“If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.”
—Elmyr de Hory
If you’ve seen Orson Welles’ late period quasi-documentary F for Fake, then you know about the mysterious art forger Elmyr De Hory. In his freewheeling cinematic essay, Welles explored the funhouse mirror life of de Hory, who found that he had an uncanny knack for being able to paint convincing counterfeits of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir’s work. After some of his fakes were sold to museums and wealthy collectors, suspicions were raised and his legal troubles—and a life spent moving from place to place to avoid the long arm of the law—began.
At the time Welles met up with Elmyr in the early 70s, he was living in Ibiza and had already been the subject of Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time written by the notoriously fraudulent “biographer” Clifford Irving, who himself figures prominently in the film. During the course of filming F for Fake, Irving (who was later portrayed by Richard Gere in The Hoax), was serendipitously revealed to have forged his own “autobiography” of Howard Hughes (not to mention Hughes’ signature) and sentenced to jail time. The resulting film, an essay on the authorship of “truth” in art, is a dazzling, intellectually challenging masterpiece that can never quite decide if it’s a fake documentary about a fake painter of fake masterpieces who himself was the subject of a fake biographer… or what it is. (It’s no wonder that Robert Anton Wilson was such a fan of F for Fake, which figures prominently in his book, Cosmic Trigger II).
F or Fake also calls into question the nature of “genius”: If Elmyr’s forgeries were good enough to pass off as Picasso or Modigliani’s work, or even to hang in museums under the assumption that they were the work of these masters, wouldn’t Elmyr’s genius be of equal or nearly equal value to theirs? (Worth noting that it was ego that got in the way of Elmyr’s scam at several points in his life: He was often left apoplectic at hearing how much crooked art dealers were making from his forged paintings!)
He didn’t intend to become an art forger, but life during the Great Depression and WWII wore down his scruples. He was imprisoned—or so he claimed, there’s no proof one way or the other—for a time in a Nazi concentration camp for being gay and when he got out he survived by cultivating his charismatic con man skills. One of his scams was pretending to be a Hungarian nobleman selling off his family’s art masterpieces after the war. Apparently he even sold his forged art via mail order. Some of de Hory’s many known pseudonyms included Louis Cassou, Joseph Dory, Joseph Dory-Boutin, Elmyr Herzog, Elmyr Hoffman and E. Raynal.
But Elmyr himself was often on the wrong end of a con, getting ripped off by his own (equally complicit) agents and dealers. He was arrested in Mexico but managed to get off and when they couldn’t pin any other crimes on him, Spain sent him to prison for a few months for homosexuality and consorting with bad people. When Irving’s book came out, the jig, as the saying goes, was essentially up.
De Hory’s former bodyguard and driver, Mark Forgy, the author of the 2012 book The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist, has kept Elmyr’s archive since his death in 1976. In recent years Mr. Forgy has been trying to make more sense of Elmyr’s odd life locating dozens of his paintings and his birth records. From the New York Times:
He claimed that his father was a Roman Catholic and a diplomat, but the Budapest ledgers list Adolf as a Jewish merchant. The Nazis killed his entire family, Mr. de Hory said. But a cousin named Istvan Hont visited the artist’s villa on Ibiza, where Mr. Forgy was working at various times as a chauffeur, secretary and gardener. Mr. Hont, it turns out, was the forger’s brother.
Mr. Forgy knew that his boss copied masterpieces but did not much question their life on Ibiza, in which they kept company with celebrities like Marlene Dietrich and Ursula Andress. “I accepted the amazing with a nonchalance,” Mr. Forgy said in a recent phone interview. Mr. de Hory was the focus of Orson Welles’s 1974 documentary F for Fake, and Clifford Irving breathlessly titled his book Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time.
After Mr. de Hory’s suicide, Mr. Forgy returned to Minnesota. “I went into deep seclusion” working as a night watchman and house restorer, he said. He held onto the papers and paintings. “I have schlepped them around endlessly,” he said. “The walls here in the house look like the Pitti Palace in Florence.”
His wife, Alice Doll, encouraged him in recent years to examine the stacks of false passports, Hungarian correspondence and Swiss arrest reports.
On December 11, 1976, Elmyr de Hory committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills after discovering that the Spanish government had agreed to hand him over to the French so that he could stand trial on fraud charges. Naturally there was speculation that he’d faked his death to avoid extradition, but Forgy, who was there when he died, has shot this theory down. After Elmyr’s death, his paintings—both his forgeries and his own original works—became so popular that forged de Hory art appeared on the art market! Heavy meta. Former Texas governor John Connally and a partner bought 100 of his paintings and sold them to wealthy buyers in the 1980s.
Elmyr’s portrait of Clifford Irving for TIME magazine’s coverage of the Howard Hughes hoax in 1973.
Portrait of a woman in the style of Modigliani, by Elmyr de Hory
More Elmyr after the jump…