During the 20th century, one man, a charming Hungarian aristocrat named Elmyr de Hory, threatened to take down the entire art world with his flawless forgeries. From Van Gogh to Matisse and everyone in between, de Hory was a master drawer and forger who fooled the most savvy of art critics, collectors, and museums with his immaculate fakes. TREATS! delves into the mercurial man who went by dozens of nom de plumes and finds, in a delicious twist of fate, that the master copier is now considered a “master artist” by the very community he bilked for so many years.
by Sarah Hassan
The Spanish island of Ibiza during the 1960s was an expatriate’s dream, where old money met new money with plenty of sex, style, sun and drugs thrown in. The hilly coastal terrain topped with creamy villas overflowed with olive groves and almond orchards, jaunty dirt trails leading to gorgeous estates hosting all-night parties, and sandy beaches were populated with all the young, tan, and lithe of Europe. Possessing a rustic intimacy matched by a glamorous social set, Ibiza became home to artists, writers, royalty, chic dropouts, louche scions, and ingenious scammers, including the mercurial musical duo Nina and Frederik, a Danish couple who flaunted their beatnik-meets-aristocrat lifestyle (they were also known as Baron and Baroness Van Pallandt) with great aplomb, the British actor Terence Stamp, Warhol chanteuse Nico, UK starlet Charlotte Rampling, master hoaxer Clifford Irving, the celebrated poet Irma Kurtz, and members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. And rounding out the motley gang was Elmyr de Hory, an amiable but enigmatic wealthy Hungarian artist.
On cool, moonlit weekend nights you could often find the crew gathered at Hory’s sprawling seaside villa, La Falaise, drinking wine, sampling the strong marijuana imported from Northern California, skinny dipping in the tepid waves, and exchanging worldly tales beside a massive fire pit on the beach. If they weren’t there, than they were surely imbibing at The Domino, a subterranean watering hole with a plank counter and concrete stalls, where, at high tide, the sea came up through the floor and muddied everyone’s shoes. Elmyr, who admired the island’s California-like weather and low cost of living, was an enigma to most of the island—and, on Ibiza, that says a lot. From Paris, a mysterious benefactor supposedly supplied a hefty monthly stipend that allowed de Hory to live in the most peaceful place he had ever known. From France, the mystery man would bark orders to “create” and, with the ocean breeze wafting through his windows, de Hory would comply, churning out paintings by the dozen. Ownership of La Falaise, at the age of 58, gave some sense of permanence to a life haphazardly lived, but de Hory would never have the last word, owing his constant demand to create product—and profits.
But de Hory still found hours of time a day to meticulously tell his kaleidoscopic life story to biographer—and fellow con man—Clifford Irving. The two would sit at de Hory’s kitchen table sipping wine, Champagne and munching on fresh sardines, stitching de Hory’s dazzling story together, a patchwork of adventure, mystery, secrets, money and fraudulent revelry. You see, sitting hunched over at his kitchen table, the polite and lovable man with thick glasses, a deeply tanned and creased face, was the world’s greatest art forger, a talented artist who had parlayed his uncanny drawing ability into creating bogus masterpieces of the world’s greatest artists: Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Derain. To some on the island, de Hory was known as “Herzog” while to others “Dory-Boutin,” and yet to others simply “Houry.” (He even had passports to go with each pseudonym.) Irving’s book, Fake!, was an attempt to unravel the improbable story of de Hory, a page-turning hybrid of biography, travelogue, crime story and, yes, fiction. But what de Hory or Irving, even with their colorful imaginations, could not have foresaw what was about to happen to the aristocrat art forger who had spent the better part of his hedonistic life fooling museums, art connoisseurs and wealthy patrons.
The con was up—or was it?
