Elmyr de Hory's Odalisque in the style of Henri Matisse. 1974

Foiling the Forgers with Noah Charney – Matisse

The Art of Forgery author on the infamous Elmyr de Hory, a man who could copy a Matisse in under an hour

Many of the forgers featured in Noah Charney’s new book, The Art of Forgery, wanted to not only copy the works of great artists, but also replicate their fame. Of these forgers, few became better-known than the Hungarian Elmyr de Hory.

“De Hory was the person most closely associated with Matisse,” says Charney. “He could turn out a piece like Matisse in about an hour that would pass muster.” De Hory’s skill in mimicking early Modernist work is not entirely surprising, as he himself was an aspiring early 20th century painter. Born Elemer Albert Hoffman in Hungary in 1905, he studied fine art in Munich and Paris, including time spent under the tutelage of the Cubist painter Fernand Léger. After the Second World War De Hory returned to the French capital with the aim of mpt to make his name as a fine artist. Yet, in failing to gain immediate fame and fortune, the painter eventual found his true calling.


Elmyr de Hory with one of his Matisse-style drawings in 1969
Elmyr de Hory with one of his Matisse-style drawings in 1969

“In 1946 a friend mistook his copy of a Picasso for an original,” Charney says, “giving Elmyr the idea of producing forgeries to sell as originals to various Paris galleries.”

But De Hory was a better painter than a salesman, and decided it was more profitable, and less risky, to pass off his work via a dedicated dealer. Over the following decades he conspired with a number of art-world professionals, who passed off his versions of works by Modigliani, Picasso and especially Matisse, in Europe the US and Latin America.

Indeed, de Hory may have continued to fool collectors, had pride not got the better of him. “He was one of the many forgers in the book who was eager to self-promote,” Charney explains. In 1962 the painter moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza, began hosting ostentatious parties, and paid less attention to his work. His forgeries, which his dealers were still selling on, became less convincing, and Interpol took a greater interest in the flamboyant lifestyle of this seemingly unknown painter. In August 1968, de Hory was convicted in a Spanish court of crimes of homosexuality and consorting with criminals. He served two months in prison, before returning to Ibiza, having been exiled from mainland Spain.


F for Fake


Upon his return to the island, de Hory began to spend time with the American writer Clifford Irving, who eventually wrote a best-selling biography, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time.

The book was optioned by Orson Welles and turned into a pseudo-documentary, F for Fake, featuring interviews with de Hory and Irving. Welles’s film brought the forger fame, and de Hory was, for the first time in his life, able to sell his own original paintings at a good price. However, the film and book also hastened the passage of his extradition to France to face fraud charges. In 1976, after news reached him that the Spanish government had granted France’s request, de Hory overdosed on sleeping pills and died.

However, the forger’s influence did not end there, and nor was it limited to the visual arts. In 1971 Clifford Irving delivered a new manuscript to his publishers, which he claimed was the authorised autobiography of the reclusive business tycoon Howard Hughes. Irving produced letters and annotated manuscripts, said to be written by his subject. However, within weeks Hughes’ lawyers had lodged suits against Irving’s publishers and the book was revealed to have been a fake.


The Art Of Forgery author Noah Charney
The Art Of Forgery author Noah Charney

“Was Irving inspired by de Hory?” says Charney. “I think he must have been. He thought Hughes was such an eccentric recluse that he would never come out of hiding to disclaim the book. Instead he was found guilty of the forgery of a literary work, and also left the world with a wonderful double forgery tale.”

If you’d like to hear some of these forgery tales from the man himself try to make it along to Noah Charney’s East Coast author tour, at the start of next month. On Wednesday 3 June he will be giving a lecture and signing copies of his book at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe (1517 Connecticut Avenue NW) in Washington, DC; on Friday 5 June Charney will be speaking and signing books at the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue) in Boston; on Saturday 6 June he will be giving a lecture and book signing at the Institute Library (847 Chapel Street) in New Haven, Connecticut. On Sunday, 7 June he will give another talk and book signing at Gallery 25 and Creative Arts Studio (25 Church Street) in New Milford, CT; and on Monday, 8 June we are very proud to have Noah in conversation with the wonderful art critic Blake Gopnik 92nd Street Y (1395 Lexington Avenue) in New York.

You can see more over on our dedicated events page here. And you can of course, for more great stories from the history of art intrigue, buy a copy of The Art of Forgery.