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March 9, 2013

Jonathan Keats' FORGED: Elmyr de Hory (1906(?)-1976, What Is Identity?

The artist who copyrighted his mind in 2003, Jonathan Keats, questions the concept of originality in his new book, FORGED: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (December 2012, Oxford University Press). He writes a section on art forger Elmyr de Hory.

The forger most commonly known as Elmyr de Hory fabricated his name, his life story, and had so little credibility that quantifying the number of oil paintings faked is unknown even decades after his suicide in Ibiza in 1976. Keats writes:

Elmyr’s plagiarism of authentic works only served to obfuscate, confounding the identification of work he really faked. In the catalogue for a 2010 de Hory retrospective at the Hillstrom Art Museum, Irving estimated that up to 90 percent of Elmyr’s forgeries remained undetected. “Elmyr’s illegitimate masterpieces in public and private collections under the names of a number of the great Modernists may continue resting undisturbed, perhaps forever,” mused museum director Donald Myers, inadvertently echoing de Hory. (“If you hang them in a museum and if they hang long enough,” said Elmyr in F is for Fake, “then they become real.”)

Orson Welles’ film F is for Fake (1975) and the fictional biography Fake (1969) by Clifford Irving (of the Howard Hughes autobiography hoax) provided no further biographical clarity about de Hory.  But what of the effect in the art world of de Hory’s fakes? In 1952, when Beverly Hills gallery owner Frank Perls decided drawings presented by Louis Raynal (de Hory) ‘were fraudulent, he evicted Raynal from his gallery and – as he later recalled – threatened to call the police if Raynal didn’t leave town'.  Three years later, a curator at Boston’s Fogg Art Museum also returned drawings represented as by Modigliani and Renoir to Raynal and relegated an Elmyr ‘Matisse’ to storage. ‘Lest he (de Hory) sue for defamation, Elmyr was never told what happened.’ In 1966, Texan oil tycoon Algur Hurtle Meadows bargained hard to purchase 58 modern masterpieces in oils, watercolors and gouache pictures by Elmyr de Hory through a pair of art dealers, Legros and Lessard, alleged to have manufactured the authentication of these works. Keats writes:

They bribed the experts or had their official stamps counterfeited. When the artists were still alive, the duo gambled on poor memory and failing eyesight, a ruse known to have worked at least once on an eighty-nine-year-old Kees van Dongen, who authenticated an Elmyr ostensibly painted when van Dongen was in his forties. The extensive documentation allowed Legros and Lessard to circumvent galleries, retailing directly to the nouveau riche of Europe and the United States.

De Hory spent the last years of his life selling paintings in the manner of master artists under his own name until he killed himself ‘with a cocktail of sleeping pills and cognac to avoid extradition to France, where he was to be tried for fraud in the long-drawn-out [Algur Hurtle] Meadows case.'