“If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.”
—Elmyr de Hory
The life of Elmyr de Hory is itself a work of art—everything about him was a grand gesture of artifice. Moving to the United States after World War II, de Hory portrayed himself as a dispossessed Hungarian aristocrat selling off artworks from his collection. Befriending the rich and famous, de Hory was both enigmatic and charming. Yet, behind his façade, de Hory was a frustrated artist struggling to maintain a standard of living he craved but could not afford. His post-impressionist style of painting appeared passé compared to new styles like abstract expressionism. After several failed attempts to ignite his own career, de Hory focused on his talent as a forger.
De Hory’s skill at deception did not make him immune to treachery, most notably during his partnership with Fernand Legros, who sold a steady supply of de Hory’s forgeries on five continents over a period of nine years. Their profitable and prolific collaboration came to a tumultuous end in 1967 when Legros sold over 40 of de Hory’s bogus masterpieces to Texas oil millionaire Algur Meadows. After discovering the fraud, the ensuing scandal unmasked de Hory as the artist behind the works. With Legros’ aid, de Hory likely inserted more than 1,000 forgeries into the art market during his 30-year career. Many of these works have not been exposed and continue to reside in museums and private collections today.
Right: Elmyr de Hory creating drawings with figures in the style of Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse photographed by Pierre Boulet for February, 6 1970 Time magazine article at de Hory’s villa La Falaise in Ibiza. Photo by Pierre Boulat/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images/Courtesy of Mark Forgy
|1906||Born Elemér Hoffmann to lower-middle class Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary.|
|1924-1926||Studies include: painting in Transylvania (present-day Romania), the Akadémie Heinmann Art School in Munich and claims to enroll in the Académie la Grande Chaumière, while living in Paris.|
|1927-1931||Convicted in five European cities for crimes including check fraud, counterfeiting documents and falsely claiming an aristocratic title.|
|1939-1945||Has unknown location during World War II. His claims of imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps cannot be confirmed.|
|1946||Living in Paris, sells a drawing to Lady Malcolm Campbell which he alleges she “mistook for a Picasso.” Emboldened, starts selling more forged drawings to Paris galleries, claiming they are from his personal collection.|
|1948||Exhibits his own work in New York, but sells only one painting. Begins to sell forged Matisse and Modigliani drawings to art dealers in New York and Beverly Hills.|
|1949||Forges his first Modigliani oil painting and sells it to the Niveau Gallery in New York.|
|1950||Another Modigliani is bought by Knoedler & Co.|
|1951||Receives a commission from mayor of New Orleans to restore paintings at City Hall. Sells a forged Matisse to the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts and a forged Picasso to the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, both in Kansas City.|
|1952||Sells a forged Matisse drawing to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. The museum’s assistant director suspects a forgery and launches an investigation.|
|1953-1956||Sells a forged Matisse oil painting to Chicago dealer Joseph Faulkner. Faulkner discovers this and presses charges. The FBI opens an investigation. De Hory flees to Mexico City with a fake passport but is unable to sell his forgeries due to his growing reputation.|
|1957||Visits the Detroit Institute of Art and sees a Matisse painting he forged hanging in the permanent collection.|
|1958||Begins a business partnership with Fernand Legros in New York selling hand-drawn “lithographs.” Learns he is wanted by the FBI. Tries to commit suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.|
|1959-1962||Agrees to let Legros manage sale of his forgeries, despite a tumultuous relationship. De Hory moves to Ibiza. Legros continues the business partnership from Paris and lives extravagantly from the uneven distribution of profits.|
|1964-1967||Continues prolific output, investigated by the FBI, INTERPOL and the French police.|
|1968-1969||Arrested for homosexuality and serves two months in a Spanish jail. When released, tells his story to Clifford Irving, a novelist living on Ibiza. Irving’s book about de Hory, Fake!, becomes an international bestseller.|
|1971||Elmyr: The True Picture? a documentary by François Reichenbach, airs on the BBC.|
|1972||Orson Welles’ last film, F for Fake, features de Hory. Despite his celebrity, de Hory has little success selling his original works, though demand for his forgeries remains constant.|
|1976||Learns he is to be extradited to France on charges of forgery and fraud. Fearing he will be killed in prison, de Hory commits suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills on December 10.|
Toward the end of his career, de Hory lived the life of a “bon vivant” on the Spanish island of Ibiza; no one suspected he was leading a double life. That changed when he told his story to American author Clifford Irving. Irving’s 1969 biography Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time became an international bestseller. Even though much of the narrative and biographical information de Hory provided served to perpetuate the myth that he had invented, Irving accepted de Hory’s memoir with little verification.
