A Springfield Museums exhibit looks at famous art fakes, and the forgers who made them.
“Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” —Jim Uhls
In February, 1972, the cover of Time magazine featured a portrait of American author Clifford Irving under the banner headline “Con Man of the Year.” The dubious honor was bestowed after Irving had swindled his publisher, McGraw-Hill, into a book deal, promising to write the autobiography of Howard Hughes.
The book became a bestseller, earning Irving a reported $865,000. But the work was a massive fabrication—and not the first pulled off by Irving.
A few years earlier, in 1969, Irving had written another book, this one called Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. It detailed the “incredible-but-true” tale of Hungarian emigre de Hory, who had “painted over a thousand brilliant fake canvasses reputedly worth more than sixty million dollars,” according to the book jacket.
Irving’s work claims that de Hory was an aristocrat forced to leave his homeland when it came under Soviet rule after WWII. After years spent wandering through Europe, Brazil and America, de Hory finally settled on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, just off the coast of Spain.
Irving also lived on Ibiza, and the two became friends, with de Hory asking Irving to write his story. But as Orson Welles discussed in his 1973 documentary F for Fake—the last major film of his career—Irving’s tale is just as phony as his book’s subject. Of course, the line between truth and art in the documentary is blurry at best. As Welles notes in his role as the magician/charlatan narrating the film, “I’ve been lying my head off.”
De Hory was in fact not an aristocrat. He grew up in a lower-middle class family. While he claimed that his family had enough wealth to commission the famous Hungarian artist Philip de Laszlo to paint an oil-on-canvas of a young Elmyr and his brother Stephan, the portrait wasn’t actually a Laszlo. It was a de Hory painted to look like a Laszlo.
As Patrick Duff once noted in his unpublished manuscript From the Brink of Oblivion, “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.”
Indicted for fraud after confessing the hoax involving the Hughes autobiography, Irving served 17 months in jail. Years later, in 2006, he was credited as a writer for The Hoax, Lasse Hallstrom’s film about the creation of Irving’s fake Hughes autobiography. Today Irving is reportedly part of the team working to bring his book Fake! to the big screen.
De Hory likewise served jail time. From 1964 to 1967, his fraudulent artwork led to investigations conducted by the French police, the F.B.I., and Interpol. But it was charges of homosexuality that placed him behind bars. He served two months in Spain in 1968. Upon his release, he convinced Irving to write his story.
Fearing a return to jail on hearing in 1976 that he would be extradited to France for fraud and forgery, de Hory overdosed on sleeping pills—just as he had in 1958. This time, however, his suicide attempt was successful.
A glass-cased display of the famed February, 1972 Time magazine cover is part of a new exhibit called Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, which premiered on January 21 at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts and will be at the Springfield Museums through April 24. The portrait of Irving Time chose for the cover was painted by de Hory.
“Art and forgery are two sides of the same coin,” guest curator Colette Loll tells me as we talk in front of The Procuress (After Baburen), painted by the famous Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. According to Loll’s calculations, “between 30 and 40 percent of all circulated art are forgeries.”