Posted by Susan Doll on May 18, 2015
TCM airs one of Orson Welles most challenging films, F for Fake, this Friday, May 22, at 1:30am. The film is so unique that it is difficult to determine its mode or genre, or even to summarize what it is about. When Welles was editing the film in Paris, critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum asked him if it was a documentary, and the great director responded, “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film.” That is probably the most accurate description of F for Fake.
The project did begin as a documentary, however. In 1968, French filmmaker Francois Reichenbach shot footage of art forger Elmyr de Hory, who had just returned to his home on the island of Ibiza after a stint in jail. While Reichenbach was preparing his documentary, American writer Clifford Irving was interviewing de Hory for a biography. Irving’s bio, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, was published in 1969. Reichenbach returned to Paris with his footage and showed it to Welles, who agreed to edit it into a program for the BBC. During the editing, the scandal involving Clifford Irving’s manufactured biography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes broke out. Irving had fooled publisher McGraw-Hill into believing he had access to Hughes by forging documents and letters. (See Lasse Hallstrom’s film The Hoax about the Irving’s exploits in producing the fake bio.) When Time magazine ran a cover story on the scandal, they used a portrait of Irving that had been painted by de Hory. The prospect of making a film that included an art forger and a phony biographer inspired Welles. He convinced Reichenbach to rework the television show by adding new footage to be directed by Welles. In his hands, the film became a daring but playful commentary on art and truth, art and value, and art and meaning. It was postmodern before the word or concept entered the popular consciousness; it challenged the conventions of documentary truth long before Banksy exited through that gift shop.
At the center of this spiral of filmmakers, writers, and artists is Elmyr de Hory—the original “fake,” whose life as a forger inspired Irving, then Reichenbach, then Welles. Last summer, I actually saw de Hory’s work in an exhibit at Ringling Art Museum titled “Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World.” The exhibition consisted of 60 works from five notorious art forgers, whose lives and careers were examined. The exhibit was well conceived. It not only featured the work of the forgers but also work by the actual artists they were copying. Viewers were invited to guess which paintings or drawings were authentic and which had been produced by the forgers. The lives of these con artists were recounted, because their reasons for producing fakes and forgeries were as fascinating as the art itself. “Con artist” is the perfect phrase for de Hory and his peers because four of the five exhibited a high level of artistic ability. However, their real gift was the con. They enjoyed fooling the museums, galleries, and connoisseurs, deriving enormous satisfaction from their ability to pull one over on the art professionals. As noted by Eric Hebborn, one of the other forgers in the exhibit: “Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him.” Hebborn would pay the highest price for his dark profession: He was murdered on the streets of Rome in a crime yet to be solved. Knowing Welles, I believe that his interest was driven, at least in part, by his own desire to deflate the cultural elite.
De Hory was a master forger—not an artist who produces fakes. According to Collette Loll, an art-fraud expert who co-curated the show, a fake is a work of art that duplicates an existing piece while a forgery is a new work done in the style of a famous artist. The latter takes advantage of the art world’s fervent desire to uncover unknown pieces by famous artists. Apparently, 30-40% of the artwork sold to collectors, galleries, and museums likely consists of fakes and forgeries.
From the beginning of his career, de Hory preferred the con over the straight life. He began in Paris where he learned to emulate Picasso’s style in order to sell drawings at $100 per sketch. When he moved to the States after World War II, he created a false persona for himself as a disposed Hungarian aristocrat who was forced to sell his art collection. Among the celebrities, collectors, and wealthy patrons who purchased work from him was Zsa Zsa Gabor, who bought what she thought were paintings by Raoul Dufy. Even after he was identified as an art forger, de Hory continued to claim an aristocratic background.
Loll spent a lot of time researching de Hory’s true identity, as did biographer Mark Forgy for The Forger’s Apprentice. In truth, De Hory was born Elemer Hoffmann to middle-class parents in Budapest, Hungary. He loathed being a struggling artist and turned to forgery, unleashing more than 1000 faux art works into the art market. His methodology included perusing flea markets for 19th century canvases, then removing the existing paint in order to paint his version of a respected masterpiece. He artificially aged the new paint with commercial varnishes.
De Hory found an able ally in another con man, Fernand Legros, who partnered with the forger to represent the work for potential buyers. Their partnership dissolved in 1967 when Texas millionaire Algur Meadows discovered that the 40 works he purchased through Legros were forgeries.
By the mid-1960s, fall-out from the Meadows debacle as well as other suspicious sales led to investigations of de Hory by the French police, the FBI, and Interpol. But, when he finally went to jail for a couple of months in 1968, it was on charges of homosexuality. After serving his time, he was in exile from Ibiza for a year. Various international agencies continued to hound him into the 1970s. Facing extradition to France for a variety of crimes, he killed himself in 1976.
The curators for “Intent to Deceive” claimed that their purpose was not to romanticize these con artists. In interview after interview, Loll and representatives from participating museums work hard to point out that forgery and fakery is not a victimless crime, or that the perpetrators were committing “a crime of cultural heritage.” However true that may be, the appeal of the exhibit is the lure of the scoundrel, who has somehow escaped the chains and doldrums of everyday life. Like Welles in F for Fake, we are mesmerized by the “magic” of the forger or the con artist who lives in luxury, eludes authorities, or resides on an exotic island for as long as he can.
It’s the end game of the scoundrel—suicide, jail, murder, bankruptcy—that is not enviable.
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