Fake: The Story of Elmyr de Hory, The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, Clifford Irving's I-think-mostly-true biography of the Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory who probably at one time had more of his art in the museums and tony private collections of the world than any other artist (just, you know, not under his own name), is part of a veritable matryoshka of fakery, flim-flam, and fabulosity the likes of which we'll never see again.
Technology may someday allow someone to achieve what Elmyr did materially -- there may already exist an algorithm that can create the perfect fake Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, etc and do in seconds what took Elmyr minutes todo -- but no one will ever duplicate anything like Elmyr's actual career, and that of his two ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) partners in crime, Fernand Legros and Real Lessard.
I might once have thought I'd learned everything I needed to know about Elmyr from Orson Welles' amazing sui-generis sort-of-documentary F for Fake, which not only tells a good chunk of Elmyr's story but that of his biographer, Clifford Irving, as well* and lets Welles indulge in the art a bit himself. Which is to say that here's where the matryoshka comes in. Here, just have a look at the trailer for the film:
But had I left it at that, my loving study of Elmyr, I would have missed out on the real joke of it all, which is that the great forger was himself kind of a patsy. For, well, let us just say that Legros and Lessard saw Elmyr coming, a goose laying golden gouaches and drawings and paintings, and penned him up and kept him hungry so he'd keep doing that while they made a fortune off his work, and lived in high, hissy-fit throwing style, as globetrotting art dealers to the well-heeled and the gullible.
It's all terribly, terribly entertaining. But really, none of it would be possible had not Elmyr really been that good, so good that one time when one of his forgeries was brought before the artist whose work it purported to be, the artist claimed to remember having painted it! Well, at least, according to legend...
Another way this book is fascinating to the 21st century reader is the extraordinary time capsule of lost freedoms it provides. Elmyr's and Legros' and Lessard's escapades would be impossible in our modern, globalized, internet-connected world. They traveled across mid-century Europe and the Americas at speeds faster than anyone but science fiction writers could have dreamed information would, one day. Found out, or in danger of being so, in one city/nation/continent/time zone, they could trip gaily across international borders with their easily forged passports, never having to remove their shoes, long before their victims could even begin to figure out who to tell. Not that too many of their victims caught on before the story finally broke in the early 70s. Not when the forgery of customs stamps and "expertises" certifying the genuineness of the work were so easy to create and come by. Not when the story of how that beautiful Derain came to be for sale sounded so wonderfully plausible -- a Hungarian aristocrat escaped from the Nazis with a small part of his family's art collection and is now selling it off in pieces to stay alive! How romantic! How wonderful! Why, you're almost a part of art history yourself in buying it from him!
Of course, Elmyr's buyer-victims have become part of art history, as some recognized right away when the scandal broke. One man who had been considering buying one when the news became public insisted to his surprised dealer on buying it any way, on condition that the dealer certify that it was a genuine Elmyr forgery.
Loving the man as I do, I, too, would love to have a genuine Elmyr forgery, but I would demand a provenance of how it came to be sold, by what chain of crooks and puffed-up authenticators and dealers and museum "experts" it had come to me. I would want to know who all it fooled, and which of Elmyr's partners in crime put it on the market. Alas, I'm priced out of the market for those, as we learn in Clifford Irving's author's postscript, in which he reveals that much of his knowledge of Elmyr's doings came first-hand; Irving lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza where Legros and Lessard kept Elmyr in luxurious semi-bondage, and was Elmyr's friend right up until Elmyr saw the page proofs of Fake! and disliked, not the admiring tone, not the all but hagiographical charm of the work, but the fact that he, Elmyr, was being admired as a successful crook.
No pleasing some people.
But I, I am very pleased.
*Who, it seems, was so inspired by his experience writing this biography -- and knowing Elmyr personally long before the biography project was hatched -- that he later perpetuated a famous hoax of his own, a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. I include this note mostly for those of you who are too lazy to watch that nine minute film trailer I've embedded above. But really, you should watch it. It's its own little work of art.