DRACULA, NAZIS & THE CITY OF LIGHT
In 1916, a small boy with a head of closely cropped brown hair in high-waisted summer whites posed in between his aunt and his mother (whom de Hory would later reminisce and describe as “very beautiful” and “always surrounded by men”) for a photograph in the garden of a stately country house. Both women, fashionably dressed for the period in their hats, fur-lined jackets, and striped gloves, gaze romantically into the camera; a playful glint in the boy’s eye behind them the first evidence of tomfoolery. De Hory, or “Hoffman,” as he was called during this time, was born at the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a smashing world of social engagements and cultural enlightenment, before giving way to the political uneasiness that would plague the greater first half of the century, beginning with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Black Hand in Sarajevo. Elmyr would first claim muddled aristocratic roots; his father was an Austro-Hungarian ambassador while his mother supposedly came from a long line of bankers.
At 16 de Hory, now with a romantic handsomeness to rival Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, suffered through the divorce of his parents and the fallout of the war’s end. In 1924, after studying for two years at Hungary’s famous Nagybánya art colony, a former miner’s town in the foothills of Transylvania, de Hory convinced his parents to allow him to live in Munich, where the Bavarian air suited the youth ripe with talent—and ready for teenage demimonde. He enrolled in art classes at the Akademie Heimann, where he received the strictest of education on classical art by Moritz Heimann, a demanding taskmaster who had de Hory drawing for five or six hours a day. “Drawing,” de Hory would later tell Mark Forgy, his pupil and confidante, “is the foundation of everything.”
Munich’s nightlife proved tantalizing as de Hory frequented cabarets, nightclubs, and beer houses that had him surrounded by the attractive young things of Europe. No doubt it’s here that de Hory began to awaken to his homosexual leanings, as German society was noted for worshipping at the altar of sexual abandon and artistic freedom. But it was Paris, that bohemian jewel of the continent, that held sway over the young artist, and, soon enough, a restless de Hory heeded the call of the City of Light. It was 1926, and the French language had been second nature to de Hory since childhood; the romantic tongue is practically a prerequisite for anyone opting to be born after Tolstoy’s time, and Paris proved to be a seamless transition for the darkly dashing Hungarian. He enrolled at the Acadèmie de la Grande Chaumière, founded by the heavyweight painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Fernand Leger, with whom the young de Hory formed a close relationship.
Ever diligent since his time under Heimann, de Hory honed his craft during the day, but when night fell he morphed into a charming playboy, possessing the convenient title of baron—something seemingly bestowed upon every Eastern European of the era blessed with good looks and dripping with accented charm—which opened doors to the upper echelons of French society. The three-year period that had de Hory living la vie bohème should have been the most crucial in establishing his slowly ripening talent, but the world stage had other plans for him and the whole of Europe as a sinister undercurrent began to ripple from a besotted Germany. During his last trip to Germany in 1933, Nazi flags were everywhere, uniformed soldiers outnumbered civilians, and Mein Kampf was a bestseller. His doubly secret crimes of being both a Jew and a homosexual would later land Elmyr in a concentration camp, but before he was to endure that horror, de Hory saw fit to leave the country for his own good and return to Paris.
“We were all powerless to stop it,” de Hory said of the maniacal machine Germany was building to plunge Europe into yet another devastating war. Letters from his family in Budapest began to leave much to the imagination and the rising tide of fascism within Hungary put everyone on high alert; though once returning to the city of his youth, de Hory did little to convince his family of their need to flee. The Nazis would go on to confiscate their entire estate and arrest both him and his father, whom, though a Catholic, was equally dangerous as a diplomat and deported to Auschwitz. Elmyr was detained in a more scenic, though no less terrifying prison, in the Carpathian mountains (he was allegedly convicted because his lover was a British spy) where he endured harsh winters and creepy Draculian nightmares. This would be the first of many episodes where de Hory’s talent would ultimately save his life; upon learning one of his prisoners was an artist, a commandant commissioned a portrait. Elmyr relished in the details of his captor’s medals and military flourishes creating a stunning picture, and, like a Hungarian Andy Dufrane, got to indulge in front of the wood burning stove granted only to officers. He wouldn’t be released, however, until the end of the Second World War.
