The Artifice of Elmyr de Hory

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by Jeffrey Taylor

The life of Elmyr de Hory should be regarded as the single greatest conceptual artwork of the twentieth century. No other artist produced such a profound critique of the art market. Duchamp, Warhol, and Hirst all mocked the art world, but de Hory shook it to its very foundations. His graphics and paintings that purported to be by Modernist masters represented simply the ultimate outcome of an existence immersed in deception. His life, in all of its illusions, can be seen as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) of artifice, and one that, like all great artworks, has inspired a chain reaction of laudatory and imitative creations. The full extent of the layers of his deceit and invention have only become known in recent years, now that he has emerged as a subject of serious scholarly inquiry. The historical de Hory, however, remains as elusive as the historical Jesus was to nineteenth-century biblical scholars, essentially a set of competing and contradictory narratives, with the most unreliable source being the subject himself. The researcher’s response to such a challenge then is, like the biblical scholars before, to lay out these texts, anecdotes, and documentary evidence side-by-side in the pursuit of a Q Gospel of de Hory. [1]

The source most familiar to people would be Clifford Irving’s 1969 bestseller Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, and although the author did claim to have made efforts to validate his subject’s statements, he largely transmits the story wholesale as it was dictated to him. The result being that in the first two pages that Irving devotes to de Hory’s origins in Budapest, we can cite nine falsehoods that have been exposed by subsequent research.[2] De Hory’s name was not Elmyr de Hory, but rather Elemér Hoffmann.[3] His family was not aristocracy and did not have significant landholdings, except for his maternal grandfather, who owned a brick factory in Transylvania.[4] His father was not an ambassador, but a wholesaler of hand-made goods.[5] His family did not live in a palace in fashionable Buda, but rather an apartment in a densely populated area of urbanizing middle/working class Pest.[6] His mother was no socialite, but rather a hard-pressed single mother. De Hory did not travel widely until he left home fully. The family most certainly did not eat with silver on Meissen china, have horses, carriages, or many servants (as de Hory claimed). He had described a portrait showing him and his mother, which almost certainly never existed. De Hory did, however, possess a double portrait of himself and his brother done by the famous Hungarian portraitist Philip de László.[7] In 2010 de Hory’s heir, Mark Forgy, exhibited the work, together with his collection of de Hory’s surviving oeuvre, only to be told by the de László Trust that the work was certainly not by the esteemed portraitist, but simply another forgery.[8] The fact that de Hory would forge a childhood double portrait of himself and his brother in sailors suits (a brother he claimed was no longer alive… though, in fact, he was), signed in the name of an artist who at that time would have only painted the most elite members European plutocracy… that he would produce an artwork to validate all the above enumerated lies told to his biographer, should give some insight into the problematics of unraveling the enigma of who was this man, born Elemér Hoffmann.

What is correct about the first two pages of Irving’s introduction to de Hory is that he was gay. Being gay and also 100% Jewish (he claimed to be only half), in a time of rising fascism, begins to explain de Hory’s close association of deception with survival. We cannot validate the claim that he attended the Akademie Heimann in Munich because the institution did not keep records of its students. He did, however, study for two summers (1924-1925) at the Hungarian plein-air colony of Nagybánya, which is verified by the school’s records.[9] His account of surviving the Second World War, however, comes again riddled with impossibilities. The fact that he might have been rounded up into a work brigade in Hungary around 1942 is indeed quite possible, though de Hory fails to admit the obvious, which is that this was because he was Jewish. The fact that he might have been rounded up again in 1944, after the arrival of Eichmann in Budapest and the beginning of the mass deportations, is also quite possible. But it remains quite unlikely that he would have been sent directly to Berlin (as he claimed), as almost all Hungarian deportations went first to Auschwitz and only from there to other labor camps. Furthermore, de Hory’s tale of interrogation by the Gestapo seem quite unlikely, as they did not interrogate concentration camp inmates; that belonged to a different province of the SS, and they certainly did not send their torture victims to the kind of public hospitals from which de Hory claimed to have escaped. Finally, travel from Berlin back to Budapest in 1944 would have been virtually impossible for any civilian. These entirely implausible holocaust narratives, along with the Swedish papers[10] he describes having used to depart Hungary, may be a wider attempt to assuage survivor guilt. An alternative was proposed by Edith Tenner, the widow of de Hory’s maternal cousin and his only surviving relative, who believed he may have spent the war in Spain.[11] We have almost no examples of de Hory’s painting from before the Second World War.[12] He did, however, leave a criminal record, preserved by INTERPOL and discovered by forgery researcher Colette Marvin, which lists ten criminal convictions between 1927 and 1931 for check fraud, counterfeiting documents, and falsification of title and status.[13] Those charges would indicate that his skills in artifice had their origins in financial crime, and were probably driven by an inability to live within his means, as would certainly be verified by his post-war lifestyle. As he was seeking to avoid deportation from Spain to France in the 1970s, he wrote to his brother to send images of the de Hory (the aristocratic name he had adopted) family crest, so that he might validate his claims to that noble name and muddle any attempt to clearly identify him.[14] Even in death our subject deceived: his tombstone in Ibiza displays only his made-up name, Elmyr, and a year of birth that made him 5 years younger than he actually was.[15]

