Having failed to create much of a stir in the art world working under his own name, painter Elmyr de Hory carved out a niche as someone who could produce convincing forgeries.
Working “in the style” of masters as diverse as Picasso and Renoir, de Hory built a career on selling the art world fake paintings, helping to earn him the unenviable position as the most notorious art forger of the 20th century. With a zeal for spending money (and the gumption required for making forgeries to satisfy this zeal) it is no wonder that de Hory’s massive deception would eventually be discovered. It was a deception that would come to haunt him even as he lived the rather mild lifestyle of an aging aristocrat in his later years.
It was under the guise of an aging aristocrat that he met American Mark Forgy. After moving to the Spanish island of Ibizia in the 1960’s where de Hory made his home, Forgy began a friendship with de Hory that would last until the forger’s death in 1976. In this time Forgy was exposed to worldly encounters he could never have imagined in his native Minnesota. From a romp through Italy as de Hory’s companion to an evening with Orson Welles, Forgy’s experiences as a student of sorts to the great forger are portrayed with satisfaction and great sympathy. De Hory was a lover of fine wine, good company, and, of course, art. His list of acquaintances was extensive and overflowing with the titled and the beautiful.As Forgy tells it, the deceptions were a result only of the legitimate art world’s inability to recognize a striving talent and if de Hory had perhaps been born in a different era, things might have worked out differently.
The narrative that de Hory was a nice guy and a skilled artist may be believable (maintaining a large circle of friends certainly requires niceties and passing off your own work as that of Picasso certainly requires skill) however it does not always make for the most insightful non-fiction. Opportunities to more thoroughly explore this figure who profited from forgery after forgery tend to become clouded in placing all the blame on his corrupt business partner Fernand Legros or emphasizing that de Hory needed money to maintain his lifestyle. A lot of people need money to maintain their lifestyle however not all of them have the wherewithal to deceive the international art market for years on end.
Coupled with the author’s penchant for stretching metaphors (e.g. when describing a sloppy eater “[He] demonstrated the same table manners as participants in a State Fair pie-eating contest. He then proceeded to suck clean every metacarpal of every finger as though they were stuck in a cow-milking machine. We sat dumbstruck, as silent as the prairie.”) dissecting the man behind the notoriety is not always easy. The book serves well as a eulogy to a long lost friend though it does not always succeed in enlightening the reader as to any deeper understanding of its subject matter.
De Hory’s story remains fascinating if for no other reason than his long term success. Despite crafting a career as a professional deceiver, he seems to have been a man full of law-abiding advice. After seeing Elizabeth Taylor booed by a crowd due to her late arrival at a film festival, Forgy has de Hory remarking “You see, it doesn’t matter who you are, never be late and never waste people’s time.”
Reviewed by Collin Marchiando for IndieReader