CONFESSIONS of ELMYR DE HORY – THE WORLD’S GREATEST ART FORGER
The romantic world of art forgery is not about copying existing masterpieces — it’s about creating new masterpieces in the style of the great masters — and then duping the experts — to get museums and private collectors to fork over large sums of money to purchase your recently discovered Cézanne, Monet, or Renoir.
“It is difficult to explain how you recognize a fake,” Klaus Perls once stated. “The first look at a work of art has to give you the emotional response of truth or fake. ”
“You can write whole books on what this first look implies,” explains internationally renowned art expert, T. Matthew Phillips. “The only real-world test to determine fakery would be to hang ten Vlamincks on a wall — one of them fake — and see whether the experts can spot the fake,” chortles Phillips, eyes aglow with anticipation, “and I’d love to be there!”
Enter Elmyr de Hory — the world’s greatest art forger! Elmyr forged his skills, (pun intended), in the 1930s European school of artistic temperament. He had been friendly or acquainted with Léger, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Picasso, and Derain. For over twenty years, Elmyr painted forgeries of all the great masters, particularly the subjects for which he had great affinity, such as Modigliani heads and Matisse nudes.
Elmyr’s preference for portraits and figural work was a major factor in his success as an art forger. There is no easier way to spot a fake than by studying the rendering of a body or the expression on a face. All the great painters — until the abstract anything-goes era — knew that a simple line could capture an entire mood or make a personal statement — and leave no feeling of accident in what had been drawn or painted. Elmyr knew it too. A lesser art forger would have been forced to avoid nudes or portraits — or be quickly challenged by the discerning eyes of Herr Direktors.
“It’s absolutely out of proportion,” said Elmyr, “the amount of money paid in relation to the value of the paintings. Old postage stamps have immense value, not for their beauty or art work, but for their rarity. By contrast, modern paintings by the twentieth century French masters, Matisse, Dufy, the Fauves — are not really rare at all. Those men were prolific painters and their works are in every big gallery and museum in the world. But long-dead painters like Rembrandt fetch comparably smaller prices today than a Miró or a Renoir or a Picasso.”
“Picasso is the biggest phenomenon ever,” exclaims Elmyr. “With one movement of his hand — in just seconds — a simple line drawing transformed into gold! Not even John D. Rockefeller was able to do that!”
Elmyr took infinite pains which are often associated with genius. If he was going to paint a Dufy interior form 1928, he brought out the books and studied the specific objects — the kinds of chairs, the shape of the musical instruments, the type of windows — that usually appeared in Dufy backgrounds, and then used them for his pastiche.
“I read somewhere,” Elmyr said, “that David Stein, the Englishman who did a few Chagalls and Picassos and right away got caught, claimed that he put himself into the mind and soul of the artist. If he was painting Chagall, he became Chagall. If he was painting Matisse, he became Matisse. I personally think that’s all the worst sort of nonsense. Could you write a story like Hemingway by trying to put yourself into Hemingway’s mind and soul? Could you become Hemingway? No, it’s a terribly vulgar and romantic explanation … though I’m sure the public eats it up. What I did was study — very, very carefully — the man’s work. That’s all there is to it.”
“With Matisse, for example, I had to be particularly careful. At the beginning — say around 1948 — I used a very easy, flowing line for a Matisse drawing. Because he had, I thought, I very simple line. And then suddenly later on I realized that his hand was not as secure as mine. Obviously, when he stopped work to glance up at his model, his line stopped too, with just that tiny little bit of uncertainty. Where I went very securely on, Matisse was hesitant, insecure. I had to correct that; I had to learn to hesitate also. Of course I never had much respect for Matisse anyway. I thought he was a very mediocre painter, greatly overrated. He juggled with colors and lines very cleverly, but to be clever is one thing and to be a great artist is something else. He was far and away the easiest artist to fake. I don’t like that word ‘fake,’ but I’ll use it.”
“I made paintings in the style of a certain artist. I never copied. The only fake thing in my paintings was the signature. I could do a Matisse drawing in about five minutes, so I assume it took him even less time, like with Picasso, between two puffs on a cigarette.”
“Picasso was terribly easy for me, too, especially the classical period — but dangerous because everything was registered and photographed by Sabartés, his secretary, and then put in a huge catalog of seventeen volumes by Christian Zervos. You can still get away with a small drawing from the blue or pink period, before everything was photographed, but not a big one. Anyway, I don’t think Picasso’s produced anything important in the last twenty years — he’s just, literally, banking on his reputation. He’s a great artist, but I think his last masterpiece was the Guernica. He’s done many beautiful things since, but he didn’t produce anything any more that was great.”
“Modigliani, also, was someone I did with great success — not because he’s easy, but because there was such an affinity between us. I don’t think there’s anyone in the whole art world who knows more about Modigliani than I do. I know him à fond, and I think I go the most satisfaction and pleasure out of doing Modigliani.”
“The most difficult to do were Cézanne and Braque. Cézanne is a very great artist; his technique is so cerebral, his knowledge so complex. Braque and Monet are very great painters, difficult to copy. Monet was a genius.”
“Dufy, on the other hand, is amusing. I knew that world intimately: Cannes, Deauville and Longechamps. I did a lot of Léger gouaches and oils, but I never really found any affinity. Maybe it was because Léger had been my teacher — I felt peculiar about it.”
“I did a little bit of Toulouse-Lautrec from time to time, but not much. It was another era, not my scene. I never went further back in art time because of my moving around so much. To sit down and paint something from the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries, or before that, you have to lie in a house and prepare everything very carefully, then dry it for years. I had neither the time, energy, money, or patience to do that.”
“I did a few Chagalls, but he was alive, too, and it was risky. He’s quite intolerant about fakes. There are some painters and painters’ families who don’t seem to care — for example, the family of Paul Klee refuse to give any expertise, they say it’s none of their business. I did no Klee. I don’t think he’s a great painter, and anyway I was never tempted to do the more contemporary abstract painters. Utrillo and Corot had been copied so much I never even bothered. I never did Miró, either — it seemed to me so terribly easy that I never did dare to try it. Even the real Mirós look like fakes.”
“I have no special regrets about what I’ve done in the past. It proved to me that in spite of having absolutely no personal recognition for myself, I obviously was an artist of consequence. I would have preferred in my life to become a recognized good painter in my own way, but that may yet come.”
“I might have wound up as one of those old artists manqués, who wander around cafés and restaurants trying to make a dollar by selling little pastel landscapes to tourists. You see them everywhere. I saw one in Paris last summer, outside Notre Dame. He was an old white-haired Czech refugee, and he came up to our table and offered to do our portraits for a few francs. My friends politely said ‘No,’ and turned their backs. I gave him ten francs for a little watercolor sketch of Montmartre. I watched him walk away. He was a derelict. I realized all too well that if I hadn’t down what I’d done in my life, it might have been me.”
“But the faking is finished. I came out of it without a dime. It’s the dealers and the art galleries who made a fortune, buying as cheap as they could from me and selling as dear as they could to the collectors. I’ve suffered enough. I just want to paint my own paintings and hope that people will buy them because it’s good art, not because the signature is famous. And I want to keep on living. I like the sun and the sea. I like Spain. I love Ibiza.” ~~Elmyr de Hory, the World’s Greatest Art Forger.
[Elmyr quotes from Clifford Irving – “Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time!” (1969) McGraw-Hill Book Co.]
“If fools did not go to market, cracked pots and false wares would not be sold.” ~~Clifford Irving.
Written, Produced, and Directed by TMP’s Midnight Minions
in association with Chapter Eleven Productions,
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