His importance as a twentieth-century icon can be attested to by the chain reaction of copycat cultural productions he inspired. For Clifford Irving’s follow-up to Fake!, the author adapted his subject’s tactics to the literary field by fictionalizing a purported biography of the recluse Howard Hughes. His contract and advance had been secured from the publisher, McGraw-Hill, on the basis of three forged handwritten letters from Hughes supporting the project.[16] Unlike de Hory, though, Irving did serve jail time (seventeen months) for his crimes. This mentor-protégé transmission did not escape the attention of the cinematic master of illusion Orson Welles, who based his final film F for Fake around the two of them.[17] As someone who launched his career with a fake invasion from outer space, whose best known movie documents a pastiche of a genuine tycoon,[18] and who played a character who fakes his own death,[19] Welles could not resist making his own contribution to this procession. After promising to tell the truth for sixty minutes, his film departs into an almost believable, convoluted montage of Picasso, a beautiful Hungarian model, and… forgery, when abruptly Welles admits that “for that last 17 minutes I’ve been lying my head off.”[20] The karmic outcome, however, of de Hory’s swindling was provided in 1991 by Ken Talbot’s re-printing of Irving’s book, only changing the title to: Enigma: New Story of Elmyr De Hory – The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. The primary differences with this new edition lay in a thirty-page epilogue written by Ken Talbot and the inclusion of ten new color plates of more forgeries by de Hory, including Gauguin, Degas, Renoir, and Monet. In the epilogue Talbot claims to have bought over four hundred works from de Hory in the 1970s, and, furthermore, transcribes a lost journal in which de Hory explains the techniques for producing Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, and Toulouse-Lautrec.[21] The ten new plates all derive from Talbot’s collection and immediately betray themselves as tragically obvious pastiches… not the sort of highly convincing work with which de Hory confounded the experts. In fact, Johannes Rød speculates that the entire Talbot collection was of East Asian factory production.[22] Seventy of these works were exhibited and cataloged as authentic fakes by de Hory in a 1994 exhibition at a gallery located at the headquarters of the Tokyo newspaper Sankei Shimbun. Talbot had clearly internalized the tactic of leveraging print medium to validate suspect artworks. In fact, what each of the fakers de Hory, Irving, Welles, and Talbot acquired from his predecessor was the tactic of manipulating the epistemological foundations of art historical knowledge.

