Elmyr de Hory

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Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory (born Hoffmann Elemér Albert) (Budapest, April 14, 1906 - Ibiza, December 11, 1976) was a Hungarian-born painter and art forger who is said to have sold over a thousand forgeries to reputable art galleries all over the world. His forgeries garnered much celebrity from a Clifford Irving book, Fake, and from F for Fake (1974), a documentary essay film by Orson Welles.

Early life[edit]

Most of the information regarding de Hory's early life comes from what he told American writer Clifford Irving, himself a fraudster, who wrote the first biography about him. Since Elmyr's success was reliant upon his skills of deception and invention, it would be difficult to take the facts that he told about his own life at face value, as Clifford Irving himself admitted. Elmyr claimed that he was born into an aristocratic family, that his father was an Austro-Hungarian ambassador and that his mother came from a family of bankers. However, subsequent investigation has suggested that Elmyr's childhood was, more likely, of an ordinary, middle class variety. His parents left him to the care of various governesses and were divorced when Elmyr was sixteen.

Research done in 2011 by Mark Forgy, Colette Loll Marvin, Dr. Jeff Taylor, and Andrea Megyes dispelled some of the longstanding myths surrounding Elmyr, most notably definitively establishing his true identity from marriage and birth records at the Association of Jewish Communities in Budapest. He was born: Elemér Albert Hoffmann on April 14, 1906. Both his parents were Jewish. His father's occupation was listed as "Wholesaler of handcrafted goods." Both his mother and brother were listed as holocaust survivors. Nor did his parents divorce when Elmyr was sixteen as he asserted in the Clifford Irving biography. An updated account of de Hory's life appears in Mark Forgy's memoir, The Forger's Apprentice: Life with the World's Most Notorious Artist.

Elmyr moved to Budapest, Hungary to study. At 18, he joined the Akademie Heinmann art school in Munich, Germany to study classical painting. In 1926 he moved to Paris, and enrolled in the Académie la Grande Chaumière, where he studied under Fernand Léger and became accustomed to fine living.

Shortly after his return to Hungary, he became involved with a British journalist and suspected spy. This friendship landed him in a Transylvanian prison for political dissidents in the Carpathian Mountains. During this time, de Hory befriended the prison camp officer by painting his portrait. Later, during the Second World War, de Hory was released.

Within a year, Elmyr de Hory was back in jail, this time imprisoned in a German concentration camp for being both a Jew and a homosexual (while his homosexuality was proven over time, investigation into his past has shown the likelihood that Elmyr was not Jewish, but instead was christened as a Calvinist). He was severely beaten and was transferred to a Berlin prison hospital, where he escaped and later slipped back into Hungary. It was there he learned that his parents had been killed and their estate confiscated. With his remaining money de Hory bribed his way back into France, where he tried to earn his living by painting.

Life as a forger[edit]

On arriving in Paris, Elmyr de Hory attempted to make an honest living as an artist, but soon discovered that he had an uncanny ability to copy the works of noted painters. So good were his copies that many of his friends believed them to be genuine; in 1946 Elmyr de Hory sold a reproduction of a Picasso to a British woman who took it for an original. He began to sell his Picasso reproductions to art galleries, claiming that they were what remained of his family's estate. Galleries took the paintings and paid Elmyr de Hory the equivalent of (USD) $100 to $400 (circa 1947) per painting. Like most successful art forgers, rather than attempting to copy existing works by celebrated artists, he only painted original works in their style, which made the forgeries much harder to detect.

That same year Elmyr de Hory formed a partnership with Jacques Chamberlin, who later became his art dealer. They toured Europe and South America selling the forgeries until de Hory discovered that, although they were supposed to share the profits equally, Chamberlin had kept most of the money. He ended the relationship and resumed the tour alone. In 1947 Elmyr de Hory visited the United States on a three-month visa and decided to stay there, moving between New York City and Los Angeles.

Occasionally, throughout his career, Elmyr de Hory attempted to stop making forgeries and create original artwork, but could never find a market for his work, always returning to the lucrative clandestine activity. Elmyr eventually expanded his forgeries to include works by Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. Because some of the galleries Elmyr de Hory had sold his forgeries to were becoming suspicious, he began to use pseudonyms, and to sell his work by mail order. Some of de Hory's many pseudonyms included Louis Cassou, Joseph Dory, Joseph Dory-Boutin, Elmyr Herzog, Elmyr Hoffman and E. Raynal.

During the 1950s, Elmyr de Hory settled in Miami, continuing to sell his forgeries through the mail and studying the styles and techniques of other master painters in order to imitate their works. In 1955 one of his Matisse forgeries was sold to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University; soon thereafter, authorities discovered it was a fake and launched an investigation.

Making a business of forgery[edit]

In 1955 Elmyr de Hory sold several forgeries to Chicago art dealer Joseph W. Faulkner, who later discovered they were fakes. Faulkner pressed charges against Elmyr de Hory and initiated a federal lawsuit against him, alleging mail and telephone fraud. Elmyr later moved to Mexico City, where he was briefly detained and questioned by the police, not for his artistic endeavors, but regarding his connection to a suspect in the murder of a British man, whom Elmyr claimed he had never met. When the Mexican police attempted to extort money from him, Elmyr hired a lawyer who also attempted to extort money from him, by charging exorbitant legal fees. Elmyr paid the lawyer with one of his forgeries and returned to the USA.

