Fake Fakes in the Forger’s Oeuvre

One more story about Elmyr de Hory

by Johannes Rød
johannes.rod@getmail.no

Preprints of the IIC Nordic Group 16th Congress, Reykjavik, 2003, s. 53-57.

If an art forger becomes famous because of his ”dirty” business, his pictures, fake or not, surely attract the art buying public. The quality of the art work itself does not have to be the most important – but rather the story connected to it. For Elmyr de Hory, this was the actual situation at the end of the 1960s. Because of the legendary status he had achieved during his 20 year career as a forger, the market for his pictures as a normal artist was huge. But this was also a situation open for exploitation by other participants in the market.

The American oil-millionaire Algur Hurtle Meadows had from the beginning of the 1960s established a collection of more than 60 impressionist and neo-impressionist paintings. Most of them were purchased through the Parisian art dealer Fernand Legros. In 1967 experts from the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) evaluated the collection, and the verdict was shocking: 36 of the paintings were fakes. This was the incident that revealed one of the most famous art-fraud scandals in the twentieth century, and the involvment of the art dealers  Fernand Legros and Real Lessard, and the art forger Elmyr de Hory or Elmyr von Houry, Elmyr Herzog, Elmyr Cassou, Elmyr Hoffman, Elmyr Raynal, Elmyr Dory –Boutin, Elemér Horthy as he also called himself. The forgeries were executed as pastiches, a principle Elmyr stuck to during his criminal career, he never copied master-paintings.

After the revelation, the trial was going to be held in France the following year with the 36 confiscated paintings as evidence. But an extradiction agreement did not exist between France and Spain at that time, so consequently, as long as he stayed inside Spain, Elmyr could go on with his life in freedom. The sudden death of Hurtle Meadows lead to a postponement of the trial, and Legros and Lessard got small sentences some years later. In his studio in Ibiza, however, Elmyr continued to paint pastiches as before – but with a slightly different finishing touch: he signed Elmyr. Until his death in 1976, this was his only occupation. The pastiches were popular among the public, and several galleries in Spain had them for sale the 1970s. In the 1980s, Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London put quite a few Elmyrs on auction, and  in 1983, the estimates from Sotheby’s on each painting went from £ 500 up to £5000, and they were sold from £800 up to $3000. In the late 80s and beginning of the 90s the situation for works connected to Elmyr changed. First there was a profound increase in pastiches signed Elmyr on the market and secondly, quite a few forgeries signed Matisse, Modigliani, van Dogen etc. supposedly by Elmyr de Hory were put into the market. Sotheby’s in New York had to withdraw the painting Woman in an Interior signed Matisse 1943, because it was suspected to have been painted by Elmyr de Hory in the 1950s.

The painting Woman with Pearl Necklace signed van Dogen and painted by Elmyr in the 1960s  was exhibited as a genuine painting in the Fauvism exhibition held in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1996.

According to Sotheby’s in London, the auction firm stopped selling pastiches signed Elmyr in the early 1990s because the quality fluctuated so much – it was difficult to tell wether it was Elmyr’s work or not. The Galeria Es Molí in Ibiza reported the same chaotic situation for Elmyr’s work there. From the mid 80s until the early 90s, the average artistic quality for pictures connected to Elmyr de Hory had changed. In other words, it was difficult to tell whether a picture signed Elmyr was actually executed by Elmyr or not. It was difficult to tell whether a supposedly true forgery by Elmyr (painted before the revelation) actually was done by Elmyr de Hory. The only trustworthy reference material (36 fake paintings from the Algur Hurtle Meadows collection) were stored behind iron doors in the Palais Justice in Paris.

To make the situation even more complicated, the two art-dealers, Real Lessard and Fernand Legros, had their own versions of the art faking business they were a part of in the 1950’s and 60’s. In his book L’amour du Faux Lessard claimed that he was the artist behind the forgeries, and that Elmyr de Hory only made the fake signatures. In the book Tableaux de Chasse Legros claimed that Elmyr de Hory was a Hungarian art critic he met on Ibiza in 1963, and not a painter.

According to his biographer, Elmyr practiced several different faking methods in the 1950s and 60s. A potential sale was of course first and foremost dependent of the quality of the artwork itself, secondly how convincing a provenance he could make, and thirdly his own appearance. With his natural talent as an actor he presented himself as a distinguished European gentleman, dressed in tailor-made suits with a golden watch on a golden chain hanging from his waistcoat and with a characteristic Hungarian accent. This striking person who sold pictures from the remnants of the family collection that he managed to take out of Hungary before the communists invaded the country fooled a lot of people. When it came to the presentation of the actual ’work of art’, an important element was the artificial patina: If the painting was supposed to be painted in 1915, the material structure had to look like it. With the paintings in the Algur Hurtle Meadows collection this was partly done by a relining  (if a painting is relined it looks more ’authentic’), and partly by using the right sort of materials (french type canvas and stretchers for the french paintings) patinated to give the illusion of age.

But one of the most successful methods, according to Elmyr, was to use old art books with folio photographs. Carefully the original photo was cut out and Elmyr produced a painting in the same style and with a similar representation as the original. Then Elmyr’s painting was photographed and carefully the new photo was glued into the book as a substitution for the original one. With the actual painting in one hand and the art book in the other – very few art dealers, according to Elmyr,  hesitated to buy the fake painting if the price was good.

