“You see, I have no head for business. In fact, after all these years I’ve decided I’m not even an intelligent man.” — Elmyr de Hory
This article contains mentions of the suicide.
It was after Elmyr fell in love with and settled in Ibiza that Legros came back into his life. He and Réal had continued selling paintings, and they held no ill will toward Elmyr. In fact, they wanted to work with him again. He would be able to settle in Ibiza with a decent allowance of four hundred dollars a month, and Legros and Réal would travel Europe selling his work.
Elmyr agreed, settling in an apartment and creating a life for himself. On a small island with an influx of artistic types, Elmyr fit in well. His extravagant lifestyle was embraced, and his seeming unemployment was glossed over by most. He made himself a life and for the first time, he had stability.
He spoke of his life there, saying:
“It was my kind of place. People seemed to live on terribly small incomes in those days. Anyone who had two hundred dollars a month was considered rich. I became friendly with some of the up-and-coming artists like Edith Sommer, Clifford Smith, and David Walsh. They had great talent, and I had a little more money at my disposal than they did-I wanted to help them, so I bought their work. That’s why I called myself an art collector. I myself, when I first arrived, kept working on my own paintings. I still had hopes that one day I would be a success. I made a series of watercolors of the port and some views of the Old City. But as I got more and more involved with Fernand and Réal, I more and more hid the fact that I was an artist. They were furious when I told them I’d spoken to Ivan Spence, the Englishman who ran the local art gallery, about having a show of my own. Finally, I stopped doing my own work altogether.”
While he was doing this, Réal and Legros continued to sell his work, taking a larger cut than they had agreed to, and paying erratically. Réal had become a shrewd businessman and explained the decision saying:
“We had to keep him poor, or he’d have quit. He needed incentive. Whenever he had money he didn’t see why he should work, so we decided rather than give him large sums of cash we’d bring him gifts—like the portable TV set or a red sports car. That sort of thing always made him happy. He was like a child.”
The troubles with the partnership were not just within the business though; none of the three seemed to get along. Elmyr didn’t trust Legros, and the relationship between Legros and Réal was an abusive one that landed both parties in jail on many occasions.
It was after Réal left Legros to marry a woman that things tipped over the edge. Réal and Legros began fighting over Elmyr, but it was an easy decision for him. He had never trusted Legros and easily decided to stick by Réal. In the end, this was the catalyst that unraveled the whole enterprise.
The house Elmyr had in Ibiza was under Legros’ name for what he claimed to be Elmyr’s own protection. When the partnership turned sour, he demanded the home. The Ibizan court settled that the two would have to share the house. Still, there was a bigger storm brewing on the horizon.
A Texan businessman who had bought forty paintings from Legros finally caught on to their scheme, and the tower of cards began to fall. What happened next is known in the art world as a watershed moment. Painting after painting was revealed to be fake, and the grand deception was revealed.
After the trick was revealed, many art experts came forward sure that they had never fallen for such a forgery. It seems Elmyr’s reach was vast; it is now estimated that over a thousand works made by Elmyr resided in prominent galleries throughout the world.
In one case, an art expert was said to have become so used to Elmyr’s version of a Dufy that he no longer trusted authentic Dufy works, and instead saw Elmyr’s hand as the genuine article. Another story comes from the artist himself; Van Dougen, in his old age, saw Elmyr’s paintings as his own, reminiscing about the model, and signing off on its authenticity.
The variety and quantity of his artwork were so wide that Elmyr himself didn’t recognize them all, later saying:
“I never understood, the scale of the thing I was doing.”
The art world was shaken to its core, and an old Hungarian man with a monocle went to a prison in Ibiza for two months, taking his lawn chair with him.
F.R. Fehse discussed Elmyr saying:
“Undoubtedly, he is some kind of genius. But which kind, I don’t know. All I know is that no one quite like him has ever existed before. And, we all pray no one like him will ever exist again.”
