Features

Con Artistry

The real story of how the world's most notorious art collection wound up in Minnesota.

Mark Forgy at home with his collection of Elmyr de Hory forgeries.
Portraits by Cameron Wittig

It was 1976, and Mark Forgy was a tawny, blue-eyed hippie from Hopkins sitting in the back seat of a car racing through the distant roads of Ibiza, cradling the frail body of Elmyr de Hory—the greatest art forger of the 20th century.

Years earlier, de Hory had been exposed as the single hand behind a hundred-million-dollar art fraud perpetrated against Dallas oil baron Algur Hurtle Meadows, who had thought he was swindling desperate dealers out of masterpieces torn from post-World War II Europe. He wasn’t. When the collection for which Meadows had so ruthlessly bargained was appraised, experts agreed that the swindler had been swindled. That’s how the world learned of de Hory, Hungarian aristocrat and master forger.

The master forger part was true, as was the Hungarian part. Aristocrat not so much. A gay Jew born in Hungary in 1906, de Hory had trained with the renowned French painter Fernand Léger and came up in the same School of Paris art scene that gave birth to Picasso, Modigliani, and Matisse. But he was born a generation behind those greats and spent what would have been the critical years of his career evading Nazis. War-ravaged Europe was the set on which he designed his signature con: He pretended to be an aristocrat down on his luck and forced to part with his precious art. He sold drawings, mainly “Picassos,” which he’d toss off three at a time in the mornings.

0414-ConArtistry_S01.jpg

Eventually de Hory moved from drawings to the big money of oil paintings, mainly Modiglianis and Matisses but also paintings in the style of Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Kees van Dongen, among others. He was good. Van Dongen himself authenticated one of de Hory’s van Dongen pieces, telling the dealer that he remembered the model well and that he and the model had often left off painting for lovemaking.

But now de Hory was dying from a self-inflicted cocktail of cognac and pills. And in the back of that car, Forgy heard the death rattle of the 70-year-old he had come to love like a father.

Sitting in an Uptown café 30-odd years later, Forgy comes to tears remembering the awful end. It was the only time he ever saw de Hory unshaven. When they finally reached the hospital they had been racing to, the nuns who ran it pronounced de Hory dead, leaving Forgy with three problems: what to do with de Hory’s body, what to do with the massive collection of de Hory paintings he had just inherited as sole heir, and what to do with the rest of his life.

Forgy and de Hory’s friends managed to piggyback de Hory’s burial on that of a recently deceased good Catholic, leaving de Hory to enter the cemetery the same way he entered so many museums: under someone else’s good name. Forgy then took the carpentry skills he had learned in Minnesota and fashioned shipping containers for everything de Hory had left behind, including nearly 300 drawings and paintings. He sent them to his parents’ house in Hopkins, and he went home with de Hory’s dog, Moody, and built a shed for the containers.

That’s how the greatest collection of forged art came to reside in Minnesota. It has been here through Twins World Series victories, Halloween blizzards, and the entire life of the Metrodome. And it is still here, as it ever was, poised to make Forgy very rich—or lay waste to the market for 20th-century art.


Southwest of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota River twists and ambles through green and rolling hills. It is fertile land, legendarily fertile. The Jolly Green Giant canning company was born here, in the town of Le Sueur, and in the dips between many of those legendarily green hills are lakes. Mark Forgy lives on one of those lakes with his wife, Alice Doll.

Forgy and Doll were married 10 years ago, discovering one another in a late-life romance that has them grabbing for each other like teenagers. From the street, the couple’s red wooden house looks like any generic Minnesota post-war cabin, small and modest with a carport and a red-painted cardinal bird feeder. From the street, you’d think this little house on a lake holds nothing more valuable than woodgrain TV trays and Fleet Farm floor mats. But open the door. Open the door and it’s like stepping through a wormhole into the Louvre.

The walls are tiled with masterpieces. Modigliani, Modigliani, Modigliani. Cézanne, Cézanne, Cézanne. If you know art, it gives you vertigo. Matisse, Matisse, Matisse. Derain. Dufy. Of course, all the art is by Elmyr de Hory, who, once he was found out in 1966, became a full-fledged counterculture hero living the high life in Ibiza with Forgy at his side.

