YYmkee gold and bank notes! The proud women took it away in their car. Two days later, homing toward Paris, I dined again in the Normandy inn. And there stood the clock or his brother! Once more I saw it sold, the clock the queen had given to her cook in the long ago. And I am quite sure another one was brought down from the Paris warehouse the next day. It was an imitation worth $20 ; it had been sold for S400. You see, the antiquary has extended his web. Even the peasant aids him. The old china you buy in the wayside hameau from the honest dame who had it from her great-aunt, is false like all the rest. And the miniatures in dusty, tarnished frames? And the “pourtraicts” of Joan of Arc? It were hard to say how much of this rubbish has gone oversea in the cabin trunks of trusting Americans. We are a simple folk.

Especially when we are millionaires.

Surely you remember the eminent book lover who bought the “letter of Columbus” —the' famous letter written by Columbus to announce the discovery of America to the Catholic kings—for the modest sum of $4,500: later it was in his destiny to learn that the letter was a photogravure worth about $2.50. Simple folk.

YYars ago in a London hotel I met a little Fenchirían ; he was urgent, persuasive, and fat; in his buttonhole shone the red ribbon of the Legion of Honor; and he took me up to his rooms in the hotel and offered to sell n:e the Rembrandt of Pecq. I often think of that little rogue. He found an American to purchase that forgery for $15,000. And the American who bought it was the predecessor of hundreds and thousands of his countrymen who have been gulled in the same way. The American who travels now buys pictures. Coral souvenirs have ceased to satisfy him. And whether he buys “ancient paintings"—“smuggled out of Italy” —or modern works of art he is cheated ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

The tricks of the picture dealer?

They are not to be counted. Here is one which was played quite recently. A dealer ordered from a poor devil of an artist a tavern scene in the old Dutch style, signed in the corner with a facsimile of Jan Steen’s signature. When the smoky look of age had been given it, the dealer eyed it with approval.

“Splendid !” he said to the needy artist ; “it’s a pity you shouldn’t have the credit of it—pray sign it with your own name. It may make your reputation.”

The poor devil, delighted, painted over the signature of Jan Steen and set his own name there. Three weeks later the picture started for New York, consigned to a Fifth Avenue merchant of paintings. But by the same boat went an anonymous letter to the custom-house officials warning them that an attempt was being made to smuggle in a chef-d’oeuvre of the Dutch school, worth $40,000. The picture was seized. Experts were called in. The scraped off the signature of the poor devil of an artist and found underneath that of Jan Steen. The importer had to pay a fine of fifty per cent.— that is, $20,000; and, in addition, $8,000 duty. Three days later, however, he sold his Jan Steen (guaranteed by the United States Government) for the round sum of $50,000; thus he made a fair profit, for the original cost of the painting was $14— seventy francs paid to the poor devil of an artist.

There is a greater trade in the good school of 1830. The Atlantic liners carry over bales of Corots. False Bouguereaus go by every steamer. It is a business like any other. There are factories in Mont-

martre and Montparnasse. I can

take you — though 1 dare say you will go without taking—to a dozen places in Paris where you can buy, say, a false Daubigny for forty or fifty dollars. Were it authentic it would be worth $2,000 easily; and that is the price the artless millionaire will pay for it. Such pictures are painted by struggling art students at forty cents an hour. .Yew York is full of their work. The false Van Gorps are made in Germany; a factory turns them out by the hundred and has received for them over three hundred thousand dollars from the American sales alone. I know of one that was sold in Yew York for $850; its value was—at a liberal estimate ‘for frame and canvas—$8.50.

No; all is not well with the moneyed American whose tastes are fashionably artistic ; pitfalls beset his path and rogues lie in wait for him. Nor do 1 see how he is to be saved. Old Europe is like the woman in the tower ; ceaselessly she queries :

“Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see them coming?”

“I see a white cloud of dust on the highway, sister.”

“Joy, sister, they are coming!”

Now they are the Americans in motor cars, or, it may be, afoot.

For verily, ancient and ghoullike Europe lives upon those who come to her from overseas. Think of Paris alone. Every day of the year 6,000 visitors are registered in her hotels. Last year over fifty thousand Americans came hither, spent their money, went their ways. And ever as they went they walked among pitfalls.

There are, to be sure, guides.

They are admirable in their way ; unwearying and imperturbable, they conduct the long files of awestruck English from the Louvre to the Pantheon, from Notre Dame to Pere la Chaise. There is not a word to be said against them. It is the other kind of “guide and interpreter” who is more dangerous than Glass-Eye Alfred himself. He hangs about the door of your hotel, he waylays you on the boulevards, with his smirk and his “Want a guide today, sir?” Or he comes upon you out of the darkness as you are strolling softly home. He has a waxed mustache; his face is the color of wet plaster ; and there is a leer in his eye. The unjust laws of France

do not permit you to beat him about the ears, without paying a heavy fine ; but even that is cheaper (and more reputable) than seeing Paris in his company. Fie will lead you into places you should not visit; then he will blackmail you—if you have reputation to lose—for having visited them. In any case he will leave you lighter of pocket and heavier of heart.

There is an element of the miraculous in the safety with which the Americans, from many cities and villages, walk the mined pavements of Paris, losing at most a little money, an occasional reputation. It might be so much worse. Sham aristocrats, sham “friends from home,” adventurers and adventuresses de haut parage come from all the capitals of Europe to ambush them at every corner. Roguish tradespeople live but to rob them. Even the foxy peasant has his share. But one thing is true: Unless the wayfarer, greed-bitten or follyloose, collaborates with the rogue, nothing very serious can happen to him.

Many a time I have wakened in the night to wonder over the adventure—was it adventure—of the man who came to Paris with a pretty bride. He was a Princeton man, by the way, and that fact may recall to your mind the tragic story. He had lived in Paris a number of years. For his wife he had proposed a home in the Avenue des Champs Elysees. A few days after their arrival they were sitting there in pleasant society, American and French. A letter was put into his hands. He read it with perceptible trouble of mind.

The carriage was ordered. He bade the coachman drive to Saint Denis. There he dismissed him, telling him to go home. That was all. The next day his wife went to the police. The third day a garde-chasse in the forest of Fontainebleau discovered the body of a dead man under a heap of leaves. It was that of the young bridegroom ; there were three balls in the back of his head— and neither his money nor his jewelry had heen taken.

I do not explain it: it never was explained ; and with all its mystery it may stand for the eternal symbol of what waits—just round the corner—for every traveler in a strange land. For neither you nor I know what may happen when we receive a letter and, ringing the bell, order out the carriage.