Within the year of his newfound freedom, though, de Hory was arrested yet again and sent to a prison camp on the outskirts of Berlin for the Cabaret-esque crimes of homosexuality and being a Jew. Under interrogation and torture, de Hory survived a brutal beating that broke one of his legs that had him transferred to a Berlin hospital. After a cunning Midnight Express-esque escape using the coat of an absentminded doctor, de Hory “stupidly” made his way back to Hungary where he learned both his parents had been killed. His mother had confided in her son before her death that she had buried her jewelry in the family greenhouse. With help from one of the last remaining servants, de Hory sewed the loose stones into the lining of his coat and was able to obtain useless Swedish-issued papers that complemented the hidden gems, proving an effective exchange for crossing the border.
Life was no longer worry-free and doubts over his own survival would plague de Hory for years to come. He eventually made his way back to Paris—a city that had fared much better than anywhere else—with fewer gems in his pockets and even less friends among the population. Many artists had left for New York City, making the City of Light a dimmer place to be, with everything in short supply except for unwanted valuables hastily pawned off by people like de Hory.
Elmyr managed to secure a place on rue Jacob which, despite its small size, left him agonizing over the rent, much to the surprise of friends like Lady Malcolm Campbell, who made a fateful visit to his dingy digs one rainy day. After noticing a small ink drawing tacked to the wall, Lady Campbell asked him, “Where did you get that Picasso?” Elmyr, hesitant to offer just any response over the drawing that he himself had done, inquired why she thought it was a Picasso, to which his opinionated friend replied, “I know a Picasso when I see one!” This all-knowing response, coupled with de Hory’s “let’s make a deal” business technique, would mimic the exchanges between the artist and curators, collectors, and dealers for years to come. Lady Campbell offered de Hory 50 pounds sterling for the piece, which he readily accepted, only to later find out that, after his own uneasiness over duping a friend, Lady Campbell eventually sold the drawing to a London art dealer and made a handsome profit. This pattern would follow de Hory’s work like a hound on the scent; the hand-to-mouth nature of art forgery tended to make everyone else rich but the forger himself.
Yet one thing would remain abundantly certain: Elmyr, who grappled with his inability to get by on his own style and singular work, was a virtuoso when it came to the art of the copy. It would begin with a Picasso, but end with countless others. What would make him so uniquely successful was his singular ability to produce works in the style of a particular artist, rather than simply forging masterpieces; this made his copies much harder to detect. He was also a stickler for materials, using authentic period canvases, fine French paper and techniques that allowed his pieces to have a more “aged” appearance, such as staining the paper and cracking the paint to give the final work a touch of gravitas.
But one of his most successful methods, according to de Hory, was to use old art books with folio photographs. Carefully, the original photo was cut out and de Hory produced a painting in the same style and with a similar representation as the original. Then de Hory’s painting was photographed and the new photo was glued into the book as a substitute for the original one. With the actual painting in one hand and the art book in the other, very few art dealers, according to de Hory, hesitated to buy the fake painting—if the price was good.
Elmyr’s second “profession” of being Hungarian came in handy when dealers were in need of a story to go with their prospective purchases. The copies could, and often were, touted as the remains of de Hory’s aristocratic pre-war estate; everyone had a painting or catalog of work that was handed down through the ages from someone else; everyone had an aunt who knew an artist during their early days who could and did procure one of their works for a song.
