Appreciating Hungarian Master Art Forger Elmyr de Hory

Competition

Of course, Elmyr de Hory wasn’t his real name. Which explains why, when I asked my Hungarian partner if she’d ever heard of him, she said “that’s not Hungarian”. She was right.

Elmyr de Hory led his entire life by the “Hungarian revolving door” principle.

But de Hory was Hungarian. Born Elemér Albert Hoffmann in Budapest in 1906, and is supposed to have died 70 years later on the Spanish Balearic island of Ibiza.  

Hungarians delight in listing the, admittedly startling, number of their countrymen and women who’ve soared to heights of excellence in the world outside the country. Quite rightly.

De Hory exemplifies another kind of Hungarian genius, one that mixes skill, cunning and the survival instinct to make life tap dance to the tune only you hear. This quality is best summed up in an expression taught to me by none other than Robin Marshall, editor of this newspaper.

“A Hungarian is the only person who can go into a revolving door behind you, and come out ahead of you,” he once told me, though he takes no credit for having come up with the idea.

For most of his life, Elmyr de Hory came out of that revolving door well ahead of those who thought they had got one up on him. Until, well, he didn’t. Maybe.

The faker’s faker

He claimed to be an aristocrat whose family had lost their fortune. But it’s most likely de Hory was born into Budapest’s Jewish middle class. He began his art training at Nagybánya, a Hungarian art colony now in Romania, before moving to Paris and studying under Fernand Léger, best known as a certain kind of Cubist.

De Hory’s training put him out of step with the hectic pace of trends in the French art world at that time. This, combined with the Great Depression, meant he struggled to make a living and began to fall foul of the police from the late 1920s onwards.

Returning to Hungary at the start of the Second World War – why, one has to ask – de Hory hooked up with a British journalist suspected of being a spy. He was imprisoned in a Transylvanian prison but, after painting a portrait of the prison camp officer, he was released. Only to be sent to a German concentration camp for being a Jew and homosexual. (Interestingly, evidence suggests that, although de Hory was born Jewish, he was christened Calvinist.) Transferred to a Berlin prison hospital after a beating, de Hory escaped and made his way back to Hungary where, he said, his parents had been killed and their wealth confiscated.

Returning to Paris after the war, de Hory abandoned any attempts to make an honest living when he discovered he could copy the styles of other painters perfectly. After a British woman mistook a pen-and-ink drawing he sold her in 1946 for a Picasso original, de Hory took this as a sign and was off and forging.

One-way Ticket

In 1947, de Hory bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro. From there, he travelled to the United States where he stayed for 12 years. In the land of opportunity, de Hory began forging works by Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir using a dazzling array of made-up names.

He also supposedly struck up a friendship with the legendary Hungarian-born actress Zsa Zsa Gabor.

After he was rumbled by Chicago art dealer Joseph W. Faulkner, de Hory briefly fled to Mexico. Here, he was arrested because of his connection to a suspected murderer. Paying off his lawyer with a forged painting, de Hory returned to the States and discovered his forgeries were being sold for substantial amounts at art galleries that had paid him what he thought was peanuts.

It’s been claimed that de Hory’s forgeries made, in total, USD 50 million.

Suffering from depression, de Hory attempted suicide in 1959. Shortly after this, he met Fernand Legros, an enterprising but deeply unpleasant character. Realizing that de Hory had the potential to be the forger that laid the golden eggs, Legros struck a deal with him. Legros would take on all the risk of selling de Hory’s work in exchange for 40% of the profits.

In reality, Legros was making much more from de Hory’s work and the forger tried to escape him, but they met again in Paris. This time, Legros agreed to pay de Hory USD 400 a month no matter what. Now financially secure, he thought, de Hory moved to Ibiza, then a sunny place for shady people.

Here, de Hory met American writer Clifford Irving who wrote “Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time” about him. In a delicious twist, Irving became notorious for his part in forging letters purporting to be from reclusive American tycoon Howard Hughes, which he then used to legitimize his claim that Hughes had authorized him to ghostwrite his autobiography. Irving said he’d received the invitation after Hughs read “Fake!”

Imprisoned

Irving confessed to the deceit in 1972 and was imprisoned for 17 months.

The great filmmaker and actor Orson Welles also turned his beady eye on de Hory. His 1973 movie “F for Fake” featured de Hory in all his leaking sawdust glory. It’s available in all its entirety on YouTube and well worth watching.

In 1976, de Hory was informed that the Spanish government had agreed to hand him over to the French to stand trial on fraud charges. According to his long-time companion Mark Forgy – his real name, allegedly – de Hory overdosed on sleeping tablets and died on the way to the hospital.

Probably unsurprisingly, Clifford Irving preferred to believe that de Hory faked his suicide to escape extradition and vanished. I hope he did. It would be the perfect illustration of our editor’s revolving door principle.

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