Ibiza has been called home to many colorful personalities, but in the 1960s no other islander aroused as much fascination as Elmyr Dory-Boutin. He was recognizable by his gold monocle, patterned ties, and elusive accent. Like Gatsby, he threw lavish parties in an out-of-time mansion overlooking the sea. Among the guests were celebrities Marlene Dietrich and Ursula Andress who, as they gazed at Dory-Boutin’s collection of priceless Parisian paintings, suspected their host was of royal blood.
You were wrong. Just as Gatsby confided in Nick Carraway, so Dory-Boutin eventually opened up to his own neighbor, a journalist named Clifford Irving. He was not of royal blood, and the paintings exhibited in his villa were neither priceless nor Parisian; they were fakes, fakes he had faked himself and sold to galleries and oil tycoons under false identities. Dory-Boutin was one of those fake identities. His real name was reportedly Elmyr de Hory.
Most of what we know of de Hory’s early existence comes from a biography Irving wrote entitled Fake! The story of Elmyr de Hory, the greatest art forger of our time. According to the book, de Hory was born in Budapest. He discovered his artistic talents early on and cultivated them at various institutions, but encountered an existential crisis when he realized that classical painting – the type of painting he studied and admired – had been rendered obsolete by Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism.
How Elmyr de Hory started forging
Had de Hory lived a century earlier, he would have had little trouble making a living from his work. Currently, his situation has been made worse by the Great Depression, a global financial crisis that has pulled many buyers out of the art market. The Depression was followed by a war, part of which de Hory may have spent in Transylvania, where he was imprisoned for political dissent. The openly gay painter also claims he saw the inside of a German concentration camp before Hitler was defeated.
Post-war France posed the same problems for de Hory’s career as pre-war France. He was trying to sell his paintings and was seriously considering changing careers when one unsuspecting day he sold a small pen drawing to a woman who thought it was a Picasso. Mimicking the style of other painters, a revived de Hory went from gallery to gallery presenting what curators thought were never-before-seen Picassos, Matisses and Modiglianis.
De Hory sold fakes for years. When someone finally found out, it wasn’t because they noticed differences between de Hory’s paintings and the artists he was imitating, but because they found small similarities between the fakes themselves. De Hory fled to Ibiza, where, thanks to various legal loopholes, he lived without fear of arrest until his suicide in 1976. Today, experts estimate his sold counterfeits at over $50 million, making him one of the most successful counterfeiters of all time.
The Value of Fake Art
Like many counterfeiters, de Hory will be remembered as a great con artist rather than a great artist – odd considering his forgeries were so flawless that even the most seasoned critics believed them to be the real deal. Before de Hory’s cover was blown, galleries were willing to pay enormous sums for his paintings. However, when the fraud was uncovered, the very same paintings were deemed worthless, taken away and thrown in the nearest dumpster.
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This begs the question: what makes original art so much more valuable than fake art? Many aesthetes — scholars who study the nature and perception of beauty — have grappled with this question, but none have done so as successfully as legendary filmmaker Orson Welles, whose 1974 documentary F for fake not only shows Elmyr de Hory at work, but also explores the elusive relationship between illusion, trickery, genius and art.
Although de Hory was a wanted criminal, Welles does not present him as such. On the contrary, the artist in which we meet F for fake strikes us less as a crook and more like a sort of Robin Hood, someone who uses his skills and charisma to take down stuffy institutions that frankly could use an ego blow. De Hory comes across as funny, inventive and life-affirming. He’s certainly cut from the same cloth as the creative geniuses whose copyrights he infringes.
Redeem the counterfeiter
Orson Welles not only respects de Hory, but identifies with him. Half way in F for fake, the documentary draws our attention to some of the hoaxes surrounding its own director. Welles’ showbiz career began when, as a teenager, on a tour of England, he convinced a theater company that he was a rising star on Broadway. Its 1938 radio adaptation war of the Worldsmeanwhile, caused a nationwide panic when listeners failed to realize that the “news show” about an alien invasion was purely fictional.
Besides that tricks can make great art, F for fake also argues that originality and the value we place on this concept are illusions in and of themselves. De Hory is far from the only artist to portray as authentic what in fact is not. Welles points to Irving, the same journalist who wrote a book on de Hory, who previously confessed to fabricating an autobiography of mysterious and reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.
The same principle can be applied to Picasso, for example. Though usually presented as a painting of genius in a creative vacuum, in reality he was greatly indebted to other artists – and often stole from them. This is not to say that he was a thief, but that making art is a collaborative and assimilation process, as opposed to an individualized one. Just as Orson Welles glued existing narratives together into a form F for fakeso too has Elmyr de Hory – in falsifying the work of other painters – created art that is utterly unique and in many ways just as valuable.