A Master of Deception
Elmyr de Hory (1906−1976) portrayed himself as a dispossessed Hungarian aristocrat selling artworks from his own collection that had been hidden in Budapest during the war. He was, however, a frustrated artist struggling to maintain a standard of living that he craved but could not afford. His work was sold through a number of dealers, but his most prolific partnership was with Fernand Legros, who sold a steady supply of de Hory’s forgeries on five continents over a period of nine years. They were unmasked in 1967 after forty paintings sold to Texas oil millionaire Algur Meadows were identified as forgeries.
Fernand Legros was an experienced con man who knew who could be bribed and who could be fooled. Art historians looking to earn extra income used to routinely certify the authenticity of paintings with a stamp, until so many “certified” forgeries were identified that the practice was considered unreliable. Legros co-opted experts who would guarantee a work’s authenticity. He also had their certification stamps copied so he could produce counterfeit documents himself. To create fictitious documentation of provenance, Legros inserted photographic copies of de Hory forgeries into auction catalogues and artist monographs.
De Hory did not begin to produce large numbers of oil paintings until late in his career, when he moved to Ibiza and had space for a separate studio. In this painting, de Hory mimics the style of Henri Matisse (1869−1954) by using bold colors and placing the woman in a fully realized interior. This painting is owned by de Hory’s one-time assistant, who inherited his estate. It was among just a few left behind in the studio after de Hory took his own life.
Woman at Table, in the style of Henri Matisse
Elmyr de Hory; ca. 1975
Oil on canvas
De Hory purchased 19th-century paintings at Paris flea markets and scraped off the top surface of the painting, leaving only the primer coat. He would then paint a convincing composition in the style of an artist he chose to mimic. Although de Hory’s works often contain forged artists’ signatures, he consistently claimed that the signatures were added by his partner, Fernand Legros. It is widely believed, however, that de Hory did, in fact, add the masterful fake signatures. Only after he was unmasked as a forger did he sign his own name to his works.
This palette and brushes were found in de Hory’s studio after his death, in 1976. Using microscropy, XRF, and FTIR, scientists at Winterthur studied the dried paints and created a “fingerprint” of the color palette de Hory used, aiding experts in identifying his forgeries. More recently, RAMAN spectroscopy of the paint on this palette has further identified the characteristic materials used by de Hory.
Painter’s palette and brushes
Collection of Mark Forgy
Recent scientific analysis of de Hory’s palette using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), scanning-electron microscopy (SEM-EDS), microRAMAN spectroscopy, microFourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) revealed that he used commercial oil paints available from the 1930s through the 1970s and not pigments and additives from the time periods of the artists whose work he forged. Earlier FTIR analysis undertaken in Budapest identified two different commercial varnishes that were widely available. One produced a quick craquelure (cracking), and the other imparted a golden hue to mimic an aged varnish.
RAMAN spectroscopy was used to identify the bright green paint on de Hory’s palette as phthalocyanine green, a synthetic pigment made of a dye consisting of copper (II) with chlorinated phthalocyanine. This pigment was not patented until 1929, about nine years after the death of Modigliani. As such, its presence in a painting purported to be by that artist means the painting is a fake.
The presence of an organic quinacridone pigment forming the dark maroon color on de Hory’s palette was confirmed using FTIR spectroscopy. Although the precise form of the organic dye could not be identified, quinacridone pigments in general were not produced commercially and used in artist materials until 1958, four years after the death of Matisse. So the presence of this type of pigment in paintings purported to be by that artist means the paintings are fake.
Scientific Research & Analysis Laboratory, Winterthur Museum
This portrait was sold in the late 1950s to close friends of de Hory. They believed it to be a genuine work by Amedeo Modigliani (1884−1920) and later donated the painting to an art museum in Miami, where it hung as an authentic work of art for years. After de Hory was exposed, the museum returned the forgery to the donors, who display the painting in their home as a reminder of their bad-faith purchase as well as friendship with a man who turned out to be one of the most infamous art forgers in history.
Portrait of a Woman, in the style of Amedeo Modigliani
Elmyr de Hory; ca. 1955
Oil on canvas
Collection of Scott Richter and Pamela Richter-Lenon
In 1976, after learning that the Spanish government had agreed to extradite him to France, de Hory committed suicide, taking his true identity to the grave. He used so many different aliases that Spanish police were unsure who he really was; they therefore took fingerprints from his dead body. Recently, researchers have sifted through more than a dozen different names found on passports, birth certificates, identity cards, and a criminal arrest record from INTERPOL. The truth ultimately emerged from birth records in a Jewish archive in Budapest: de Hory’s real name was Elemér Hoffman.
Official Hungarian identity certificate with real name as Elemér Hoffman
Official Hungarian identity certificate with alias as Elmyr de Hory
Collection of Mark Forgy
Elmyr de Hory once stated, “If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.” It has been estimated that de Hory inserted more than 1,000 forgeries onto the art market over a period of thirty years, many of which remain in private and public collections. Although art historians have become more adept at identifying his style and techniques, recent analysis of de Hory’s palette will be crucial to the identification of his work in the future.
Corona, Madeline. “Paint with Intent to Deceive: Technical Study of a Palette Belonging to the Art Forger Elmyr de Hory.” ARTC 666: Independent Study, May 24, 2016 (unpublished student report, Winterthur).
Forgy, Mark. The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist. New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.