He threw parties. His good friend Ursula Andress, the Bond girl, attended most of them. He dined with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Marlene Dietrich. He had tea with Sir Noël Coward. Kirk Douglas wrote in his autobiography that he still has two de Horys—a “van Gogh” and a “Monet”—and adores them. Forgy recalls scrambling with de Hory down steep cliffs to swim in the Mediterranean with Brigitte Bardot during one particular afterparty.

Like so many others, filmmaker Orson Welles was drawn to the story of de Hory. So drawn that he decided to make a documentary called F for Fake. It wasn't the only movie made about the witty, super-talented queen who’d been shafted by the 20th century and responded by sticking it to oil billionaires and shady, snobby art gallery types. De Hory relished the attention. “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani; I feel good for me,” he shrugged to the cameras.


0414-ConArtistry_S02.jpgMark Forgy and Elmyr de Hory at home in Ibiza, with Ursula Andress.
Photo courtesy of Mark Forgy

All that was a far distance from the Hopkins of Forgy’s childhood. His father was a tool and die maker who worked for Honeywell. His mother was an interior decorator for Sears. Forgy grew up watching the Vietnam War with an ever-increasing sense of dread. Forgy’s father had fought in World War II in New Guinea and believed when your country called, you went. His youngest son had different ideas.

“In 1967, 1968, I was a full-fledged member of the hippie generation,” Forgy says. “It was a different world. You could go to Seven Corners and there was someone every few feet saying: hash, hash, acid, acid, whatever you want. It all seemed like a fine idea to me. I had pictures of Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh on my wall. We are not just products of our mother and father. We are products of our times, and my times were say yes to drugs and no to war.”

Forgy hadn’t been much of a student, and in 1968, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, something in Forgy gelled. He started saving the money he earned at a night janitor’s job at Honeywell. “By 1969 I had made up my mind. I was going to Europe,” he says. “We had sleeping bags. Everywhere you went you were invited into people’s homes. You’d just be standing at a street-crossing in Denmark and a woman would look at you and say, ‘Do you need a place to spend the night?’”

Forgy befriended a young British man also named Mark who was also backpacking around Europe, and they ended up on a ferry to Ibiza, the island in the Spanish Mediterranean. “Mark and I were weaving in and out of the portside bars when I ran into Elmyr,” Forgy says. De Hory, who was in his 60s, offered Forgy his guest room, as he had offered it to many young men before.

“Elmyr could cruise through the cafes and bars on a spring or summer evening, sit down with many friends, and meet whomever he liked,” author Clifford Irving writes in Fake!, his biography of de Hory. “Unfortunately the relationships that developed out of these encounters were rarely satisfactory. For one thing, although de Hory liked young men who were, as he put it, ‘undemanding,’ he himself made more demands than were to most people’s liking, and in his house he tended to treat his companions—unless they bore a title before their name or had money—more as servants than as guests. For another, his taste often ran to types who in any other kind of community would have been labeled as juvenile delinquents, and for this he paid the price. He was even more of a natural victim in his personal life than in his profession.”

The strategy of guest rooms for travelers never worked for de Hory until the boy from Hopkins came along. Forgy says he made it clear he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, and de Hory was willing to settle for companionship and help. He hired Forgy to be his personal assistant, to run to the bodegas for champagne, to be there for every meal, to be decorative and charming and go with him to the doctor or the courthouse as required.

In film footage of de Hory from the early 1970s, Forgy is omnipresent—floppy-haired, fine-boned, lanky, ice-blue-eyed. In one scene of F for Fake, de Hory stands with a bouquet of pink and white flowers and bends to kiss Forgy. A few seconds later, Forgy, looking perhaps stoned or perhaps just camera-frozen, explains how he got to Ibiza: “Several months ago I read an article about Elmyr de Hory and I was so impressed that I decided to come from Minnesota to Ibiza in the hope of meeting Elmyr, and now I’ve become his bodyguard.”

That was a lie.

“A complete fabrication,” Forgy says. “He gave me money when I needed it, and I was thrust into this world beyond the looking glass I never would have been able to discover without him, so I stayed.” De Hory did what he could to be the Henry Higgins to Forgy’s Eliza Doolittle. De Hory enrolled Forgy in French classes, taught him European table manners, and even scoured the island for a proper American Christmas turkey so the young American could have a proper American Christmas. (The turkey didn’t fit in their oven, remembers Forgy.)

