“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 Holocaust and suicide.
When discussing queer people and the law, it isn't rare for the two to conflict. Not only because of the many queer identities that are or have been illegal throughout the world, but also because once you question the morality of one law, it is not a large leap to wonder at the morality of others. As we look at the life of one of the most famous art forgers in the world, that conflict becomes particularly relevant.
Elmyr de Hory was a Jewish man born in Budapest in 1906 to a middle-class family, though for most of his life he would maintain that he was raised as an aristocrat. At the age of sixteen, his parents divorced and he was sent to a prestigious art colony and was later taught in Paris. He returned home to Hungary just as the second world war began. After a few minor arrests, he was sent to a concentration camp for being both Jewish and gay.
It was after the war ended and Elmyr de Hory was released that he began wandering Europe. He had become rather directionless after he was separated from his family during the Holocaust. He believed them to be dead, though there is evidence to suggest that they may have survived. With training in art that was losing its popularity as he learned it, Elmyr first tried to become an artist of his own merit.
This pursuit would not leave Elmyr through most of his life, but soon it did fall to the wayside as he learned of his rather peculiar talent for forgery. It was all revealed when he was in particularly desperate times. A rich friend was visiting his house, and upon seeing an ink drawing on the wall she said she was certain it was a Picasso and asked to buy it from Elmyr. Elmyr did not correct her.
This would be the beginning of a fantastic and somewhat ridiculous career for Elmyr. Try as he might, he was never able to find recognition for his own work under his own signature. Again and again that he would find himself on hard times, and turn back to creating under the more famous signatures of men like Picasso and Dufy.
He would later discuss this saying:
“[The] establishment knows nothing. A college art student knows easily as much about modern art as the best dealers in the best galleries. The dealers know one thing very well: to buy cheap and sell dear. That’s the extent of their expertise. I long ago realized that if I do commercial things in painting I got such a minimum that it was barely enough to hold me alive-not enough to live on but just too much to die on. My better work, I could sell it to the galleries at any price. But if I brought them the same drawing with the signature of a Picasso they were ready to peel out any amount of money. I found the whole thing incredibly-how to say?... partly funny, partly sad, partly disgusting.”
Despite, or perhaps because, of his disdain for the art scene at the time Elmyr found himself a career, going from city to city, with his suit and monocle, a set of forgeries under his arm, and selling his work to art dealers. He weaved them a story of his life as a displaced Hungarian aristocrat looking for some quick cash. For a time he did this in America, under an expired visa, making famous friends and pushing out forged art to pay for his new lifestyle.
There were times when he tried to move onto the side of the law, such as his time living in Los Angeles where he spent a great deal of time living off of his own work, but eventually rent day would come and he would end up back with the art dealers, telling them about the Picasso he just found in his family collection.
Though they did not have all of the forensic countermeasures we have today, there was a system intended to weed out forgeries. Much of it relied on experts who would often spend days examining a work. Time and again they returned it, certain that the piece Elmyr had made was a genuine Matisse.
It is important to note here that Elmyr had his own ideas about the work he did:
“I don’t like that word ‘fake’ but I’ll use it. I made paintings in the style of a certain artist. I never copied. The only fake thing about my paintings was the signature.”
However you choose to describe the job, he did it well. Whether that was because of his charm, his skill, his luck, or some combination of the three, his work was not a hard sell. Major galleries throughout America bought Elmyr’s work and displayed them next to genuine articles without anyone raising an eyebrow.
That is not to say that there were no bumps in the road. After selling to a dealer in Chicago who did find out that the work wasn’t genuine, there was a case brought up against him, and the FBI attempted to track him. This, accompanied by his expired visa, soon gave Elmyr some of the first real anxieties he had experienced in his work. He furthered the issue when he attempted to team up with a man who later double-crossed him.
Despite his profession, Elmyr was a trusting man, and he soon found himself a new partner to make his life increasingly difficult: Fernand Legros.
From the moment Elmyr saw Legros, he didn’t like the man, and instinct he should have trusted. Legros was also a gay man and was with Réal Lessard, a French-Canadian man who would soon become the third in this group. A friend Elmyr was staying with insisted that they help Legros, and when Legros saw what Elmyr was doing, he wanted in.
He said he would do the risky part, going from art dealer to art dealer, convincing them to buy. All Elmyr would have to do was make the art. With many memories of being run out of town by suspicious art dealers, Elmyr accepted the proposition.
The deal was to split their earnings fifty-fifty, but it wasn’t long before Legros began taking a larger cut and demanding Elmyr only sell his paintings through Legros. It was under Legros’ ever-growing demand that Elmyr began to chafe. The three of them had already planned to go to Paris together, and when Elmyr arrived early with cash from paintings he had sold in secret, he abandoned his two partners and pursued his own career once again.
He lived like that for a while, flipping between forgery and his own work while traveling through Europe, eventually growing dissatisfied. By now, he was older and he found that the constant travel his work required had lost its charm. He wanted was to settle down. He wanted a home. After quite the search, he found home on the island of Ibiza.
[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