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The artist beneath the art forger
Mark Forgy, the caretaker of the art forger Elmyr de Hory’s legacy, stands between two authentic portraits by de Hory, left, “Self-Portrait,” circa 1973, and, right, “Portrait of Mark Forgy,” 1972, on view at the Hillstrom Museum of Art in St. Peter, Minn., on Feb. 16, 2020. A show of portraits by de Hory is a celebration of the man as an artist as well as a forger. Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times.

by Max Horberry

ST. PETER (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Mark Forgy’s home on the outskirts of Minneapolis looks like a museum. Works of art hang floor to ceiling. They hang in stairwells, in closets and behind doors. In the living room, a bronze bust of the artist who made all these pieces smirks slightly from the corner, admiring his work: a Matisse, a Modigliani, a handful of Picassos.

Forgy owns the largest collection of work by Elmyr de Hory, one of the most notorious art forgers of the 20th century. In the 1950s and ’60s, de Hory is believed to have forged over 1,000 works by major artists. Many have been removed from museums. Others, some experts say, have not.

Forgy has spent years dedicated to the memory of de Hory. He has written a book, gives talks and contributes to exhibitions on forgery. It is his calling, he says, and has all led to his newest endeavor: putting on an exhibition of de Hory’s original work. No forgeries. Just de Hory in his own voice.

“It’s work trying to be no one other than himself,” Forgy said. “There’s no pretense.”

The exhibition, at the Hillstrom Museum of Art in St. Peter, Minnesota, focuses on de Hory’s portraiture. Now, more than four decades after the painter’s death, viewers can “leave behind the sensational tabloid-worthiness of his story,” Forgy said. It is the first glimpse at the artist underneath the forger.

Throughout his life de Hory struggled to inspire interest in his own work. A Hungarian artist, he came to the United States in August 1947, and by January 1948 he exhibited some work at Lilienfeld Galleries in New York. ARTNews described it as striking “the well-known chord of the School of Paris.” In a city exploding with the modernity of abstract expressionism, this meant “nice but old-fashioned.” De Hory sold only one. He blamed the opening night’s heavy January snowfall.

De Hory had, however, sold a handful of forgeries in Europe. Over the next decade, he traveled the U.S. and impersonated an aristocrat fallen on hard times after the war. He sold forgeries in the style of some artists who were still alive — Picasso and Matisse — and created so many forgeries of Amedeo Modigliani that it has become impossible to compile a definitive catalog of the artist’s work, according to Kenneth Wayne, director of The Modigliani Project.

Several hundred forgeries later, a handful of dealers caught on to him, told authorities and ran him out of the country.

When Forgy met de Hory, it was on the beach of the Spanish island Ibiza, in 1969. A series of recent scandals had connected de Hory to forgeries in the U.S. and France. Yet, in Spain he was safe from consequences. So he embraced his new persona: the great forger who had fooled the art world. De Hory teamed up with novelist Clifford Irving, who, taking de Hory’s exaggerations and inventions at face value, wrote a bestselling biography of the forger, “FAKE!” (Irving’s next project was a fraudulent autobiography of Howard Hughes, which landed him in jail.)

Into this era of mythmaking stepped the 20-year old Forgy. The two became close, and with its four-decade age gap, their friendship resembled that of teacher and student. De Hory would give etiquette lessons for royal company (the correct manner to kiss a princess’s hand) and regular tests on art history (“When did Botticelli live?”).

“He was more of a father than my actual father,” said Forgy, now 70. “He was concerned with my future.”

In his lectures on art, Forgy said, “Elmyr was always attempting mightily to champion the intrinsic merit of art as opposed to having a name tag on it.” He hated the market’s obsession with famous names. De Hory also made it clear that if his works could pass for original that made them, and him, as good as the greats.

After six years together, however, their friendship came to an end. De Hory was battling a new extradition request to France. When the news came that the extradition had been granted, Forgy was the one who told de Hory. On Dec. 11, 1976, de Hory killed himself.

He left everything to Forgy, who returned to Minnesota with around 300 of de Hory’s works. For decades he fell silent and moved on. Only in 2007 did he begin a memoir. After he self-published it in 2012, he adapted it into a play and then a musical. A new purpose for himself took shape as the caretaker of de Hory’s legacy. Forgy lent works to exhibitions on art forgery and recounted the story of the lovable rascal whose mischief turned the art world upside down. People found the story irresistible. Some were so intoxicated by it that a small market emerged for de Hory’s forgeries and pastiches. Forgy said that in 2014 a de Hory in the style of Matisse sold for $28,000. Other pieces have gone for a few thousand or hundred.

Forgy now believes this new exhibition can bring de Hory the recognition he sought during his life. The paintings were done in Ibiza, and many are quick snapshots of friends, including several of Forgy. Some are unfinished or pulled from de Hory’s sketchbook. The variety of styles is striking. There are many that evoke the artists he forged. The playful simplicity of some of his drawing wobbles between channeling and being derivative of Matisse.

Julia Courtney, who co-curated an exhibition of forgeries at the Springfield Museums in Massachusetts, said she could see in de Hory’s work his affinity with Modigliani. A similar tendency to elongate the features might point to why de Hory turned to Modigliani so often when forging.

“His original work really opens up the door to who he was,” Courtney said. “There’s confidence in his line, shading. There’s a level of skill that’s apparent. Seeing the artist’s hand, that is sort of timeless.”

Some pieces are experimental and darkly stylized while others are naturalistic and melancholy, nodding to Albrecht Dürer. These are styles he never attempted, or felt confident enough, to forge.

De Hory’s variety of style is at once an indication of talent as well as his uncertainty. After a life of impersonation and lying about himself (including to Forgy — about, among other things, his name), it is difficult to pin de Hory down in his own work.

“The virtue of originality is overestimated,” Forgy insisted. Once when he asked de Hory if he felt he lacked any artistic tools, the older man said, “Maybe imagination.” But de Hory was original and imaginative in what he did through storytelling and sleight of hand, which exploited a specific moment in art history. That is an innovation few reach.

Gene Shapiro of Shapiro Auctions in New York says his story has value for museumgoers and collectors alike: “He’s infamous, but he is a name that people will recognize. A collector, for example, may be proud to own his works and tell his story.”

The opening night at Hillstrom Museum of Art was a modest event. Like New York’s January in 1948, Minnesota’s February snowfall prevented many from making the drive up to the Gustavus Adolphus College campus, where the museum is located. But Forgy was ecstatic. “I’m finally paying the ultimate tribute to my friend,” he said.

The most revealing painting is perhaps de Hory’s self-portrait. Dark and haunted with opaque eyes, it is unfinished. The uncertainty with how to ultimately portray himself is perhaps de Hory at his most human, and his most honest.

‘The Secret World of Art Forger Elmyr de Hory: His Portraiture on Ibiza’

Through April 19 at the Hillstrom Museum of Art, Gustavus Adolphus College, 800 W. College Ave., St. Peter, Minnesota; 507-933-7200;

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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