RIO, LA, NYC, MEXICO TEXAS & MARILYN MONROE
Elmyr’s fetching Eastern European charm and emotional, childlike sensitivity, however, always called for someone to do the business side of his bidding, and this character flaw would provide most of the dramatic narrative for the rest of his life. Enter first Jacques Chamberlain, an unnervingly handsome and enterprising 22-year-old “friend” who saw de Hory’s endless need for cash as the perfect reason to forge a partnership. Jacques’ “fool-proof” proposition was to simply act as de Hory’s dealer, while splitting the profits 50/50, allowing them to travel through Europe practically carefree. Jacques proved to be a shrewd businessman, able to pawn off the eggs of his golden goose with ease to dealers and collectors throughout Europe all too hungry to snatch up what they believed to be the originals. His work could fetch anywhere from $400 to $2,000, enough to comfortably provide for both. Yet despite the glittering appearances of their arrangement, de Hory was quick to realize his young partner was, in fact, keeping most of the profits for himself, an easy and tantalizing sin to fall for by those who would follow in Chamberlain’s role. The eventual dissolution of their partnership saw de Hory $6,000 richer; the most money he ever had at one time. After delighting over a colorful poster, which showed a tropical paradise by the sea, the exhausted artist purchased a one-way ticket to Rio. The sandy, white-flecked beaches and tropical heat of Brazil beckoned de Hory; at 40, he was in need of something new.
Wanderlust had no cure for de Hory, however. His childhood had taught him that one’s home could be taken at any minute and that family did not guarantee stability and emotional comfort. De Hory, with his bevy of pseudonyms, was doomed à la Melmoth to roam the continents until he felt, at long last, a sense of belonging he feared would never come. After a stint in the tropics among people he found to be just as warm and fun loving as he, de Hory tried his hand at American living. On a three-month visa—which would be used for an eventual 12-year stay—he split his time between the appearance-obsessed Los Angeles, an easy town to get by in if you were dashing and foreign, and New York City (it was here in his flat in Murray Hill that Marilyn Monroe was allegedly one of his houseguests); he even made his way to Texas, where he became infatuated by the cowboy lifestyle of 10-gallon hats and bucking broncos and found some of his most avid and deep-pocketed collectors there. Yet it was the gold coast of Florida, de Hory’s own personal El Dorado, that saw his most successful sales procured by his own aggressive mail-order service based in Miami. It was, in 1955, here that he would make his most notorious and dangerous sale yet: a “Matisse” pen-and-ink drawing entitled A Lady with Flowers and Pomegranates sold to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. De Hory considered the Fogg one of the foremost institutions for the study of art in America, and their purchase was a literal gold star confirming his belief in the power of his copies to fool even the most decorated of authorities. (The story goes that The Fogg Museum’s assistant curator, Emily Rauh, later followed up to determine the authenticity of the Matisse drawings. She contacted other Matisse collectors around the country. After receiving photographs of Matisse drawings from collectors, dealers, and other museums, Rauh closely compared and examined the works for authenticity. On further investigation, de Hory’s proved to be a “fake.”)
This logic would allow de Hory to occupy a tricky moral space for years; it wasn’t his job to tell the experts what was real and what wasn’t, they were supposed to know the difference. A favorite comparison of his when confronted about his trickery was to cite that it was the problem of Tiffany’s if they were unable to tell the difference between cut glass and a diamond.
Yet, despite his numerous international successes birthed from this logic, de Hory would soon find himself in hot water. Of course, the Matisse was found out and, that same year, de Hory had sold a number of pieces to famed Chicago art dealer Joseph Faulkner, who, upon learning he had been duped, pressed charges against de Hory. A formal federal lawsuit was brought against him, driving him to live in balmy exile in Mexico.
DOOR-TO-DOOR SALES, MURDER & EXTORTION
This period would begin a never-ending battle between de Hory and numerous legal cases. In Mexico City, de Hory would try desperately to clear his name from the murder of a British homosexual; the dead man having de Hory’s number in his room, and eventually return to tactics that proved useful during his time under the Nazis. Both his counsel and the Mexican police attempted to extort money from him and de Hory paid them off with his most valuable currency—his fakes—and returned to the States. With the threat of arrest no longer looming over him just yet, de Hory was free to take in the shock and surprise of his fakes, which were now displayed in prominent galleries fetching very high prices. His mark was recognizable and, once more strapped for cash yet practically incensed by his new, silent monetary merit, de Hory began selling fake lithographs door-to-door in Washington, D.C. But de Hory became depressed during this 9 to 5 existence and attempted suicide, swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills. It would unfortunately not be his last try at a dramatic exit. De Hory was no stranger to danger and uncertainty, and the war years had done the damage to ensure that he was constantly looking over his shoulder for trouble—and cash. Though the art world had taken him under her glittering, complicated wing by embracing his fakes as bonafide, de Hory had been consistently living a dangerous double life; celebrity friends mixed with anxiety over next month’s rent; lavish apartments were left at a moment’s notice; and an unstoppable talent was met with a more meticulous eye as the copies were churned out. This created a volatile cocktail ripe for de Hory’s eventual downward spiral: meeting his darkest of associates, the uncannily Mephistophelean Fernand Legros.
