by Mark Forgy
Hungarian-born artist Elmyr (pronounced el-MEER) de Hory is recognized as the most successful and prolific of modern art forgers. What we know for certain is the uncertainty of the legend surrounding him and the extent of his fakery. The most widely circulated information about him stems from a late 1960s biography titled Fake! that invites some skepticism as de Hory dictated his story scant on objectivity to biographer, Clifford Irving. It spawned a picture of a hapless but talented artist more often exploited than exploiter who careened accidentally into the murky world of art crime; a career path followed only due to survival instincts. It is a self-forgiving parallel universe in which his crimes assume a romantic lilt. It is therefore understandable that for almost a half-century segregating fact from myth has been challenging with his history obscured by self-invention. Gaps remain in assembling an accurate image of this enigmatic character, but new information is now providing us a fresh view of a man who continued to fool the art world and the public long after his death.
De Hory’s genesis as an art forger, if his account is to be believed, began in post-war Paris. According to his oft-told story his venture into fakery stemmed from an instance of mistaken identity. A friend invited to de Hory’s studio allegedly mistook a pen and ink drawing by him for an original Picasso; an epiphany he saw as a temporary solution allowing him to survive, not the decades-long criminal enterprise it would become. He offered this view: “When I discovered this talent I had, that something I could do in twenty minutes and would assure my living for the next two or three months, I would like to see the poor refugee who would resist that temptation.” De Hory’s purported wartime experiences and subsequent refugee status familiarized him with the circumstantial nature of morality and desperation that prompted remedial but unconventional measures. However, his response was also a self-respect-saving rationalization. His disarming portrayal of deception invited sympathy for the struggling artist. And framing that explanation in a way that appealed to human emotions likely assuaged a sense of guilt attached to his acts of fraud. He downplayed his dishonesty in terms most people would understand, if not condone, in the same way stealing food to avoid starvation would invite forgiveness for thievery.
Throughout his crime spree, de Hory created an illusory world. He adopted the aphorism ‘image is everything’ as a motto carrying over his visual stagecraft to the role-playing and aristocratic bearing that gave his art and himself the appearance of authenticity. It may have been a short leap from his bourgeois upbringing to the gentrified affectations accompanying a natural charm and sophistication that made him a convincing peddler of fine art. His impersonations of a pedigreed art collector were the lubricant that brought him friends, clients, and acceptance. All the while illusion became increasingly embedded in de Hory’s view of himself. On occasion he resumed creating his own art in a post-impressionist vein not unlike the styles of those modern masters he emulated. These forays were routinely greeted with robust disinterest, so his failure to establish himself and his art may have assuaged the sense of guilt associated with acts of defrauding others. Nevertheless, duplicity became inseparable from reality thereby making his saga a source of mystery and conjecture.
The Art Forger’s Apprentice
De Hory, his most commonly assumed name was chosen by design, as were most of his aliases; borrowed from families associated with the landed gentry; many of whom coincidentally had well known art collections. It presented the perfect facade for the consummate actor rich in charisma lending him a patina of believability. If these weren’t enough of an arsenal to seduce his prey, I only need to think back to my first encounter with de Hory in 1969. It was on the Spanish Mediterranean isle of Ibiza, refuge for the ’60s counter-culture values; a time when rebels were heroes. Then, his notoriety was growing, and he wore the mantle of the talented scoundrel with some reluctance. He abhorred being called a “forger” as he believed it demeaned his dignity. His admirers seemed more intrigued by his exploits for duping the experts than concerned by the damage done to institutions, reputations, or artists’ oeuvres. Press coverage was more favorable than condemning of de Hory’s expertise at deception, and he in turn confused their fascination with expiation of his sins.
