Elmyr de Hory and the loss of privacy and liberty since the mid-20th Century 1

by Hans Sherrer  (c) 2004

It is explained in Computers Are A Menace to Liberty 2 by this writer, that one’s liberty is intimately interwoven with the extent of one’s sphere of privacy. Yet as with many ancillary concepts, the relationship between privacy and liberty is not self-explanatory. So a basic question is, how can that relationship be understood by a person who is not aware of those two inter-connected ideas?

An answer may lie in recognizing the value of memory, since awareness of what was in the past can provide a context for understanding what is in the present. The importance of having a memory about conditions of liberty that no longer exist was clearly expressed by historian and sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes in Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace (1953):

“George Orwell points out that one reason why it is possible for those in authority to maintain the barbarities of the police state is that nobody is able to recall the many blessings of the period which preceded that type of society. In a general way this is also true of the peoples of the Western world today. … A major reason why there is no revolt against such a state of society as that in which we are living today is that many have come to accept it as a normal matter of course, having known nothing else during their lifetime.” 3

The difficulty of maintaining a memory of when people lived in a greater state of liberty is emphasized by that passage being in a book published in 1953, when most people today, even critics of such things as 2002’s Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act, probably think of the United States as having been a bastion of liberty.

For the large majority of people who lack a memory of the 1950s, the only way Mr. Barnes’ observation can be put in perspective is if they have a frame of reference to compare how things were then, with how they are now. A somewhat unlikely source that effectively does just that by describing the privacy, and hence hints at the liberty that people experienced half-a-century ago, is Clifford Irving’s 1969 book, Fake! The story of Elmyr de Hory: the greatest art forger of our time. 4

Fake by Cliffor Irving Although Fake! can be described as a biography of master art forger Elmyr de Hory’s life up to 1968, when he was in his early-60s, it is also a real life mystery story revolving around the question: How could a person travel around the United States, Europe, South America, Africa, and Australia for almost a quarter of a century while painting and peddling forged art sold for many millions of dollars, without ever being prosecuted or spending a day in jail for his forgeries?

The short answer is that the societal privacy formerly enjoyed by Americans and other people in the Western world enveloped the honest, as well as the unscrupulous. That sphere of privacy existed in part because the modes of voice and documentary communication through the 1960s were significantly more cumbersome than today. As documented in Fake!, de Hory’s forgery career was from 1946 to 1968, 5 and the communication options available to government authorities at the end of his career were similar to those at its beginning. In 1968 when he stopped forging art, the instantaneous transmission of computerized photographs and documents was still years in the future. Furthermore, today’s large intertwining public and private computer databases of personal information didn’t exist at the beginning of de Hory’s career, and were in their infancy at its end.

Elymr de Hory was born in Hungary in 1906 (circa). His family were wealthy landowners, and he lived a life of aristocratic privilege that included having as much money as he needed without working. An aspiring and talented artist, de Hory studied and lived in Paris from the mid-1920s to 1932. Elmyr de Hory then flitted about painting and living the life of a wealthy playboy. He was in his mid-30s when that lifestyle suddenly ended: de Hory’s mother was Jewish, and his family lost its estates in German occupied Hungary after WWII began.

Living in Hungary when the war started, de Hory’s notoriety due to his flamboyant lifestyle and association with suspect people backfired when he was arrested and put in a concentration camp as a political prisoner. He was released after some months, but a year later he was again arrested and sent to a camp in Germany. Taken to a hospital to receive treatment for a leg broken during a particularly brutal Gestapo interrogation, de Hory escaped and with the help of a friend made his way to Budapest. He remained there in hiding until the end of the war. To escape the subsequent Russian occupation, de Hory used the last of his families fortune – some diamonds – to bribe his way across border checkpoints. In September 1945 de Hory arrived in Paris. He was 39 and flat broke. He survived by selling nondescript paintings and portraits. Then his fortunes changed in April 1946 after a woman friend visited his small studio. In the following passage Clifford Irving recounts the conversation that took place during that fateful visit:

“Elmyr... that’s a Picasso, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t a Picasso. It was a de Hory, a little line of a young girl’s head, unsigned and unframed. Elmyr smiled – the slightly wicked elf’s smile – at his good friend Lady Campbell.

“How do you know it’s a Picasso?” he asked.

“I know something about Picasso,” she said, with a certain non-chalant air of authority. “And I remember you told me that you knew him fairly well before the war. He didn’t sign a lot of those drawings from his Greek period. It’s a very good one. Tell me, would you like to sell it?”

“Well, why not!” Elmyr said – softly sighing – after a while, “how much will you give me for it?”

