My latest, in the October Atlantic.
Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty, By Modris Eksteins, Harvard University Press, 341 pp., $27.95
“People who buy pictures on the basis of authentication alone deserve to be cheated.” Julius Meier-Graefe delivered this expert opinion—a high-culture take on “never give a sucker an even break”—on the witness stand in 1932 Berlin. He was one of Germany’s best and most respected art critics—and, it turned out, a bit of a sucker himself, having fallen victim, along with other pillars of the art establishment, to a young German forger named Otto Wacker. A dancer and art dealer, Wacker had offered for sale 30 paintings attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, some of which Meier-Graefe had authenticated. His verdict had carried a great deal of weight, and the paintings sold rapidly until their poor quality began to raise doubts. Wacker was convicted at the trial and sent to prison, and Meier-Graefe’s reputation fell. But even as late as the 1980s, some people doubted what we now know for certain: Wacker was a fraud.
Prison without Walls
I have a feature in the September Atlantic about outcarceration, i.e., what we can do with criminals other than lock them up.
Someone, somewhere, is hunting for rape statistics right now, to show that nationwide in the U.S., the rate of sexual assault is lower than the rate among contractors in Iraq. I would not be surprised if that is so. There are, for one thing, far fewer women per capita to assault among Iraq contractors than among the American population at large, and it’s far more probable that a female contractor is armed or has easy access to a weapon of vengeance. On the other hand, there does seem to be a connection between gruesome crimes like this one and the climate of lawlessness and license in which military contractors operate.
A Courtroom of One’s Own
A madman had his day in court yesterday. Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic who tried to kill a security guard in 1999, appealed his conviction on grounds that the judge hadn’t let him act as his own lawyer. The Indiana court that eventually convicted him appointed a public defender after Edwards filed nonsense motions and wrote a letter addressing the judge as “old man.” (Edwards has counsel representing him on appeal.) Is it possible, the Supreme Court asked yesterday, to be too crazy to represent yourself in your own trial, but sane enough to stand trial to begin with?
A Mayflower Compact
DC’s Mayflower Hotel was grimly quiet last night, dulled by a silence befitting the undertakers‘ convention it happened to be hosting, or a wake for the political career of its most famous guest in the last month, Eliot Spitzer. In the bar, guests sank into velvet cushions and speculated loudly about what a $4300-prostitute looks like. But their conversation eventually wandered back to other matters, and before long the bar had no reminder of the Mayflower’s newest notoriety, other than a single news crew outside the window, and a CNN ticker about a “DC hotel” in the background on the TV, with sound and subtitles conspicuously off.
The big lie about Viktor Bout is that he escaped capture because he was hard to find. In recent years he did hide — the New York Times reports that during his two months in Bangkok he switched hotels often to avoid detection, landing finally at the swish Sofitel Silom — but during his previous two decades of international mischief he conducted himself with surprising openness. He didn’t get caught, because either through negligence or complicity, figures at the governmental level let him go, and let his business flourish.
GOOD magazine, issue 009 (“All You Can Eat”)
An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning a man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted. Death-row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied. The simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested. By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time. Soon after, the kidneys start rotting, and before long nothing is useful but the corneas. Even with beheading— still practiced in Saudi Arabia—the heart and lungs probably wouldn’t make it, says Douglas Hanto, chief transplant surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.