As far as I could see, the court of public opinion gave him no incentive to exhibit remorse for past actions. If others were forgiving, then why shouldn’t he be as generous? There is something captivating in those stories about dethroning the rich and powerful that makes the underclass cheer, and he heard only their cheering. It is easy to understand how this unexpected approval distorted his view of himself and his crimes. To his mind the media conferred on him a folk-hero status in the mold of Han van Meegeren. For all those who feel a sense of injustice in their lives, a lack of fairness or opportunity, their empathy, I suppose, resonates with those who earn some retribution even through illegal tactics, though, it seems counter intuitive that activities which generally earn perpetrators a prison sentence elicit favorable public opinion. That contradictory response may stem from some subconscious attraction to those who defy authority, and against the odds, win. Thus the appeal and romanticized view of rule-breakers like de Hory. He was seen by many as an iconoclast, a demi-god in an Age of Rebellion. Against that backdrop it was easier to cast him in the maverick mold, and he seized that convenient swell of public sentiment, interpreting the mood of contemporary history as implied support of his criminal exploits.
De Hory knew he would always have his detractors and the stain of criminality would still make him a pariah, certainly among the curators, museum directors, scholars, art dealers, and collectors who were convinced of his talent—when his art bore the names of other artists. For them, the sting of public embarrassment was slow to pass. A British interviewer expressed their pique when he asked Elmyr: “Mr. de Hory, how does it feel to be a second-rate artist?” he responded: “Well, that depends on what you call second-rate. If you are talking about artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Rafael, then artists like Picasso, Modigliani, or Matisse could only be called second-rate, in which case…I’m happy to be in their company.” His response offers a playful defense of his chicanery and insight into de Hory’s mindset. He thought his trespasses were low on the sin list and there was more collusion than coercion contributing to his success. Moreover, the rule of caveat emptor acknowledged an element of trickery in the marketplace—that hothouse of opportunism. He acknowledged the symbiotic self-interest that eased his transactions, but it was his formidable talent and acquisitiveness of his buyers that conjured the perfect storm for his midcentury larceny.
Like other fakers, de Hory believed he possessed a talent equal or superior to those artists fortunate enough to gain critical, but more significantly, economic rewards he could not. Many of those whose styles he imitated were his contemporaries or near-contemporaries. He received the same traditional training in figurative art as they had, so he was baffled by the lack of recognition he thought he merited. When, in 1967, he was identified as the source of countless bogus masterpieces and labeled “the world’s greatest art forger,” it was a pyrrhic victory of sorts but fell short of what he desired most—to be viewed as a fine artist in his own right. However, that desire to establish himself as a painter of “Elmyrs,” divorced from his fakery may be part of the mythology long perpetuated by him.
Researchers Colette Loll and Andrea Megyes resolved the longstanding debate over de Hory’s true identity in 2012. The roots of his family tree were certain when they found marriage and birth records at the Association of Jewish Communities in Budapest, Hungary. He was born Elémer Albert Hoffman to Jewish parents in 1906. All his stories of a diplomat father, mother killed by a Russian soldier, brother who died in an auto racing accident were disproven fantasies. These fabrications, though, like de Hory, had panache. Truth devoid of dramatic flair or not self-serving likely held little appeal or reason to confuse the new reality he constructed around himself. It is unsurprising then that the various personas he invented to enhance his credibility blended with his artistic impersonations as well. He became an actor assuming dual roles in front of an easel or his audience. In a way, he moved fine art into the realm of a performing art to a greater degree than any other faker before or since his duplicitous career. It is hard to examine de Hory’s tale without this notion of life and art intertwined as theater pieces.
One painting in the exhibition Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World invites a new assessment of de Hory’s history and longevity as a faker. It is the double portrait of de Hory and his older brother signed P. A. de Laszlo. This picture alone, if authentic, could be viewed as unimpeachable evidence legitimizing de Hory’s claim to membership in Europe’s aristocracy. When John Singer Sargent stopped accepting commissions in 1907, Philip de Laszlo became the preferred portraitist of kings, presidents, and mavens of the social elite. The sweep of his brushwork and ease of execution made him as prolific as he was popular.