A DEVIL LIKE NO OTHER
A conniving Egyptian with the features of a B-movie gangster, Legros had made a sour first impression on de Hory with his rumpled and foul-smelling suit at a party in New York City. The repulsion would eventually give way to a devilish attraction and Legros, well-versed in his own art of temptation and trickery, made de Hory an offer to be his primary dealer—an arrangement he should’ve thought the wiser of—and, ignorant to the years of pain and paranoia that would follow, de Hory accepted. De Hory chose the suits Legros would wear and told him exactly what to say when approaching curious dealers with his portfolio full of fakes. The arrangement was for them to split the profits 60/40, de Hory taking the supposed lion’s share for once.
Ambition and greed are two of the driving factors behind any successful forger but those traits existed tenfold in Legros. He became a literal wolf in de Hory’s clothing as he sold copies more deftly than de Hory knew he ever could, but not without the price of his sanity, decorum, and security. Legros, like any hot-blooded Mediterranean male, was prone to temper tantrums and public displays of embarrassment that could keep his company in stitches. He and de Hory began to bicker like jealous lovers, mostly due to Legros’ increasingly paranoid accusations, and their constant fighting over money. They peddled de Hory’s work all over the United States, stopping to take in the California sun, dine on Louisiana’s Cajun fare, and stay in Denver’s finest hotel. A sale of finely framed Impressionist art to a rich cattleman and his wife at the price of $30,000 saw de Hory finally in the black; he bought a blue Corvette on a whim in Chicago and drove it to New York where he checked into the Winslow Hotel. Legros took care of securing a new identity and fresh papers for de Hory—a task perfectly fit for any scoundrel—and, for once, de Hory thought uncharacteristically ahead. He secured a trunk at the hotel, filled it with his latest creations, and put it on consignment—lest he need money at the last minute—a commodity that would live on as the mysterious “Winslow Trunk.”
It was 1959 and, without Legros, de Hory boarded a flight for France, the closest place he could call home. Travels on the continent would take him to Italy, where he rubbed elbows with a fascinating social set that included Elsa Maxwell, wealthy patrons, and Prince Constantine of Greece. But Europe did little to quell his fears; while sitting at a cafe in Paris, de Hory watched in horror as Legros walked up from the Metro, coming straight towards him. De Hory knew Legros had been inquiring over him to mutual socialites—and now he was found. Legros wasted no time in delivering a serpent’s message: “We could still make a fortune together.”
It is somewhat to his pathetic credit, that believing of the best in people while doubly a terrible sucker for a kind word or hint of praise, that de Hory took Legros up on his offer. Easily swayed, afraid to be alone, and all too aware of his shrinking funds, de Hory allowed Legros to pick up where he left off. Things began well with Legros selling a fake Modigliani drawing and a beautiful Derain oil painting to The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. But the good times saw ominous clouds gathering offshore.
MARK FORGY: BODYGUARD, GARDENER, CHAFFEUR & CONFIDANT
From his home just south of Minneapolis, Mark Forgy, now in his early- sixties, and living with his wife, Alice, keeps de Hory’s legacy well tended to. The year 2012 has seen the publication of Forgy’s dizzying and heartbreaking memoir, The Forger’s Apprentice, and his tell-all of a tall-tale is the stuff of movie scripts. One falls eagerly down the rabbit hole as the author did in the summer of 1969, where a blonde and boyishly handsome Forgy, fresh from the Midwest and avoiding the Vietnam draft, is approached by an older resident of the swinging island of Ibiza at a local bar.
