Elmyr de Hory on FireJanuary 7, 2012
I’m not good on camera. That’s why I asked an interviewer from CBS News to let me have a beforehand look at the list of questions she intended to ask me during an interview. I just wanted to think things over for a minute because it wasn’t pre-ordained that I would survive going on live network television, where “King’s X” and “oops” don’t work very well.
She was interested in me because John Connally, the former governor of Texas, and I had purchased 100 oil paintings by Elmyr de Hory, the great forger of French Impressionist paintings. Orson Wells made an hour-long documentary on the subject and Clifford Irving wrote the book Fake about Elmyr, who famously said that all of the great museums in America had his art and didn’t know it. He forged more than 1,000 paintings and probably thought he was too well bred to get caught.
John and I had flown to London in the mid 80’s to see a former shop keeper by the name of Bill Talbot, who had been a pawn broker on the island of Ibiza when Elmyr lived there. Bill had loaned the artist money and taken paintings as collateral. I don’t think Elmyr ever intended to reclaim his work because it was too easy for him to paint new canvasses.
On the plane coming home John said, “Well Forrest, we’ve got all of these forgeries, now how’re we gonna get rid of em?” I wanted to tell my friend that he should have thought about that before we gave Talbot a check for $225,000. I decided to throw it back at him. “What we need is a good article and a picture in Time Magazine. (I knew that one of his close friends was chairman of Time Life Inc.) John said, “Ok, what else do we need?” (I loved the way the conversation was going). He could handle easily what I couldn’t handle at all, so I suggested that he contact all of his art-thirsty friends in Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio and let them know what a superb opportunity this was for them to own some really fine art. After all…if you see what looks like a painting worth 40 million dollars on a rich man’s wall you don’t ask him if it’s real - do you?
Anyway, a few days later a reporter from Time Magazine showed up on my doorstep. Soon the story was all over the news, and Elmyr de Hory paintings started jumping off of our walls. We asked each buyer to sign a document that said he understood his painting was by Elmyr de Hory, regardless of how it was signed on the front of the canvas. Most of the paintings were fairly large and our retail prices varied around $4,500. The art was wonderful but I hid a little apprehension behind my optimism. Casual viewers were sometimes a little shaken to see such art hanging on our walls, but culture shock had already become a fashionable concept in Santa Fe.
Peggy and Forrest and Nellie and John. Photo by Tony O’Brien
Elmyr had forged the signatures on all of our paintings, which were executed in the styles of Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Matisse, Picasso, Monet and others. He was careful, however, not to copy any existing painting because most of them were in the great museums around the world and he knew the Gendarmes would be all over him if he were discovered. John and I decided that each of us should keep six of the paintings for our own collections and my wife selected a Modigliani.
With all the national publicity our fame grew exponentially. Art curators whispered terrible things about us but we were high on the A list of many art collectors. The bantering back and forth and the news would have been more fun to watch if I had not been the star player. John said I had to take all of the heat for selling the forgeries because I was an art dealer and he was just a politician.
The president of the Art Dealers Association of America wrote a brusque letter that said it was my duty as an art dealer to educate the public and that a forged painting certainly wasn’t art. I wondered if he had a copyright on culture. My note in reply said that I wasn’t a school teacher and it was not incumbent upon him, or his organization, to define the parameters of art. That determination must always be the left to the consuming public. To his credit, he capitulated and apologized.
After studying the questions from the reporter I decided that they were pretty straight forward and I might be able to respond without embarrassing myself too much. Besides, the publicity would be good for us.
When I heard the camera start to whir I gasped, and when she asked the first question I gasped again. “Please, Mr. Fenn, tell me why anyone would want to own a fake painting?” NOW WAIT JUST A MINUTE, LADY. THAT QUESTION IS NOT ON THE LIST! I could see the dumb camera man laughing although it was a soul crushing moment for me. I had blundered into the fierce reality of human nature at its rawest moment, and with about 20 million people watching.
Through the rapidly dissipating light of my career I managed to respond: “Picture yourself in the National Museum of Art in Washington. The docent is walking your group through the galleries, and stops in front of a great painting. You look at it for a few seconds then say, That’s the greatest masterpiece I’ve ever seen. I just love everything about it: the composition, the palette, the symphony of color. It is truly breathtaking. The docent pauses for a few seconds then says, “Yes, it is very lovely, but it isn’t authentic. It’s a forgery by Elmyr de Hory.”
A few seconds ago you loved the painting, and it hasn’t changed. If you like it less just because it’s a fake, who is the fraud now?
After retiring from the Air Force in 1970, I built an art gallery in Santa Fe that my wife and I ran for seventeen years. Since then, my energies have been directed toward excavation of a large Indian pueblo and writing books about art and exploration. I hope you enjoy my blog!