When de Hory exhibited his art at a London art gallery in the early 1970s, I accompanied him and became acquainted with Sandra de Laszlo who now heads the De Laszlo Archive Trust. She and her husband (the artist’s grandson) purchased a number of works by de Hory from his show. We later dined together at a London hotel. In January 2010 I contacted Sandra and refreshed her memory of our meeting. I then told her about the double portrait of de Hory and his brother, though, according to her recollection, thought it strange that he didn’t mention the picture at that time. It was a curious omission given its cultural and historical significance and connection to the family. However, she asked if there were any distinguishing markings or gallery labels on the stretcher that could provide specific information tying it to de Laszlo. Then she asked what year it might have been painted. Approximating de Hory’s age of four to six-years-old would put it around 1910 to 1912. She replied that that was a timeframe when de Laszlo was painting the Spanish royal family in Madrid and other important commissions and requested a photo of the picture which I sent, expecting a kind response and confirmation of authenticity.
I remember the day the portrait arrived, shipped to his villa on Ibiza. It was rolled in a cardboard tube along with a cache of family photos from—a cousin, Elmyr said. (The cousin turned out to be his still-alive brother.) The picture appeared ravaged by time; the surface paint missing along asymmetrical folds, identifying a derelict past. The paint-free areas revealed an underlying fabric, dark, as though soaked in black tea. Given the terrible condition of the picture, de Hory began restoring damaged areas, painting over the pigment-free canvas. It was a cosmetic remedy that that seemed to blend well with the original portrait.
For thirty-five years this long-assumed souvenir of Elmyr’s pedigree hung on my living room wall. After examining the photo, Sandra de Laszlo dismissed it as “inauthentic.” Its origin remains indistinct. Yet, its discredited heritage raises the obvious question: Who painted it? A complete forensic analysis may unlock more secrets in de Hory’s past. Is this another fake authored by the master hoaxster? It is a short leap of faith to believe it is. I can think of no better stage prop he could concoct to provide the illusion of legitimacy than a family portrait by one of the greatest portraitists of his time.
Conservator David Marquis of Midwest Art Conservation Center, Minneapolis, MN examined this painting in June, 2013. He discovered anomalies in varying impasto (thickness) of paint throughout the picture. The faces of the children he determined were painted over the varnished “more thinly painted canvas.” Furthermore, there appears to be an illegible name in red underneath the P. A. de Laszlo signature in the lower right corner of the picture. His conclusion: “It is definitely a fake.” While this preliminary assessment cannot address authorship without more extensive research this new puzzle suggests the complexity of untangling the Gordian knot of myth and fact that de Hory created with cunning and intent to deceive.
In the case of the phony de Laszlo portrait, we can conjecture that de Hory’s career as a faker may stretch back to sometime before the Second World War thereby adding several years to his patented story. He did not return to Hungary after the end of the war. The fake family portrait was shipped from Budapest and therefore existed prior to 1945. How long before? David Marquis states that modern paint pigments from that era cannot be accurately segregated in order to establish when the phony de Laszlo was created. Unfortunately, speculation defies certainty, and the absence of empirical proof in much of his story invites myth-mongers to divine conclusions of their liking.
I spent seven years in the company of de Hory and can attest to his ability to win friends and influence others. Like them, I too was a victim of his deceit but never a jilted buyer of his fakes; those who might be less forgiving of his crimes. I also understood his reasons and rationalizations that girded his behavior and justified his point of view. For example, when accused of forgery, he responded: “I dislike the word and besides I do not find it fair. I am a victim of the times and of the Art scene rules. Is not the real scandal the art market itself? In a mere artistic level, I would consider myself as an interpreter. As you love Bach through Oistrakh, (violinist) you also can love Modigliani through me.” He was intelligent, articulate, and persuasive. Like any influence peddler, he knew the power of language, the ability to communicate his thoughts. And what is language for if it can’t be self-serving? It is unsurprising to me that in those moments when Elmyr brought to bear the full weight of an evangelical oratory to sell himself or his art, he was a force to reckon with. It is easier to grasp his success when his target audience was already predisposed to his overtures by covetousness or self-interest; impulses that often disarm the frontal lobe, so when our emotionality sweeps aside rationality, investing trust in the conman is a comfortable consequence—and they know it.