On his return, Elmyr de Hory discovered that his paintings were fetching high prices at several art galleries, and was incensed that the galleries had only paid him a fraction of what they thought the paintings were worth. Further compounding de Hory's plight was that the manner of his forgeries had become recognizable, forcing him to sell his fake lithographs door-to-door to make a living. While on a trip to Washington DC, Elmyr began to suffer from depression and attempted suicide by overdose of sleeping pills. His stomach was pumped, and after a stay in the hospital, de Hory convalesced in New York City, helped by an enterprising young man, Fernand Legros, who eventually became de Hory's primary dealer. Their stormy association lasted until 1967.

Legros accompanied Elmyr de Hory back to Miami where he continued to regain his health. When he imprudently took Legros into his confidence, the other man quickly recognized an opportunity and importuned the artist to let him sell his work in exchange for a 40% cut of the profits, with Legros assuming all the risks inherent in the sale of forgeries. With Legros, de Hory again toured the United States. In time, Legros demanded his cut be increased to 50%, when, in reality, Legros was already keeping much of the profit. On one of these trips Legros met Real Lessard, a French-Canadian, who later became his lover. The two had a volatile relationship, and in 1959 Elmyr de Hory decided to leave the two and return to Europe.

In Paris, Elmyr de Hory unexpectedly ran into Legros. Elmyr revealed to him that some of his forgeries were still back in New York. Legros devised a plan to steal the paintings and sell them, making a name for himself and his art gallery in the process. Later that year, Elmyr de Hory decided to resume his partnership with Legros. Legros and Lessard would continue to sell de Hory's work, and agreed to pay him a flat fee of $400 a month.

In 1962, Elmyr de Hory moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza, while Legros and Lessard kept up the business of selling his paintings for large amounts of money from Paris. Many times they would forget to send de Hory his small monthly allowance. After several instances of this, Legros built de Hory a home in Ibiza to placate him.

Elmyr de Hory always denied that he had ever signed any of his forgeries with the name of the artist whom he was imitating. This is an important legal matter, since painting in the style of an artist is not a crime - only signing a painting with another artist's name makes it a forgery. This may be true, as Legros may have signed the paintings with the false names.

Unmasking the forger[edit]

In 1964, now 58-years old, Elmyr de Hory began to tire of the forgery business, and soon his work began to suffer. Consequently, many art experts began noticing that the paintings they were receiving were forgeries. Some of the galleries examining de Hory's work alerted Interpol, and the police were soon on the trail of Legros and Lessard. Legros sent de Hory to Australia for a year, to keep him out of the eye of the investigation.

By 1966, more of de Hory's paintings were being revealed as forgeries; one man in particular, Texas oil magnate Algur H. Meadows, to whom Legros had sold 56 forged paintings, was so outraged to learn that most of his collection was forged, that he demanded the arrest and prosecution of Legros. Angered, Legros decided to hide from the police at de Hory's house on Ibiza, where he asserted ownership, and threatened to evict Elmyr. Coupled with this and with Legros' increasingly violent mood swings, Elmyr de Hory decided to leave Ibiza. Legros and Lessard were apprehended soon thereafter, imprisoned on charges of check fraud.

Elmyr continued to elude the police for some time, but, tired of life in exile, decided to move back to Ibiza to accept his fate. In August 1968, a Spanish court convicted him of the crimes of homosexuality and of consorting with criminals, sentencing him to 2 months in prison. He was never directly charged with forgery, because the court could not prove that he had ever created any forgeries on Spanish soil. He was released in October 1968 and expelled from Spain.

Death and legacy[edit]

Ursula Andress and Vicenç Caraltó at the Elmyr de Ibiza art gallery, 1971

One year following his release Elmyr de Hory, by then a celebrity, returned to Ibiza. He told his story to Clifford Irving who wrote the biography: Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. Soon thereafter, Irving created his own forgery: a fake auto-biography of Howard Hughes. De Hory appeared in several television interviews, and was featured with Irving in Orson Welles' free-form documentary, F for Fake (1974). In Welles' film, Elmyr de Hory questioned what it was that made his forgeries inferior to the actual paintings created by the artists he imitated, particularly since they had fooled so many experts, and were always appreciated when it was believed that they were genuine.

During the early 1970s, Elmyr de Hory again decided to try his hand at painting, hoping to exploit his new-found fame: this time, he would sell his own, original work. While he had gained some recognition in the art world he made little profit, and he soon learned that French authorities were attempting to extradite him to stand trial on fraud charges. This took quite some time, as Spain and France had no extradition treaty at that time.

On December 11, 1976, de Hory's live-in bodyguard and companion, Mark Forgy, informed him that the Spanish government had, after lengthy negotiation, agreed to turn Elmyr over to the French authorities. Shortly thereafter, Forgy found Elmyr de Hory near death in their home. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills, and within minutes of being discovered, died in Forgy's arms. Clifford Irving has expressed doubts about de Hory's death, claiming that he may have faked his own suicide in order to escape extradition, but Forgy has dismissed this theory.

Following his death, Elmyr de Hory paintings became valuable collectibles. His paintings had become so popular that forged Elmyr's began to appear on the market.

In popular culture[edit]

References[edit]

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