So it was that by accident a career had been launched which would last more than twenty years, span five continents and find a major place in the history of art. But at the time Elmyr had no visions of the future and no idea what was in store for him; he was just bewildered and delighted.” 6

Elmyr de Hory found that he had a remarkable talent for expertly copying the work of modern French masters, many of whom he personally knew. He was soon making a comfortable living as an accomplished forger. Since he personally marketed all of his forgeries and had learned the value of discretion while eluding both the Nazis and Russians, he was able to keep his vocation secret.

In 1947 de Hory traveled to the United States for what he expected to be a short visit. However, he realized after arriving in New York that it was a fertile ground for selling his forgeries. He stayed for 12 years. The ease with which he was able to operate in this country is indicated by an event that happened in 1955. A Minneapolis art dealer suspected some paintings and drawings he bought from de Hory were forgeries. The fakes were so good that art experts the dealer consulted told him that in their opinion they were all originals. Rejecting their professional opinions, the dealer reported de Hory to the FBI. Living in Miami at the time, de Hory got wind of the impending trouble. So he simply moved to Los Angeles, selling fake artwork in various cities as he drove across the country. He even stayed in Los Angles for a period of time after a local art dealer detected the paintings de Hory was offering to sell him were fakes. In spite of a few miscues, during his 12 years in the United States de Hory was able to operate freely and live a comfortable lifestyle. He felt safe enough that he eventually returned to Miami, and began selling his forgeries by mail order. Although his file was open with the FBI and he was wanted for questioning, when he finally returned to Europe in 1959 after crossing the lightly monitored border into Canada, the agency had been unsuccessful at finding him.

While he was in the U.S., de Hory became partners with two brazen young men who had a flare for selling his artwork. They followed him to Europe and the three eventually picked up there where they had left off in the U.S. For the next nine years, de Hory and his partners sold his drawings and paintings to art dealers and collectors all over the world – except for Spain. Elmyr de Hory had settled on Spain’s Mediterranean island of Ibiza, and he knew if he was finally unmasked as the world’s greatest art forger, it was unlikely the Spanish government would extradite him if he hadn’t committed a crime on Spanish soil.

The discovery that a painting was a forgery periodically caused de Hory to lay low for a while, and he even made a trip to Australia and lived in Sydney for a while during one of those times. His possible prosecution for his activities diminished significantly when at the end of his career – the Spanish government decided that even though he was an illegal alien, they wouldn’t deport him.

During his decades of forging artwork de Hory had used several pseudonyms. Different artwork by him had been linked by various people and agencies to the different pseudonyms, but it wasn’t until Look magazine published an article on December 10, 1968, that Elmyr de Hory was publicly identified as the sole master forger behind the ring that had been peddling fake art in Europe, the U.S., Australia, South America, South Africa, Japan, and other places around the world for many years.

Elmyr de Hory never lost his sense of discreteness. He was so cautious about what he was involved in that he didn’t do any of his painting on Ibiza, and the residents of that small island thought of him as an eccentric gentleman. However his two young partners didn’t have his common sense. It was their public antics and the flaunting of their wealth that ultimately attracted the public attention that could only be fatal to an enterprise that required discreetness and the avoidance of outside scrutiny. As Clifford Irving wrote, “Had it not been for the bizarre personal problems and slapstick shenanigans of his two far-ranging salesmen, ... the truth about Elmyr might never have been discovered – that his product had bolstered the international art market and yet gone virtually undetected, as had his true identity, for more than twenty years; that his enormous output, his scope, his vision and artistic skill, are unmatched in the history of his strange underground profession.” 7

The dollar value of de Hory’s more than 1,000 forgeries is unknown, but it was estimated in 1969 that the value of his forged artwork between 1961 and 1967 on the open market exceeded $60 million. Since those six years are little more than one-fourth the 22 years he was forging the art of mostly modern masters from Modigliani to Picasso, the market value in 1969 of his work may easily have exceeded $200 million. Clifford Irving noted that de Hory’s forgeries were proudly displayed in “modern art museums and premier private collections from New York to Tokyo and Capetown to Stockholm.” 8 Taking into account inflation, growth in the number of collectors, and the increasing rarity of the works he copied, the market value of de Hory’s prolific output may easily exceed one billion in today’s dollars.

It is not insignificant that Elmyr de Hory wasn’t “caught” by the FBI, or Interpol, or the French police, or the German police, or any other police agency looking for him. Neither is it insignificant that he wasn’t unmasked because of his criminal conduct, but due to the ill-advised public conduct of his confederates who lacked his worldliness. Nor is it insignificant that de Hory committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 70, still safely ensconced in Spain, and without having spent a day in jail because of an art forgery.