“I sensed something special about Elmyr when I spotted him that first day,” Forgy recounts. “A silver-haired man stood alone, wearing neatly pressed trousers, a cardigan sweater, open-collar shirt, ascot and Hollywood sunglasses. I approached him and asked if he spoke English. He smiled: “Like they do in Kansas City!”
Genially declining any romantic interlude, Forgy became friends with the artist and eventually moved into La Falaise, where he encounters a world that was as strange as it was common for his newfound mentor. De Hory would later become Forgy’s entire world, his family and his teacher, while Forgy became the artist’s invaluable companion—or “bodyguard,” as confused parties often referred to him—for the next eight years.
“I cleaned his pool, cooked his meals, kept his garden weed free,” Forgy recalls. “And, perhaps most importantly, helped him with his English correspondences.”
Forgy left his American roots behind and fully embraced his new European life at de Hory’s side, absorbing all the books he was given, the novels and histories he was made to read, the changes to his dress, and his need to learn French, which supplied a fascinating change of character for the young man. “He needed an outlet; he never had a son,” Mark explains. “He had this overwhelming wealth of knowledge and he needed to impart that on someone that he cared about.” Though the notion of Forgy being de Hory’s lover for the artist’s remaining years has been widely speculated and thought of as gospel, it is clear that the idea lives as pure fiction, something that Forgy shrugs off after all this time; he was used to everyone from Orson Welles to well-meaning journalists believing the ruse. “I was there to make Elmyr’s life easier, to help him out,” Forgy explains. “The fact is Elmyr did have this dreaded fear of being alone; if it hadn’t been me it would have been someone else. It was residue from his childhood. I never felt comfortable asking him a lot of questions, and on occasion we would get down to the bare bones of things, but there was a lot of psychological scar tissue.”
Forgy was fed a canon of stories from de Hory about his past and his family, and separating the truth from the lies—which film crews and biographers would later attempt with equal parts frustration and gusto—became difficult for the young Midwesterner; the extraordinary life Forgy witnessed made everything the artist said palatable and believable. “His humanity was always constant and endearing; so many of the lies and deceptions became forgivable,” Forgy says. With decades between them, it was still undeniable to Mark that de Hory had serious flaws when it came to judging his relationships with others, and the element of luck that sweetened the unlikely companionship both men forged did not go unnoticed. Yet Forgy believed himself to be somewhat of de Hory’s protector, using his cool and cautious knack for observation to detect which relationships were good for de Hory and attempting to steer him clear from the hangover-esque encounters that had left a haunting mark—especially Legros. Though Forgy would live with de Hory during the quietest period the artist had ever known, he was always well aware of the undercurrent of constant tension that existed for de Hory—a knock on the door could be Interpol, the ringing phone could carry some bad news from Paris, and the newspaper could be opened to reveal not his latest success but scandal within the international art community. Happiness came in astounding highs and then terrible lows for de Hory, and if Ibiza was a circus, with its sources of never-ending entertainment and appetite for spectacle, then Forgy was well aware he and de Hory were its resident high-wire walkers.
IBIZA, ORSON WELLES, BARBITURATES & HOWARD HUGHES
But amidst all the drama and secrets, it was de Hory’s constant social life that kept La Falaise a joyful place and supplied Forgy with some of his most memorable experiences on the island. “There were always people coming to the house to visit us that a rut had actually been worn in the middle of the road that led to the villa,” Forgy recalls. “There was constancy to that, and here I am, a young guy from the Midwest absolutely thrust smack-dab into the middle of this Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous existence. It all became very normal very quickly.”