Other people in the art world like Philippe Reichenbach who had become just as jaded to the art world as Elmyr found the whole scandal quite funny, saying:
“I was there when the President of the Academy called in four experts to look at a little Derain that he thought was ‘wrong.’ It was on the floor, propped carelessly against the wall, unframed, and the four experts came into the room—looked at it each one for, I assure you, not more than a second—and then laughed. They smirked, they sneered: ‘How ghastly! What a joke! How could anyone believe for a second that it’s a Derain? It’s so obviously a fake!’ Voila. Then the President asked the four experts to look at a Derain that belonged to him, and tell him what they thought of it. They looked, they rubbed their hands, they rolled their eyes with admiration. They cooed: ‘How beautiful, how masterly, how typical a Derain’ and so forth until you wanted to throw up. Well, I can assure you, the Derain that belonged to the President was awful. A real Derain it might have been, but even Derain, you know, had his bad days when his wife burned the toast and his cigarette ashes fell on the palette. And the little fake on the floor was really, in some parts, quite lovely. But the experts had made up their minds before they had entered the room.”
Art dealer Ivan Spence was also quite blunt about what he thought of the situation:
“Anyone who has paid fifty or sixty thousand dollars for one of these paintings deserves to be taken for a ride. I think it’s all highly amusing. Is a Matisse so beautiful or so rare that it’s worth that kind of money? Nonsense! Let’s end the veneration of what’s old and outdated. Let’s end this bloody business of an art ‘market.’ What one can hope for is that the whole scandal will teach people to buy the work of young, living painters.”
Even people Elmyr had swindled sometimes took it with surprisingly good-natured amusement. One friend was later being asked if he was angry about Elmyr selling him a fake, revealing it to be a fake, and paying him back with two checks that bounded. He said:
“Strangely enough, not at all. He is what he is, and there’s something wonderful about a man like that. He’s a charming crook. I wouldn’t be surprised if he really believed on both occasions that there was cash in the bank to cover the checks. No, still I consider him a friend-if I saw him walking down the other side of the Champs-Elysees right this minute, I’d run across the avenue and embrace him.”
An art collector who bought two supposed Renoir watercolours from a gallery admitted:
“I would be a complete hypocrite if a bore the artist a lasting grudge. I don’t buy paintings the way I buy stock in A.T. & T. and Xerox. I’ve had ten years of pleasure from my Renoirs—or Reniors-by-Elmyr, call them what you will—and I will have twenty more years if I’m lucky. Then I’ll leave them to my two sons and tell them, ‘These are things of beauty. Enjoy them for what they are, not the signature they bear or what someone else tells you they are or aren’t.”
These people, of course, were the exceptions and not the rules. The art world as a whole was not pleased with Elmyr’s scam, but Elmyr himself saw it a little differently, saying:
“I’ve always been an optimist, I look to the future. Not that I have any special regrets about what I’ve done in the past. It proved to me that in spite of having absolutely no personal recognition for myself, I obviously was an artist of consequence.”
In the end, having faced extradition and more jail time in 1976, Elmyr, unfortunately, committed suicide, something he had attempted several times before.
It is hard to say, having looked at his life, whether he was a "bad" man or not. He broke the law, continually and dismissively, but it is hard to be angry at a man who swindled rich people out of money through intense skill and hard work.
Defining what he did as wrong is also a hard thing to disagree with, but not as hard as it is to dismiss his talent and clear ability. Like many queer people throughout our history, it is hard to place Elmyr de Hory in a box. His life is filled with varied accounts and levels of anger and amusement, and near impossible to pin down.
A con man who got conned by his business partners time and again. An artist who is sometimes considered better than the artists he was faking, who was never recognized for the work that bore his own signature. It is difficult to say much about him for certain but to say that he is another example of the wild and strange world of queer history. Morality exists in more colours and shades then one would ever expect.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Irving, Clifford. Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Print.
Forgy, Mark. The Forger's Apprentice: Life with the World's Most Notorious Artist. CreateSpace, 2012. Print.
Loll, Colette, curator. “Elmyr de Hory.” Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, International Arts & Artists. www.intenttodeceive.org/forger-profiles/elmyr-de-hory/
Reichenbach, François. “Elmyr, The True Picture?” Vimeo, 1970, https://vimeo.com/84083934