In the beginning of the 1980’s, when paintings connected with Elmyr de Hory gradually became more frequently found in auction-houses, galleries and art dealer’s stores, the situation was difficult for both dealers and buyers. The quality of the paintings varied, and it was hard to tell whether it was one of Elmyr’s or an artpiece made by another person in the name of Elmyr (a faked Elmyr). The following note in Time Magazine in the 1980’s illustrates the situation:

… take a look at this rare collection of 100 paintings. Yessir, these are real beauts, all of them done in the inimitable styles of Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and other early modern masters. Well, to be honest, not quite inimitable styles. The paintings are actually by a clever Hungarian counterfeiter, Elmyr de Hory. Considered the world’s premier art forger before his death in 1976 … Eventually de Hory was so famous that he began signing his ’fakes’, and many of them had found their way into the hands of John Connally. Now in partnership with Forrest Fenn, owner of a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the onetime Governor of Texas and presidential hopeful wants to sell off some of his acquisitions. Price $12.000 to $15.000 apiece. After all, argues Fenn, ’If they are as good as real, then what the hell are we talking about? I mean, what is art?

The Connally collection of 100 paintings was bought from a former english bookmaker, Ken Talbot, in 1983 for $225.000. Talbot claimed he bought 400 paintings from Elmyr de Hory in the 1970s for $350.000, and he described his relationship to art with the words: ’I wouldn’t have known a painting at the time if it fell on me head’.

In 1991, a new revised edition of Clifford Irvings book Fake from 1969 was published by a private publishing firm in London (Ken Talbots own firm): Enigma! The New Story of Elmyr de Hory. The Greatest Art Forger of our Time. Retold and presented by Ken Talbot. Irving confirms in an interview in 1996 that he had sold the rights to reissue his book to Ken Talbot: ”But I have never met him and I have never written any note to the new edition as it is printed in the book. It’s a literary fake.”

The book has 10 new colour reproductions of paintings supposedly done by Elmyr as true fakes (prior to 1967). Six of them where present in the huge presentation of Elmyr de Hory in the gallery of the Tokyo newspaper Sankei Shimbun in 1994. The catalogue from this exhibition presents 70 forgeries by Elmyr de Hory from the collection of  Ken Talbot. But the paintings however, are mostly badly executed copies of famous impressionistic and neo-impressionistic paintings, and some of the figures in the compositions also have prominent asian features. Here are some examples:

None of the 70 paintings have the slightest resemblance to the reference material in the former Meadows collection. Nor do they represent the level of quality typical of Elmyr’s work between 1967 and 1976. According to his flatmate on Ibiza from 1971-76, Mark Forgy, Elmyr never copied any particular painting, he painted in the style of other artists. Still more strange is it to read the preface to the catalogue from the Tokyo exhibition:

”We are exhibiting paintings done by Elmyr de Hory, a genius we will not like to be confronted with again. … The exhibition, for the first time in Japan, consists of more than 70 fakes of modernistic paintings among others masters such as van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Renoir. ’I am always painting in the style of other artists, I never copy [my italicize]. The only fake in my pictures are the signatures’, de Hory says.”

It is likely that none of the paintings in the ownership of Connally, Forrest or Talbot were truly fakes by Elmyr de Hory: None of them were painted with the intention of being an original masterpiece and signed as such: the pictures were all badly executed copies or pastiches. A question to ask is if they were painted by Elmyr at all? Both Clifford Irving and Elmyr’s closest friends in Ibiza express their profound doubts. Vicente Ribas, attorney and close friend of Elmyr, claims that Elmyr only did as much painting in the 1970s as he found necessary for a confortable life. He was mostly interested in socialising and going to parties, and did not paint much.

Theory of modus operandi: The Ken Talbot Affair

The findings and the information in this affair are quite contradictory and confusing. First and foremost, Elmyr de Hory’s closest friends on Ibiza claim that he could not have painted what Talbot claims he had, and certainly not such a great number. Sotheby’s David Breuer-Wild supports their view in connection with the quality of the Talbot paintings and refers to what he has seen by Elmyr de Hory on the art-market. My research on the paintings from the Meadows collection reinforces his view. The preface to the catalogue from the Tokyo-exhibition quotes Elmyr saying  he never copied; nevertheless the exhibition itself is full of  poorly painted copies. The asian ”look” in the Matisses and Modiglianis also provides circumstantial evidence that the paintings were manufactured geographicalley far from Ibiza.

In conclusion my theory of Ken Talbot’s modus operandi is that he exploited the market to sell cheaply produced (may be painted in an Asian country) copies and pastiches as paintings done by Elmyr de Hory. These paintings were not individually very expensive to buy (about £800-£5000), but in large numbers the business generated must have been quite prosperous. With the reissue of Clifford Irving’s book with 10 new colour reproductions and with the 70 works in the catalogue from the Tokyo-exhibition, he might have tried to ”authorize” paintings in his ownership as ”genuine forgeries” done by de Hory. In this way he might have ”produced” fake fakes using the same method of presentation in art books as Legros, Lessard and de Hory used when they produced and sold fakes in the 1960s.

Everything connected to Elmyr de Hory involves an element of fiction. One can never tell what is actually true and what is not: he faked his own date of birth, he faked his family background in Hungary, his own biographer Clifford Irving was sent to prison for trying to write a false biography of Howard Hughes – and after his death Elmyr’s oeuvre is growing bigger and bigger.

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About elmyrstory

Mark Forgy is currently completing a forthcoming memoir about Elmyr and my life with him, entitled, "The Forger's Apprentice: Life with the World's Most Notorious Artist."
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