De Hory not only tried to polish his self-image, he lobbied hard for a reappraisal of his skill untainted by reputation. For those reexamining his place in history today, a common question is: If he had any real talent, why couldn’t he earn any recognition? Another complaint is: He was a follower not an innovator, and showed no originality. These deserve a response, though I can only offer my viewpoint in this way. First, there are few strikingly original thinkers. Most of us are followers, as was. He explained to me how throughout the history of western art there are occasionally beacons that illuminate new paths and progenitors of change. Among the legions of artists, some names stand out, such as Giotto, Masaccio, della Francesca, Caravaggio, Turner to Picasso. Others are left in their wake and benefit from theses seers and teachers. He never once claimed to be an originator, and would have dismissed any such notion. His respect for these geniuses bordered on the reverential and would not have placed himself on such a pedestal.
A comparison of Elmyr to his contemporaries or near-contemporaries is, however, valid. Elmyr, in much the same manner of these artists, learned from a teaching tradition following established tenets of figurative art for 500 years. This apples-to-apples assessment supports an objective evaluation and it is on this basis that his merit can be best judged. In this regard, I can only defer to the track record of his fakes passing muster with those who were often poised to make those crucial decisions. Self-interest aside, there were plenty of experts, curators, and dealers with suitable training and experience to offer a discerning judgment and evaluation of his bogus masterpieces that could well have halted Elmyr’s career earlier if they were less convincing.
So why was he unable to make his own mark in the art world? Malcolm Gladwell’s research for his book Outliers turned up some remarkable findings that may help answer this question. A group of geniuses born between 1903 and 1917 were studied to see how they fulfilled their potential. Those in the first half, born between 1903 and 1911 were more likely to be failures because they came of age around the beginning of the Great Depression. They lacked opportunities. “To have been born before 1911 is to have been demographically unlucky. The most devastating events of the twentieth century hit you at exactly the wrong time.” Also, “The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with…Some cannot escape the limitations of their generation.” Elmyr was born in 1906.
Along with the missed opportunities of ill timing, but having all the talent required for success, his art possessed the freshness of a bygone era. Fauvism, expressionism, cubism came and went before Elmyr began his art studies and education that by then looked increasingly out of step with the artistic revolt that swept through Europe in the first two decades of the 20th century. The train of public taste departed, leaving him dismayed, eyeing his chances for recognition vanish from sight.
What Elmyr never grasped was the other side of that disappointment. If, for example, the trajectory of his talent had intersected with the art movements that formed the basis of his training, he may have gained the accolades he longed for. It’s hard to tell if that would have been the outcome. Clearly, that was his lifelong wish. Circumstances instead took his career in another direction. What he never realized was that that disappointment may have been a blessing in disguise. Elmyr turned that rejection into a triumph of a different sort by becoming the most prolific and successful art forger of modern times. Maybe it was a crown of thorns. Whether he was perceived as a pariah or folk hero may have troubled him less than providing the world no reason to remember him. He thrived on clever repartee and a favorite quote from Oscar Wilde was “The only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.” Even if he should be remembered as a rogue he would prefer that to being forgotten, although until his spurious artistic contributions are ultimately segregated from the realm of authentic works, it is likely that Elmyr’s ghost will continue to haunt the art world. I continue to see him and his passage through the history of 20th century art as colorful as the fauve-period paintings he interpreted so well.
MARK FORGY’S BIOGRAPHY
Mark Forgy is an author, playwright, producer, and lecturer. His 2012 memoir titled The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist inspired the stage play, The Forger’s Apprentice, which he co-wrote and co-produced with Kevin Bowen. It debuted at the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival. His seven-year association with de Hory provides a first-hand account of the life and art of de Hory. For more information, visit www.Elmyr.net.