Friends would be the mainstay of support for de Hory during his darkest days; it was unthinkable to him that someone could not love him as a bout of bad press or unkind word ripped the artist to pieces. With some of de Hory’s closest friends, there was no shortage of high-wattage admirers. Baroness van Pallandt was a longtime confidante of de Hory’s and a frequent guest at La Falaise. Tall, blonde, and with ice-blue eyes, the beautiful Danish singer and actress had appeared in several movies, including The Long Goodbye and American Gigolo, after achieving international popularity as one part of the singing duo, Nina & Frederik. She was one of the intimates on the island who was able to keep her friend’s fakery a secret, a feat accomplished by many of Ibiza’s more gossipy residents— which continues to astound Forgy even to this day. (The baroness eventually became romantically involved with Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer.)
At six-feet-two, tan and handsome, Irving possessed an intellectual haughtiness and delighted in the trickery his friend was able to accomplish with his fakes, never shying away to recall how he had presented drawings de Hory had done “over breakfast” to specialists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, reputing them to be Matisse drawings, and how the institution had, unbelievably, agreed with his claim. Fake!, which was published in 1969, was the result of Irving’s time with de Hory (the movie rights were optioned in the spring of 2012 and Irving has been commissioned to write the first draft) and has since been revealed as “full of lies.” This fault, however, may not lay entirely with the subject; Irving would later gain notoriety for his “forged” biography of the eccentric, reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. (In 2007, Richard Gere played Irving in the movie, The Hoax.) Irving appeared alongside a bevy of tan, Euro-chic characters in Orson Welles’ 1974 experimental “docu-fantasy,” F for Fake, acting as “Cliffs Notes” for those who couldn’t understand how de Hory had failed to be caught when his forgeries were now public knowledge. It would be very hard to prove the crime, Irving paraphrases, as witnesses, especially for convicting de Hory in France, “couldn’t prove that de Hory had produced the works himself.” To then put the artist on trial would cause such a scandal within the international art community that such publicity wouldn’t be worth it; de Hory was capable of bringing down an entire establishment that thrived on the snobbish courage of their convictions. Forgy attests to the idea that many dealers were, indeed, aware that they were being had at the time, but knowing that they would make a pretty profit from his pictures squashed any moral qualms that might have interfered with their business. No one, especially an art dealer, would welcome the public opportunity to admit they had been duped.
Orson Welles—who said of his documentary on de Hory, “This is a story all about lies. Tell it by the fireside, or in a marketplace or in a movie theatre. Almost any story is certainly, some kind of lie. But not this time. No; this is a promise. For the next hour everything you hear is really true and based on solid fact”—a titan of 20th century cinema, did not intimidate de Hory in the slightest. Welles, the film’s narrator, and his crew follow the mysterious protagonist around the island as he weaves his yarn, a cinematic portal into charlatanism, fakery, charm and the nature of lies. Memorable encounters include watching the gregarious de Hory, always clad in his trademark belted cardigan and knotted silk scarf, interact with the beefy, bearded, and cigar-smoking director over glasses of wine. It is this footage, coupled with that of a never publicly released documentary undertaken by the BBC, Elmyr de Hory: The Real Picture?, that provides some of the most endearing insights into the artist’s character.
Here is de Hory, stylishly dressed, his white hair swept back, omnipresent straw market tote by his side, chatting with locals on the street and inviting friends at an outdoor cafe to a party in his house; here is de Hory, clad in a tuxedo befitting a Bond character, with a glass of Champagne in his hand, as he entertains guests in his crowded living room, stopping to glance at a cover story in the British press over deciphering which Matisse, was in fact, a de Hory; finally, confronting the camera, legs crossed on the couch, with the strong yet bitterly accented declaration: “I want to work, I want to live, I want to paint, I want to live exclusively on my work,” before executing a Matisse forgery on canvas in front of a roaring fireplace only to proclaim it a “bad Matisse” and burning it. De Hory is portrayed as more a craftsman than a criminal thanks to these documentaries, possessing a dedication for his livelihood made uneasily beautiful by the crimes he never could fully embrace as his legacy. “I do not feel bad for Modigliani, I feel good for me,” de Hory famously quips in footage used for both films. The innocent logic of harmlessly adding to a famous man’s oeuvre after that man had died would follow de Hory after his own death; the artist now, ironically, a victim of present-day forgery.
