Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
People can be very difficult – some more than others.For certain individuals, however, hustling, lonesomeness, and habitual aversion to truth are anything other than values of unguided choice. Rather, these are adopted as survival strategies in an unforgiving world. Quite often, the folks susceptible to a lifestyle rooted in such things are not bad men and women at all. They are, above all else, survivors who not only how – but what it means – to get by.Elmyr de Hory was one of these people.His life was one of boundless talent whose naturally-forged path to glory was met with roadblock after roadblock. Said complications were not the stuff of conventional society – de Hory was forced into a concentration camp during World War II, made to live as a displaced person after escaping the clutches of Nazism, faced with widespread aversion because of his homosexuality, and met with coolness by artistic authorities of his time because they believed his painting style was no longer en vogue.Could that man ever paint! The son of a commonplace Hungarian merchant, he was so skilled with a brush and canvas that his works eventually fooled many of the same ‘authorities’ who never would have thought his creations worthy of purchase – it was believed that Picassos, Matisses, and the like stood in front of them.Little did they know that Elmyr had since begun to emulate the style of masters and perfected his craft so well that some of those very artists believed his paintings to be their own.The story of intrigue, passion, and uneasy glamor which unravels from there is best told by Mark Forgy.“As a young American Midwesterner, I fell under [Elmyr’s] spell …. in 1969 on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, becoming his personal assistant while he became my mentor and closest friend,” Forgy tells on his website. “[Elmyr’s] hilltop villa was my university where, beyond the glamour of the rich and famous, the people I met seemed to spring from the mind of Lewis Carroll. Elmyr also had deeper secrets than anyone knew.”Forgy wrote The Forger’s Apprentice, an aptly titled book which is both an autobiography and a biography of de Hory. He shared his memories of Elmyr with me, and some of these are included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Contrary to what some might think, de Hory did not initially set out to deceive potential customers about the origins of his art. It was also never proven that he forged the signatures of artists who he replicated. In carrying out his work, how did he straddle the balance between innovative artist and confidence man?
Mark Forgy: There are reasons to reassess parts of the folklore associated with Elmyr reported by his first biographer, Clifford Irving. First, there is enough evidence to support a revision of the tale that Elmyr's entry into the world of fakery was more accidental than deliberated and much longer than the two-plus decade career he admitted to. Moreover, even in the throes of my Midwestern naivety, I never put much credibility it that assertion. I have recently procured a couple real fake Elmyr/Modigliani drawings signed 'Modigliani' which came directly from Elmyr.
Elmyr never wholly abandoned his efforts to establish a career with his own art. He used the success of his fakery to finance those instances but the pattern of failure and resumed art crimes appeared unbreakable until he was identified as the source of the biggest art scandal of the 20th century in 1967. While he gained notoriety, financial security, and a folk hero stature or sorts, he never endured the greatest oddity of his legacy - the innumerable phony Elmyrs awash in the marketplace. The irony of this, I'm sure, might well have imparted a greater empathy for the fraud his victims suffered.
Cotto: Today, de Hory's paintings are considered fine art in and of themselves -- irrespective of whether or not they are reproductions. More than anything else, why did he attain such a rich and lasting legacy?
Forgy: I think Elmyr, for better or worse, has secured a place in art history. Even if he could never completely rid himself of the stain of criminality, it is unlikely that his prolific output will ever again be matched. In his wake there was a heightened awareness of the self-serving greed in the commerce of art, the fallibility of experts, institutions - and (wait for it) that fakery is not all bad. Why? Because every time the question of authenticity arises, we reopen the conversation about what art is and our values as a society. So, in an unintended way, the forgers and fakers keep us honest.
No, there's no shortage of irony in art.