The art was not to copy the exact painting, but to create something that the painter might have sketched (Elmyr de Hory).
One wintry morning in December 1976 as a cub reporter for Guidepost I careened into a prestigious art gallery in upscale Serrano Street, Madrid. Some months earlier I had acquired Fake! at the Rastro, Madrid’s famed flea market. The book related the story of Elmyr de Hory, the forger of the century who under many pseudonyms (Elmyr Herzog. E. Raynal, Louis Cassou, Joseph Dory-Boutin) is known to have sold over a thousand forgeries of such world-renowned painters as Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Agusta Renoir and Pablo Picasso to reputable art galleries around the world. Moreover, the book was penned by another fraudster, Clifford Irving, who fabricated the false autobiography of Howard Hughes.
I devoured Fake! in two days and was set to interview the artful counterfeiter . . .
The sumptuous art gallery was devoid of people. I hesitated for a moment and my eyes wandered around the room. I caught sight of a young man standing behind a chair in a corner. Huddled on the chair was an older man whose countenance was filled with anxiety. I walked up, introduced myself and showed him my credentials. Elmyr eyed me suspiciously for a second and said nervously, “I will be here for a couple of days. You can come back another day.”
I thanked him. Little did I realize that the interview would never ever take place. Days later I read in the newspaper that Elmyr de Hory had taken his life by overdosing on sleeping pills.
So remember, aspiring journalist, just do it the Old West way: Shoot first then ask questions next.
Now almost four decades later the Círculo de las Belles Artes de Madrid is exhibiting “Elmyr de Hory, Proyecto de Fake” to revive the story of the forger and is neatly tying it in with the Howard Hughes’ false biography ingeniously hatched by Clifford Irving in Ibiza where incidentally the forger and the hoaxer were the life and soul of the parties.
“All the world loves to see the experts and the establishment made a fool of,” affirms Clifford Irving when speaking about the fakes.
The Ibiza nights shown around the world today is a far cry from the Ibiza of the 60´s brilliantly documented by movie mogul Orson Welles in F for Fake. There were two Ibizas then. One where the locals lead simple lives sticking to traditions and the other where jet-setters, hippies and crooks partied until the wee hours. “An island in the sun where restless souls may find each other,” Life magazine said. Or as Elmyr put it, it was “where all the strangest things happen and everybody minds everybody else’s business intensively.”
In the loose documentary F for Fake Orson Welles had assembled the players like a multi-cast Shakespearean drama, with young model Oja Kodar, his lifelong lover, for curtain-raiser. (She was fortunate enough to inherit half his estate.) Clifford Irving and fourth wife Edith who was also involved in the Howard Hughes hoax were among the cast. So was Nina Van Pallandt, the Danish blonde singing-baroness who, in the late 1950´s and early 1960´s, formed the singing duo Nina and Frederik with her then husband, the Dutch Baron Van Pallandt. She figures prominently in the documentary since she was one of the witnesses who took the stand in the trial of Clifford Irving, the con man of the year. But the focus of the film is Elmyr’s account of his life as a professional art forger.
Elmyr, the elegantly attired suave host, entertained such icons as Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel) and Ursula Andress (Dr. No) at La Falaise, his hilltop house in Ibiza.
Young Mark Forgy, the man I had met at the gallery on Serrano Street, put on many an act as a skillful balancing acrobat, being Elmyr´s secretary, gardener, and bodyguard. (In Mark’s recent memoirs, The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the Most Notorious Artist, we learn for the first time about another of Elmyr’s facets: he gave Mark a good education by taking him to museums and explaining at length about the great masters and their paintings. He encouraged him to study languages and sent him for private French lessons. Elmyr’s well-stocked library at home also helped Mark to widen his knowledge…)
Elmyr de Hory was born Elmyr Albert Hoffman into an aristocratic Jewish family in Budapest in 1906. His father, a diplomat, was posted to different European cities and was absent from home most of the time. His mother, endowed with great beauty and charm, hailed from a long line of Jewish bankers.
Elmyr was raised by French, English and German governesses. His artistic talent was aroused at an early age thanks to his grandmother who urged him to become a painter.
When his parents separated the 16 year-old Elmyr was sent to an art school in Budapest. At eighteen with his parents’ consent he left for Germany to enroll at Akademie Heiman where the strict Moritz Heiman would make his pupils copy a nude and a hand for five weeks. After the art classes Elmyr would hurry to the Alte Pinakothet Museum to study the muscular Greek and Roman statues carefully. Then with renewed vigor he would check out the nightlife with his friends.
At 20 Elmyr left for Paris where he enrolled at la Grande Chaumiére, a prestigious art school owned by Joseph Fernand Henri Leger, French painter, sculptor and filmmaker considered to be at the forefront of pop art. Elmyr soon moved to Montparnasse, a popular haunt for artists. He would live there for the next twelve years. Through his teacher he met Dutch painter Kees Van Dongan. At the time Paris was replete with American expatriates from the world of art and literature: Hemingway, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Ezra Pound, Man Ray. Completing the long list of expats were Irish writer James Joyce, Spain´s Salvador Dalí and Anais Nin (of Spanish origins).
Eminent people posed for Elmyr, among them Prince Yussopov who plotted to kill mad monk Rasputin; the Duke of Kent; and the brilliant and beautiful Bertha Palmer, socialite wife of Chicago millionaire Potter Palmer. However, the winds of war were blowing over Europe. Germany had become the notorious Third Reich. His father was sent to Auschwitz. Elmyr himself would be detained and tortured to such an extent that he had to be rushed to the hospital with a broken leg. He would manage to escape but when he got home he learnt that his mother had been killed. He found some diamonds in a hiding place in the greenhouse and with the help of one of the servants had them sewn into the seams of his trousers. With Swedish documents he slipped into Paris again where she met Phillipe de Rothschild who was kind enough to buy some of his paintings for $100. . . Soon his rent was overdue.
One day in April 1946 Lady Malcolm Campbell, a close friend of his, paid him a visit. Her eyes rested on a nude“Picasso”. “That Picasso… I really like it,” she said. “I will give you fifty pounds for it.”
Elmyr was flabbergasted. But from there his career as an art forger really took off. Henceforth he peddled copies of Picasso at a price ranging from 100 to 400 dollars. He would reveal the secret of his successful career thus: “The art was not to copy the exact painting, but to create something that the painter might have sketched.”
In 1947 Elmyr arrived in New York on a three months visa but overstayed … for more than eleven years. After checking into a posh suite in New York he got to meet Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor. He would crisscross the States and sell forged copies of the great masters. In 1955 the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University bought what turned out to be a fake Matisse drawing from a certain E. Reynal. Elmyr/E. Reynal had to lie low, a door to door lithograph salesman, until he struck up a friendship with two crooked art dealers, Fernand Legros and Real Lessard who kept most of the earnings.
In 1962 Elmyr flew to Spain and settled on the island of Ibiza.
In 1966 Texas oil magnate Algur H. Meadows found out that the 56 paintings he had purchased from Legros were fakes and alerted Interpol. Eventually Legros and Lassard were detained.
Elmyr was arraigned in August 1968 and sentenced to two months in prison. Since they could not prove that he had forged the paintings he was set free. But on learning the French authorities were attempting to get him extradited he committed suicide. The London Daily Express referred to Elmyr as “the man who holds the art world at ransom.”
The 1960s was a decade that sent shock waves throughout the art and publishing world when authenticity came to be questioned. But when the dust settled, and with the passing of time, not only have Elmyr’s fakes become collectibles, they fetch high prices. And the game of falsifying goes on.