There is no question that de Hory’s particular genius was copying the work of others so expertly that in some cases his forgery was accepted as the original and the artists own work rejected as fake – which happened with some of his Raoul Dufy copies. One New York art gallery owner recognized de Hory’s artistic genius by observing, “When it came to doing Matisse, de Hory was better than Matisse.” 9 Another art connoisseur said that if one of de Hory’s fake Derains was placed next to nine originals, a panel of four experts would have difficulty selecting which one was the copy. A collector who knew his Modigliani was a de Hory fake, had its originality attested to by a number of art experts and gallery owners in Paris. A gallery owner in Switzerland sagely noted, “he is some kind of genius. But which kind, I don’t know. All I know is that no one quite like him has ever existed before.” 10

Although some may call Elmyr de Hory a common thief, others a sophisticated con man, and still others that he was an immensely talented rogue, it helps to keep his forgery activities in perspective by considering that he was able to move so much expertly copied merchandise by always selling it at below market prices to sophisticated art collectors and dealers. He didn’t sell to the general public – only to art insiders. Although initially he, and later his two salesmen always had a plausible story for why the art was being offered at a bargain price, those buyers knew what the market value was, and must have suspected, at least in the back of their mind, that something “wasn’t right.” Consequently those buyers weren’t so much victims as willing accomplices. If there were out and out victims, it was the unsuspecting collectors the forged art was resold to at market rates by de Hory’s “willing accomplices.” Clifford Irving quotes de Hory as saying after his unmasking, “I came out of it without a dime. It’s the dealers and the art galleries who made a fortune, buying as cheap as they could from me and selling as dear as they could to the collectors.” 11 Buyer beware is as applicable in the purchase of art as every other commodity. As Jean Le Malchanceux wrote in the twelfth century, “If fools did not go to market, cracked pots and false wares would not be sold.”

Although de Hory was able to use the insiders of the art world all over the world as his fence, it is inconceivable that he could have been anywhere near as prolific before being exposed if he had begun his checkered career today, instead of in 1946. The first time one of his drawings or paintings had been identified as a fake, his picture, taken by a surveillance camera, or by a hand-held digital camera, or a picture capable cell phone, could have been posted in a matter of hours on the Internet, and he would have been reported to the police. Also unlike when de Hory quit forging, every major police agency in the world would have instantaneous access to his photo and details of his suspected criminal activity. While that might seem like a good thing – the same interlocking network of surreptitious private and public surveillance that would have ensnared Elmyr de Hory today and interfered with his liberty, also monitors each and every one of us twenty-four hours of every day.

Likewise the same veil of privacy that protected de Hory’s liberty for so many years across so many countries and continents, also served to protect the privacy and liberty of everyone else in this and other countries. Considering that Harry Elmer Barnes described the Western world at the beginning of de Hory’s exploits as a “police state,” it is difficult to fathom how he would describe the encroachments on our privacy and liberty that have occurred in the intervening half-a-century. However irrespective of any such assessment by Barnes, Fake! clearly shows that what de Hory would have lost if he were alive today – his privacy and liberty - is what we have all lost. Although not quantifiably measurable, the diminishment in our society of those qualities of inestimable value has had a profound affect on us as human beings. As Thomas Starkie observed in his 1824 book on evidence, “The maxim of the law is . . . that it is better that ninety-nine . . . offenders shall escape than that one innocent man be condemned.” 12 The wisdom of that observation can be paraphrased as, “The maxim of a free society is that it is better that ninety-nine Elmyr de Hory’s shall escape detection, than that one person shall have their privacy and liberty encroached.” It is only when that maxim is observed, and which was taken as a given in Starkie’s day, that his cautionary admonition has any meaning.


1 Fake! The story of Elmyr de Hory: the greatest art forger of our time, Clifford Irving, McGraw-Hill, 1969, ASIN: 0070320470.

2 National Identification Systems, Carl Watner ed., McFarland, 2003, pp. 229-247.

3 Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace, Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1953, pp. 3-4.

4 I first learned about Elmyr de Hory in the fall of 2003 when I attended an art house theater’s showing of F is for Fake, a 1973 documentary produced and directed by Orson Welles. The documentary tells the story of three masterful deceptions. One of those is de Hory’s decades long career of flooding the art world with fake drawings and paintings of well known artists, including Picasso. The film mentioned a book about Elmyr de Hory by Clifford Irving and I subsequently obtained a copy.

5 Fake! The story of Elmyr de Hory, supra at 22.

6 Id. at 22.

7 Id. at 228-229.

8 Id. at 228.

9 Id. at 229.

10 Id. at 229.

11 Id. at 215.

12 A Practical Treatise on the Law of Evidence, and Digest of proofs, in Civil and Criminal Proceedings, Thomas Starkie, 751 (1824), as quoted in Schlup v. Delo, 115 S. Ct. 851 (1995); 1995.SCT.40424, ¶61 <http://www.versuslaw.com>.