The art of the steal: when con men ruled Istanbul

The art of the steal: when con men ruled Istanbul

Joshua Bruce Allen
December 16, 2016

In our time, movies such as Catch Me If You Can or Ocean’s 11 have shown that fictional con men can make more money in the cinema than the real ones do on the street. But public consciousness of con men goes back farther than we might think, in fact to a man named William Thompson in 1840s New York. This well-dressed gentleman would approach rich strangers and gain their trust, asking whether they had enough “confidence” in him to loan him a watch. And thus the “confidence man” was born. Artist Burak Delier is now shining a light on the con men of Turkey and the world, asking what they say about the notions of law and transgression in our society.​

Burak Delier - Free Society of Fools and Crooks. Photo by Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu

Delier’s exhibition space takes the form of an-old fashioned social club, complete with a velvet curtain across the entrance, dark green walls, wooden furniture, and a chandelier. This is his Free Society of Fools and Crooks, an exhibition that will be on display at Pilot Gallery until January 1.​

The politics of illusion

“What I’m referring to by ‘society’ is not just our society today, but all the societies of humanity … Since people first created or made up a language, a history, an identity, we have been crooks. At its most basic, they are ways of dealing with death. Why do we have an identity as Turks or Englishmen, for example? Because you as an individual are mortal, but Turkishness and Englishness go on into infinity,” Delier told The Guide Istanbul. “Then there are finer things, such as profit or interest. As far as I’m concerned, they are completely fictional. Take the issue of global warming. They say that the economy is growing, we’re earning profit, we’re investing that profit somewhere else, and it grows more. But the world is telling you that there’s no such growth.”​

One of the points of inspiration for the exhibition was a quote from Turkish swindler Sülün Osman, who said, “I haven’t conned anyone who wasn’t trying to con me.” Delier discovered this quote while making a series of faux-motivational posters in 2014, which sparked two years of research into the philosophy of fraud. Delier’s work “Twisted” in the exhibition turns this quote into a tongue twister, which he has sewn around the edge of an oversized tie. ​

Burak Delier - Free Society of Fools and Crooks. Photo by Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu

One wall of the exhibition space displays portraits of local and foreign con men and women, along with short accounts of their lives. While some of them took advantage of gullible people on the street, others were more like modern-day Robin Hoods – except rather than bows and arrows, their weapon was the human imagination. In 19th-century England the servant Mary Baker, unable to find work, made herself a turban and pretended to be Princess Caraboo from an Indian island called Javasu. A rich family believed her and took her into their home, supporting her financially even after someone revealed the hoax. Baker had a brief stage career as Princess Caraboo in New York and London, before marrying and resuming a normal life.​

Delier sees Baker’s alter-ego – Princess Caraboo – as a revolutionary fiction that she used to resist the dominant fictions that are imposed on us from above. “The ‘father’ creates the law. But then the father can say, ‘There is an urgent situation at the moment, so the laws will not be applied,’ and he escapes above the law. The con man, on the other hand, escapes from under the law,” he says.​

“The Galata Bridge is mine”

Thinking of Istanbul, one of Delier’s most resonant works is inspired by the tricks of Sülün Osman, a con man operating in the 1950s and 1960s. Osman became an urban legend by “selling” parts of the city, such as the Galata Bridge, Galata Tower, tramways, and public ferries, to people on the street. When the government announced plans to privatize the Galata Bridge in 1983, the Milliyet newspaper interviewed Osman on the subject. “Selling bridges is my job. They can’t sell it without asking me. This kind of sale isn’t like selling tomatoes. All the bridges know me,” he commented. The article also claims that Osman even took a “talking tax” from the journalist who interviewed him.​

Delier has recreated Osman’s famous bridge trick in a video work, “Author as Swindler". Dressed in the kind of 1960s suit that Osman wore, Delier filmed himself trying to sell the bridge to passersby. After explaining the story behind it, he asked them questions: Whose is the bridge? Can it be sold? Who is the public? Who is the state? “What I said was, the people who walk on the bridge, those who take photos of it and share them, those who recreate it, the bridge belongs to all of them. The bridge has been there for almost 200 years, so its value as a cultural treasure can’t be calculated in numbers. That’s why it’s really public property,” says Delier.​

However, Delier is not the first person to repeat the Galata Bridge trick. In fact Osman himself copied the trick from another con man, Eyüplü Halit, who operated in the 1930s. Perhaps we should not be surprised that there is no copyright among thieves.

(photos by Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu)