Master Forger: Elmyr de Hory

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Shown: An image of Elmyr de Hory, with a sketch, that originally appeared in Time magazine.

Recently, reader Bethany suggested a "Feel Art Again" post on famous art forgers, including Tom Keating, David Stein, Eric Hebborn, Han Van Meegeren, and Elmyr de Hory. While I originally intended to post on all 5 at once, I soon discovered that de Hory's life is so fascinating he warrants a post all his own. So today, we'll delve into the life of the famed Hungarian forger.

1. Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976) didn't set out to defraud people. He received a thorough art education at Akademie Heinmann in Munich and Académie la Grande Chaumière in Paris. He then unsuccessfully attempted to make a living as an artist. His career in forgery began with one painting in the style of Picasso that a friend thought was the real deal. Over the years, he attempted several times to sell his own artwork, but could never find a market for it. Only years down the road, after he was exposed for fraud, did people become interested in his own work.

2. As a forger, de Hory was distinct for two reasons. The first was his immense talent. Not only could his forgeries fool experts around the world, but he was able to forge paintings by many different artists in many different styles. He faked paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amadeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. Secondly, he never copied existing works by the famous artists, but instead painted originals in the style of the artists, which makes identifying forgeries more difficult.

3. De Hory claimed he never signed any of the paintings with the name of another artist, which is an important point legally, since merely painting in the style of another artist isn't a crime. It's possible that his dealer(s) signed the famous names to de Hory's paintings.

4. While de Hory was never convicted of forgery, he still spent a significant amount of time imprisoned. He was thrown in a Transylvanian prison for political dissidents due to his friendship with a British journalist and suspected spy. He was released during WWII, but within a year was taken to a German concentration camp for being a Jew and a homosexual. (Although he was homosexual, he most likely was not Jewish, as he was baptized a Calvinist.) He managed to escape while at a Berlin prison hospital. Several years later, an art dealer initiated a federal lawsuit against de Hory, who fled to Mexico City, where he was jailed on suspicion of murder (and where both the police and his lawyer attempted to extort money from him). Three more years later, he was convicted in a Spanish court of homosexuality and consorting with criminals, for which he was sentenced to 2 months in prison.

5. On December 11, 1976, de Hory committed suicide, after being informed that Spain had agreed to hand him over to French authorities so he could stand trial on fraud charges. He overdosed on sleeping pills, a suicide he had previously attempted in Washington, D.C. Some people believe he faked his death in order to avoid extradition and prosecution, but no substantial evidence has ever been found to support the claim. After his death, his paintings (forgeries and originals) became so popular that forged de Horys appeared on the market.

For more information on Elmyr de Hory and art forgery, check out "Faking It: Elmyr de Hory, The Century's Greatest Art Forger" in truTV's Crime Library and "Wrong!" in Harvard Magazine.

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.

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August 9, 2008 - 9:00am
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