Yet even as glimmering the universe seemed for a time, the spell and magic of his life in Ibiza was to come to a predictably tragic close. In 1966, de Hory crossed the wrong billionaire art collector: Texas oil magnate Algur H. Meadows. Meadows, a world-renowned expert on impressionist and neo-impressionist paintings, discovered that he had bought over 50 forgeries by de Hory and demanded the arrest of Legros and de Hory. (Legros was eventually arrested and imprisoned on check fraud.) Finally, in 1976, the Spanish government agreed after lengthy negotiation to turn the artist over to the French judicial system. At the age of 71, and refusing to spend the rest of his life in prison, de Hory swallowed dozens of Barbiturates. Mark would find his mentor half-alive in his bedroom; de Hory would die in Forgy’s arms. Forgy returned to America, and would go on to dedicate the better part of his life to the historical significance of art crimes, forgery, and preserving the story of his and de Hory’s life together.
EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING
Everything, it seems, connected to Elmyr de Hory involves an element of fiction. One can never tell what is actually true and what is not: he faked his own date of birth; he faked his family background in Hungary; his own biographer Clifford Irving was sent to prison for trying to write a false biography of Howard Hughes—and, yet, after his death de Hory’s oeuvre is unbelievably growing bigger and bigger.
Irving would go on to say of de Hory: “Had it not been for the bizarre personal problems and slapstick shenanigans of his two far-ranging salesmen, the truth about Elmyr might never have been discovered—that his product had bolstered the international art market and yet gone virtually undetected, as had his true identity, for more than twenty years; that his enormous output, his scope, his vision and artistic skill, are unmatched in the history of his strange underground profession.”
As for Forgy, he recognizes the danger in his narrating de Hory’s story but believes he has his own place in the history of 20th-century art. Sitting in his living room, which houses a bronze bust of de Hory’s story but believes he has his own place in the history of 20th-century art. Sitting in his living room, which houses a bronze bust of de Hory behind the author’s easy chair, Forgy says: “I believe Elmyr’s talent has been given short shrift, tainted by his status as an outlaw. However, with scandal in the rearview mirror, his art begs reexamination, allowing a fresh view of its merit as historical distance frequently brings clarity uncluttered by ego and self-interest.”
However, it is this very distance that needs to be crossed and the gap closed between what constitutes the real and unreal in order to get to the heart of de Hory. Had he been merely a contemporary of those he copied, de Hory could be remembered as a lesser artist unable to compete. Yet having meticulously achieved the styles of each, today de Hory is largely remembered as a master for, in the end, making the eyes believe that what in front of them is real. In fact, recently de Hory’s fakes of Modigliani and Monet have been on the auction block for an astounding $20,000 at San Francisco’s Terrain Gallery. The master forger finally became a true artist.
But what is the true monetary value of his 1,000-plus drawings and paintings? Well, it was estimated in 1969 that the value of his forged artwork between 1961 and 1967 on the open market exceeded $60 million. Since those six years are little more than one-fourth the 22 years he was forging the art of modern masters, the market value in 1969 may easily have exceeded $200 million. Irving notes that de Hory’s forgeries were proudly displayed in “modern art museums and world-class private collections from New York to Tokyo to Capetown and Stockholm.” So, taking into account inflation, growth in the number of collectors, and the increasing rarity of the works he copied, the market value of de Hory’s prolific output may easily exceed one billion dollars today.
I can hear de Hory charmingly and convincingly whispering in my ear from his grave: After all, if they are as good as the real thing, then what are we talking about? I mean, what is art, right?
Sarah Hassan is a New York City-based writer, editor and cultural critic. She wrote about the life and scandals of Colette for TREATS! issue 3, and regularly contributes to Artwrit and The Herald. She is also an accomplished dancer and performer, and serves on the guest faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.