Date: c. 1502
Technique: Oil on wood, 53 x 65 cm
There are five versions of this painting and one engraving, but most experts believe the most reliable copy is part of the collection of the Musée Municipal in St.-Germain-en-Laye, which is kept locked in a safe and loaned out on a limited basis for special exhibitions in France and abroad. On 1 December 1978 the painting was stolen from the museum and returned on 2 February 1979.
Bosch depicts how people are fooled by lack of alertness and insight, creating a "spellbinding tension" that reappears in his later paintings. The conjurer on the right of the image captures his apt and diverse audience with a game of cups and balls. The central character and true focus of the image is the man of rank in the forefront who leans in and is fixed on the pearl in the conjurer's hand while unaware of being relieved of his money purse. Bosch associates the conjurer as a common criminal, luring in the prey.
Animals are used in the painting to symbolize human traits that allow for deception and victimization. The little owl from the basket at the conjurer's waist signifies his intelligence. Frogs jumping out of the mouth of the central character represent the extent to which the victim let go of reason and gave in to animalistic impulses.
The child engrossed in our victim and the man stealing the money purse seems to exemplify the Flemish proverb: "He who lets himself be fooled by conjuring tricks loses his money and becomes the laughing stock of children." Another Flemish proverb, published and widely distributed ca 1480 in Bosch's hometown of 's-Hertogenbosch about the time of this painting, is: "No one is so much a fool as a willful fool." Bosch had used other proverbs as the basis of his painting, such as the "The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can" for his painting, the Hay Wagon.