The art world has long been vulnerable to deception, and the last decade has been filled with instances of fraud and scandal. From the parade of forgeries that came to light in the aftermath of the Knoedler gallery’s collapse, to gallerist Mary Boone going to prison for tax fraud in 2018 and, more recently, Inigo Philbrook swindling buyers out of more than $20m before going on the lam and finally being apprehended on a remote Pacific island, there have been many cases of individuals taking advantage of the art world’s opaque rules and codes. But few scandals have caught the mainstream's attention quite like that of Anna Sorokin, who under the alias Anna Delvey managed to infiltrate the art world’s upper echelons and con many influential figures between 2013 and 2017. That headline-grabbing saga is now the subject of a Netflix miniseries, Inventing Anna, which was released earlier this month.
The fictionalised account of Delvey's cons, told over nine episodes in the Shonda Rhimes-produced series, offers an exaggerated version of events while also trying to paint the story’s anti-hero as some kind of feminist martyr. One of the show’s biggest missteps is its failure to unpack the white privilege that Delvey no doubt benefited from as she duped and deceived her way through the art world. And, in typical Rhimes fashion, Inventing Anna plays up the drama while eliding key details along the way.
Over the span of five years, Sorokin grifted numerous people by claiming to be a German heiress with an inheritance of upwards of $60m. She was prone to racking up huge bills at fancy hotels where she often lived for weeks or months at a time, hosting lavish nights out bankrolled with faulty financial information and making countless promises to pay people back. Her carefully crafted narrative began to come undone when she convinced art collector Michael Xufu Huang to pay her way to the 2015 Venice Biennale, and when she promised to take friends on an all-expenses-paid trip to Morocco (which one of them ultimately paid for).
Inventing Anna cuts between the events that led up to Sorokin (Julia Garner) being caught and scenes focused on journalist Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky), who is working at a fictional version of New York magazine—one of the publications whose coverage helped put Sorokin on the map—and scheming to convince her editor to let her cover the trial. As the show unfolds, it becomes apparent that Inventing Anna isn’t just about Sorokin, but that her and Kent’s stories are seemingly more intertwined than we realise. This part of the narrative is based in some truth, and borrows from the reporting of Jessica Pressler, who covered Sorokin’s trial in 2019 for New York and profiled her, helping to build a cult following and widespread fascination that helped cement her celebrity outlaw status. Pressler consulted on the show, so the behind-the-scenes portrayals of the reporting process do have a realistic tenor. (She also wrote an article that became the basis of the 2019 movie Hustlers, based on a ring of sex workers who robbed their wealthy clients.)
Inventing Anna posits Kent and Sorokin as foils for one another, but too much effort is spent on setting up the journalist’s backstory and motivations rather than fleshing out Sorokin and showing how she was able to swindle so many people for so many years. Only one later episode is dedicated to Sorokin’s backstory. The real-life fraud that unfolded at the highest levels of the art world is hardly a part of the series.
Instead, Sorokin becomes a stand-in for the pervasive white privilege and entitlement for which the art world is known. While Sorokin’s grifting did take place in many wealthy circles, the art world isn’t as prominently featured as you might expect. There is a scene devoted to Cindy Sherman's groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills series (1977-80) as it is being sold at an auction. Sorokin convinces a buyer who is considering another piece that the only thing “worth a damn” is the Sherman work; when the buyer tries to discount her opinion, Sorokin states, “This isn’t dress up. This is bravery.”
In that moment the show seems to be drawing a parallel between Sorokin’s grifting and the revolutionary work Sherman produced in that period, which attempted to flip the male gaze while also providing a larger commentary on gender. The Sherman piece is seen later on in that episode, and although there are mentions of and references to the elite art club for which Sorokin is trying to secure financing, and glimpses of a few sculptures, that is the extent of the show’s art references.
Inventing Anna does seem to get the 2019 trial right, though, coverage of which was heavily focused on Sorokin’s outfits. Her lawyer famously hired a stylist for the trial, and the series recreates some of the looks, which at the time were so infamous as to be the subject of dedicated Instagram accounts.
Over the course of a month-long trial, the truth behind Sorokin's scams came out. She had stolen a private jet and conned banks, hotels and people she knew out of $200,000 dollars. This was happening at the same time she was attempting to secure a $25m loan to bankroll an elite art club she intended to create. But as people would eventually realise, Sorokin was none of the things she claimed to be. She was ultimately charged with theft of services and grand larceny and was given a sentence of four to 12 years. She served two years at Rikers Island and a year and a half at Albion Correctional, both in New York. In February 2021 she was released for good behavior.
Sorokin is currently being held in a detention center as she faces deportation for overstaying her visa (though not an heiress, she really is German). Netflix paid her a reported $320,000 for the rights to her story, but due to the terms of her incarnation she was ordered to use the funds to help pay back what she owes. In some ways Sorokin’s story has become something she and those who wrote about her can profit from. In addition to Pressler's role consulting on Inventing Anna, HBO has its own version of the Sorokin saga in the works with a script that is being adapted by Lena Dunham from the tell-all book by Vanity Fair writer Rachel Deloache Williams, who was the first to report on Sorokin’s scams.
The Netflix series does not offer any new insight into Sorokin’s crimes, only a tacky and tone-deaf portrayal of how she inserted herself into some of the most powerful and fashionable circles in New York City. Inventing Anna attempts to make her sympathetic while validating her get-rich-quick scheme and portraying her victims as fickle and oblivious. It attempts to get viewers simultaneously on the side of the reporter and the scammer. What could have been an exciting and interesting look into Sorokin’s character and motivations was instead turned into a salacious story that gets bogged down in the wrong details and is not relevant to the cultural moment.
- Inventing Anna is now available to stream on Netflix.