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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 with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]