Regardless of how de Hory managed to survive the war, he probably did return to Paris by 1946, where he claims to have begun his forgery career quite by accident because a certain Lady Malcolm Campbell saw a drawing of his and thought it was a Picasso.[23] For the next ten years, de Hory largely restricted his efforts to forging works on paper. Drawings on paper made good strategic sense for a number of reasons. Correct paper was much easier to obtain than old canvases. de Hory would simply slice blank pages out of pre-war art books. Furthermore, a number of his targets, Picasso and Matisse, were still alive and might take notice of a newly appearing painting on canvas, but no interest would likely be paid to a mere drawing. This “flying under the radar” technique of making only minor works led him to even produce faux lithographs.[24] Canvases were much more difficult because they needed to have the period weaves and stretchers, all with adequate signs of wear. When he did start to do works on canvas, de Hory would usually obtain these by purchasing nineteenth century works at the Paris flea market, and scraping off their paint but leaving the grounding.[25] What this behavior indicates is that de Hory was keenly aware of the possibility of forensic examination of supports. De Hory avoided using any sort of pigment at all until 1949, when he began to add gouache and watercolor to his ink drawings. With the added complication of color comes the importance of drying, which he did with the aid of a light bulb.[26]  Later that year, in New York, where he could find a correct stretcher on period canvas, he attempted his first Modigliani oil and baked it in the oven to dry the oil paint,[27] but it still took two months to dry.[28] Though he remained keenly aware of how much more money could be made with oils, the medium posed significant problems from the perspective of drying because oil paints do not technically “dry” but rather go through a complicated oxidative reaction that can take years to complete. To this day, thirty-six years after his death, blobs of paint on his last surviving palettes are soft when probed by a scalpel.[29] de Hory could only really pursue oil painting when he enjoyed a more settled existence, since drying oil paints produce noxious fumes, and they require a separate room as a studio. As of 1952, he had made only four or five small oil paintings,[30] and most of the works he painted in this medium would be done on Ibiza in the 1960s, where his villa, La Falaise, possessed a hidden studio. To age his works on paper, he brushed them with tea, and for the oils he made use of two widely available tools: Vernis à craqueleur, a varnish that produced a quick craquelure , and Vernis à vieillir, which imparts a rich golden-aged hue.[31] In addition to insuring proper appearance and materials, de Hory made an effective actor to provide provenance, impersonating a destitute European selling the last remnants of his collection. In 1960 de Hory was reluctantly lured into a formalized business arrangement with two dealers, Fernand Legros and Real Lessard, and it was they, in fact, who devised many of the most brilliantly insidious tactics for corrupting the epistemological mechanisms that govern the art market. Above all else, they recognized the importance of co-opting the experts, the aupres du tribunal, who could guarantee a work’s authenticity. They knew who they could bribe and who they could fool. They even convinced the artist Kees van Dongen that he himself had painted a work done by de Hory.[32] In order to ensure a more reliable supply of expertise, they had the stamps copied and produced their own documents. They did the same with customs stamps, which both ensured ease of transport and also provided an artificial provenance.[33] When holding a major exhibition on Dufy, they made sure to mix in authentic works among those done by de Hory,[34] and they placed de Hory’s works in auction and then bought them back, which gave the paintings the authority of having been publicly sold. Perhaps their nefarious genius is best shown by their technique of acquiring pre-war monographs on their target artists that used “tipped-in” color plates (these were only attached with a small amount of glue). They removed the plate and replaced it with a photographic copy of a de Hory forgery.[35] Few things in the art world confer as much status as inclusion of an image in a book, as it both signals unquestionable authenticity and elite status within an artist’s own oeuvre. As the art market existed in the 1960s, de Hory and his dealers understood how to exploit all the system’s weak points.

They did not, however, anticipate new forensics techniques to analyze pigments. In this one crucial aspect of pigments, de Hory remained blissfully uninterested or unable to hide his tracks. Among all the sources, the use of correct paint is mentioned once: that Dufy should use zinc white,[36] but this seems to be an attempt to achieve a certain hue and not to match a period paint. In fact, he never once seems concerned with this issue of anachronistic pigments. This most likely stems from a lack of knowledge about the history of paints and an inability to anticipate new forensics techniques like x-ray fluorescence and raman spectrometry. These technologies can quickly determine elemental and molecular compositions and identify materials that betray a later date of production than the painting purports to be, and in this last and crucial aspect, de Hory’s artifice has been exposed.


Foto Elmyr de Hory circa tahun 1970an. Diambil dari website http://www.crimelibrary.com/graphics/photos/criminal_mind/scams/elmyr_de_hory/pg4-Elmyr-de-Hory.jpg tanggal 1 Februari 2008.

Photo of Elmyr de Hory, circa 1970. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

 

Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time by Clifford Irving

Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, by Clifford Irving. Mcgraw-Hill; First edition. edition (June 1969). 243 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0070320475.

 

What is correct about the first two pages of Irving’s introduction to de Hory is that he was gay. Being gay and also 100% Jewish (he claimed to be only half), in a time of rising fascism, begins to explain de Hory’s close association of deception with survival.

 

Theatrical poster for Orson Welles' F for Fake (1974).

Theatrical poster for Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1974). Source: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare11/f-for_fake.htm

 

Jeffrey Taylor’s Biography

Jeff Taylor moved to Hungary with the Peace Corps in 1990 after graduating from Oberlin College with a BA in English and political science. Later, he received a Rotary Scholarship to attend the Central European University in Budapest, where he earned his MA and PhD in cultural history. Dr. Taylor is an expert in the history of the art market and specializes in analyzing the dynamic of art values over time. He holds Hungarian state-recognized appraisers licenses for antique furniture and oriental carpets and works as an art agent with Taylor Art Advisors. Prior to his current position as the assistant professor of arts management at Purchase College, Dr. Taylor was a lecturer in arts management at the International Business School of Budapest in the Bachelor of Arts in Arts Management program.

