The evolution of this exhibition was deeply transformative for me both on a personal as well as a professional level. This exhibition was conceptualized while I was doing research into the life and career of prolific Hungarian forger, Elmyr de Hory. My interest in him was initially piqued while I was curating a small, temporary exhibition on art crime for the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC. In the exhibition, entitled The Dark Arts: Thieves, Forgers and Tomb Raiders, I displayed a striking Modigliani portrait that had once been a part of the collection of a prominent fine arts museum in Miami. It hung there as an authentic work, accepted and unchallenged, for over a decade until the donors of the work read a story in the international press about their dear friend, displaced Hungarian aristocrat Elmyr de Hory, being unmasked as a prolific art forger. He had sold it to them a decade earlier, claiming he had to liquidate the family collection and offered them a handsome price. Believing they had acquired a masterpiece that should be shared with the public, they donated it to their local art museum. A custom frame, with an authoritative plaque identifying it by the hand of Amedeo Modigliani, was created, and it was accessioned into a prominent museum collection and proudly displayed on its walls. Following the revelation of the dubious vocation of its previous owner, the painting was quietly removed from the walls of the museum and returned to the home of the donors, remaining an intriguing artifact from their friendship with a man they found they never really knew. I am grateful to Scott Richter, the son of the donors, for lending this work to my exhibition, essentially starting me on a four year journey.
This story continued when I was contacted by Mark Forgy, the sole executor and heir to de Hory’s estate. Mr. Forgy (the irony of his name never ceases to amuse me, although it is properly pronounced (for-gee) was mounting a small exhibition of works that he had inherited upon de Hory’s death. De Hory sadly committed suicide in 1976 rather than face extradition from his home on the island of Ibiza to France in order to serve a prison term. Mark had been de Hory’s dear friend, confidant and gallery manager for over seven years. Devastated by the death of his friend, Mark packed up what remained of de Hory’s life, including the works that remained in his home and studio, and shipped it all home to Minnesota—where he lived a quiet and unassuming life for the next 35 years. At a certain point, however, Mark realized he wanted to accurately tell de Hory’s story, and to do that he needed some answers.
The research into the historical and biographical facts of the life and career of this enigmatic forger became a quest we embarked on together, joined at various times by excellent researchers and academics. I am especially grateful to Dr. Jeffery Taylor and his wife Andrea Megyes, who became friends as well as colleagues during this process. Our very personal journey to uncover the truth led us from the archives at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, to turn-of-the-century buildings in Paris, farmhouses in the French countryside, the birth records room at a Synagogue in Budapest, to a small, simple apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany, where I experienced one of the most memorable interviews ever with a 95 year old Holocaust survivor and de Hory’s only remaining family member. From all of these sources, we were able to definitively determine de Hory’s true identity, something that dozens of researchers and several documentary film teams had attempted before us yet never accomplished.
We were all transformed during this process, in various ways. It was a deeply gratifying yet disturbing investigation—how do you explain to someone that they never really knew the man they loved and lived with for so many years? We methodically discovered that things we thought to be true, the central fact pattern of de Hory’s life, were in fact elaborate fictions and fantasies; the deception was overwhelming in its enormity and complexity.
This process led me to examine my own concept of deception, and I became intrigued with how it aids criminals, art forgers in particular, in their ability to successfully perpetrate their crimes. Most of them are only good artists, but their success requires more than artistic talent; they are successful because they, themselves are, or work with, excellent con men. The intent to deceive, which is the legal criteria for what needs to be present in order to prosecute for art fraud, and forgery has been used with varying success and through varying methodologies by the forgers I chose to explore and profile in this exhibition. I was aided by the support of Jenn Bentzen, whose astute thesis on the psychological and criminal profile of the art forger provided me with extremely helpful insights.
Much work has gone into assembling this complex exhibition, and I would like to acknowledge the efforts and talents of the staff of International Arts & Artists (IA&A), particularly David Furchgott and Marlene Harrison, who challenged me to expand upon my original concept for this exhibition. Laila Jadallah, Elizabeth Wilson and Nicole Byers were such a delight to work with, providing a seemingly endless supply of support, encouragement and hard work. Simon Fong’s ability and willingness to create IA&A’s first interactive, online catalogue was inspired. I would also like to thank Tom Flynn for his clever essay and dear friend and editor Patricia Hevey who can turn a phrase, lend an ear and offer advice with equal grace. My family has been a wonderful audience. My parents, Robert and Kathleen Loll have patiently listened to and often shaken their heads at my travel exploits and stories of forgery and intrigue. My two boys, Matt and Quinn, have practically grown up on the topic, and I hope they realize one day that all those trips to museums with me helped them to build an important visual vocabulary. Brian Marvin was incredibly patient and supportive while I disappeared deep into the rabbit hole of research and exhibit preparation. Many friends and associates interested in cultural heritage protection have listened to me talking about this exhibition for years, and it is terribly exciting to finally be able to share it with you all. I so look forward to giving a personal tour to all those that have shown such love and support to me during this process.
Finally, I would like to thank Mark and Alice Forgy, dear friends who have taken this journey with me and generously agreed to lend their works to this exhibition for almost two years. I know our friendship will extend well beyond the tour dates.
Washington, DC November, 2013