Irving was later convicted of perpetrating literary fraud, and his and de Hory’s ironically intertwining lives of duplicity were immortalized by Orson Welles in his 1972 film, F for Fake. Irving’s book and Welles’ movie may have made de Hory a celebrity, but his status did not serve him the way he had hoped. De Hory still was unable to sell his original works; in a blow to his ego, clients only wanted his works in the styles of other artists. De Hory’s newfound fame also attracted unwanted attention from law authorities. In 1976, after years of legal wrangling trying to defend himself against accusations made by his former partner Fernand Legros, France finally secured his extradition to stand trial. Fearing he would be killed in prison, de Hory committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.
BBC Productions and French Television
1970, 45 minutes 10 seconds
Collection of Mark Forgy
In this very personal footage, de Hory is interviewd in his home on the island of Ibiza and gives an account of how his forgery career inadvertently began. He is seen proudly demonstrating his talent for forgery by creating a drawing in the style of Matisse and another in the style of Picasso. Film courtesy of Mark Forgy.
At first, de Hory created only minor works on paper rather than canvas, obtaining his materials by simply ripping blank pages from vintage books or buying supplies of old paper with French watermarks. Later, he obtained canvases by purchasing 19th century paintings at Paris flea markets. He would scrape off the paint and leave only the primer coat. He would then paint a convincing composition in the style of an artist he chose to mimic. To artificially age the works, he used two widely available commercial varnishes—one produced a quick craquelure (cracking) and the other imparted a golden, aged hue. Lastly, he applied the most convincing element—the forged artist’s signature. Although de Hory ultimately admitted to creating forgeries, he consistently denied that he ever signed them, claiming he designated that incriminating task to his partner.
Much of de Hory’s success can be attributed to his dealer and partner, Fernand Legros. An experienced con man, he knew who could be bribed and who could be fooled. He co-opted experts, especially those recognized by the French government, who could guarantee a work’s authenticity. He had the certification stamps of these experts copied so he could produce counterfeit documents. To create artificial provenance documentation, Legros used fake customs stamps and inserted photographic copies of de Hory forgeries into auction catalogues and artist monographs. Today, a “de Hory” is easier to identify using new forensic techniques to analyze pigments.
De Hory liked to present himself as a dispossessed Hungarian aristocrat and would tell house guests that this childhood portrait of him and his brother Stephan had been painted by renowned artist Philip de László (Fig. 1). Several decades after de Hory’s death; however, the de László Foundation denied the work was authentic since its aesthetic appearance was inconsistent with de László’s style and it lacked credible provenance. The owner of the painting, curious about its origins, took it to the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis for analysis.
When examined by microscope as well as in ultraviolet and infrared light, telltale “overpainting” on top of the varnish layer of the original work appeared, especially noticeable on the brothers’ faces and hands (Fig. 2). In addition, the signature was not contemporaneous with the original work; in fact, there seemed to be an earlier signature in red that had been covered over with the present signature added (Fig. 3). Most likely the portrait is one of de Hory’s earliest forgeries, and the only time he chose to alter an existing painting rather than create a new one. Using a photograph of himself and his brother Stephan as a model, de Hory apparently executed the work to substantiate a false claim of noble ancestry.
Essay: The Artifice of Elmyr de Hory
By Dr. Jeffrey Taylor, Assistant Professor of Arts Management at SUNY Purchase
This essay detailing the life, art and illicit career of Hungarian forger Elmyr de Hory corrects many misconceptions about his known historical and biographical background.
A Personal View: The Genesis of a Faker
By Mark Forgy, author, playwright, lecturer and executor of the de Hory Estate
Mr. Forgy’s seven-year association with de Hory provides an intimate, first-hand account of the life and art of prolific forger Elmyr de Hory.