Endnotes

[1] The Q source represented the common features of the Gospels of Mathew and Luke, which do not appear in Mark.

[2] Clifford Irving, Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 15-16.

[3] Birth Record for Elemér Hoffmann, Folyó-szám [Registration Number]: 1034. “Kivonat: A Budapest Zsidó Hitközseg születési anyakönyvéből.” It reports April 14, 1906 as his date of birth.

[4] Edith Tenner, interviewed by Colette Loll-Marvin, Andrea Megyes, and Jeffrey Taylor, May 12, 2011, in Rüsselheim, Germany. The widow of de Hory’s maternal cousin, Edith Tenner, explains that Irén Tenner was de Hory’s mother, and her father owned a brick factory in Billéd, which would have been the Transylvania region of the Hungarian Kingdom. The town is now Biled, part of Romania. The wealth and social status of de Hory’s grandfather, the factory’s proprietor, probably serves as his image of the aristocratic prestige he craved.

[5] Birth Certificate.de Hory’s father, Adolf Hoffmann, is described as a “Kéziműarúnagykereskedő.” This could mean he sold products like brooms or brushes.

[6] Birth Certificate. The address was Sétatér 2 in District V. This would have been on the edge of a massive building project going on around today’s Szabadsag tér, and so the address was probably constantly cacophonous and dusty.

[7] De László was the most sought-after portraitist in the world after John Singer Sargent renounced portraiture. De László painted portraits of popes, royalty, and U.S. presidents.

[8] The work has undergone restoration in advance of its appearance in this exhibition. During the course of the restorer’s work, he found that the faces (those of Elmyr and his brother) appearto be painted over an older painting.

[9] István Réti, A nagybányai művésztelep. (Budapest: Vince Kiadó, 1994).

[10] He is probably referring the Swedish protection pass issued by the diplomat Raul Wallenberg.

[11] Though the Holocaust Museum lists his brother Istvan and his mother Irén Tenner as holocaust survivors, no record exists for Elemér Hoffmann. Mark Forgy disputes the possibility of de Hory’s refuge in Spain due to his poor mastery of Spanish.

[12] Two works are conserved in the collection of Edith Tenner.

[13] International Arrest Warrant for Elemér Hoffmann, 22 December, 1971, Geneva police. INTERPOL archives. Includes a listing of his convictions in Berlin, Paris, London, Basel, and Zurich from the years 1927-1931.

[14] István Hont, de Hory’s brother, to the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Archives, 12 February, 1972. Mark Forgy collection.

[15] His gravestone on the Spanish island of Ibiza is engraved: “14 de Abril 1911-11 de Diciembre de 1976 ELMYR.”

[16] “The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving.” Time, February 21, 1972. Welles speculates that de Hory might have even assisted in the production of the forged letters.

[17] Much of F for Fake’s footage was actually shot for an earlier documentary by François Reichenbach (a former art dealer and de Hory victim), Elmyr: The True Picture, which aired on the BBC on July 16, 1971.

[18] In F for Fake, Welles expands the coincidence by noting that originally Citizen Kane was to mirror the life of Howard Hughes, not William Randolf Hearst.

[19] Harry Lime (played by Welles), the villain of The Third Man.

[20] Orson Welles, F for Fake.(1973; San Sebastian; Janus Films, Criterion Edition), at 1:26:34.

[21] Ken Talbot, Enigma: New Story of Elmyr De Hory – The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. (London: ONT, 1991), 238-268.

[22]Johannes Rød, Preprints of the IIC Nordic Group 16th Congress, Reykjavik [conference papers], 2003, s. 53-57. Rød also co-wrote the 1997 documentary film, Masterpiece or Forgery? The Story of Elmyr de Hory.

[23] Mark Forgy. The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist. (Create Space, 2012), 36. This anecdote appears in all sources, though the amount she pays varies between 40 and 50 pounds.

[24] Ibid., 95.

[25] Ibid., 119-20.

[26] Ibid., 49.

[27] Ibid., 53.

[28] Irving, Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, 47.

[29] Forensics Study, TONDO Artwork Forensics Laboratory, Budapest, Hungary, 2012.

[30] Irving, Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory , 52.

[31] Forgy, The Forger’s Apprentice, 68, 120, and 153.

[32] Ibid., 122-3.

[33] Ibid., 107.

[34] Ibid., 105.

[35] Ibid., 124.

[36] Ibid., 120.