“My family was completely disengaged,” Forgy says. “I remember my mother did call once, and Elmyr picked up the phone and scolded her for not taking more of an interest in me. My dad was a workaholic and probably an alcoholic. He was never comfortable with the parenting role, so I fell into that role with Elmyr, who was everything a father should be: caring, nurturing, interested in educating me. We were very much alike. We were both trusting people, too trusting. I think in his whole life I was the one person he could always count on.”

When de Hory had kidney stones, Forgy flew with him to Barcelona and stayed at his side. “Elmyr hated being alone,” Forgy says. “His need for constant companionship was the portal which allowed me into his life.” When de Hory faced extradition to France as part of a fraud trial involving his former art dealers, Forgy sat beside him in court hearing after court hearing. “Everything he ever said, I swallowed hook, line, and sinker,” Forgy says. Except maybe the part when de Hory said he didn’t know the forgeries were sold as real.


0414-ConArtistry_S03.jpgMark Forgy lives southwest of the Twin Cities with his wife, Alice Doll.

Fraud in painting is actually difficult to prove. It is not illegal to paint in the style of Picasso or Rembrandt or Raphael. It is not illegal to sculpt a David in the style of Michelangelo. In fact, imitating great art is a key way of learning art technique. Michelangelo himself is said to have carved a cupid in the style of the ancient Romans and to have buried it to age it before presenting it to Lorenzo de' Medici as proof that, Hell yeah, I can sculpt! Whether by Michelangelo or de Hory or you yourself, making work in the style of someone else is never illegal. What is illegal is to sell art as something it’s not. That’s fraud.

De Hory committed fraud, but he started small. The big fraud came when another young man he had let live with him, Fernand Legros, began to act as his dealer. Legros took a younger lover, Réal Lessard, and the two abused de Hory, giving him $2,000 and $5,000 checks for the paintings they were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, all the while threatening to get de Hory imprisoned on charges of homosexuality or convicted of fraud if he didn’t make more pictures. Legros was eventually arrested, and part of what made de Hory sympathetic to the international art world was his role as the gifted, exploited victim to Legros. De Hory didn’t even own the house he lived in on Ibiza; Legros did.

After the arrest, de Hory and Forgy were thrown out of the house, and the two moved to a villa in the countryside without a phone. Forgy headed out one morning to find a phone, to discover whether there was any news about the latest extradition hearing. “I was told he would be extradited. I was in shock. I came back and I told him.”

De Hory believed that his longtime abuser Legros had a plan to have him killed when he got to a French jail, at which point Legros would blame de Hory for the fraud and walk away. He couldn’t face that, and he had been making plans to avoid such a fate. In retrospect, says Forgy, he should have realized that de Hory had planned to commit suicide. “We had gone to a notary to make me the sole heir.”

After Forgy told him the news, de Hory went to his room to ingest cognac and pills. Forgy felt helpless. “I knew what his wishes here. He did not want to go to France to prison. That was his greatest fear. And it was only a matter of hours until the Spanish police came to drag him off in chains. He couldn’t tolerate the total humiliation. He said that again and again. He was older and wiser. I didn’t know what to do.”

Forgy drove to a friend’s house. The friend convinced him that they must save de Hory. They rushed back. “He was lying in his bed. He was on his stomach. I went up to him. I shook him a little. I said, ‘Elmyr, Elmyr.’ He looked at me. His eyes were completely vacant. I took him to the car. I cradled him in my arms. I heard the death rattle. When we got to the clinic, a nun said she was sorry—it was too late. I spent time with him. A curtain came down on my life that I couldn’t lift for 30 years.”

Forgy’s hair is silver now, but he is still recognizable as the same beautiful boy onscreen in the movies about the great forger. “I went as a 20-year-old who was going to have adventures on the beach. I came back as a shell-shocked 27-year-old with Elmyr’s dog and life’s work. Even today I don’t know if I have ever fully recovered.”


What are forged paintings or drawings? Are they merely evidence of a crime, like forged checks? Or are they something more? “People like the story of the rogue who thumbs his nose at the art world and gets away with it,” says Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, a company that helps detect fraudulent paintings. “But what does it do economically and legally to the heirs of the estate?”

If there are only 500 paintings by Modigliani, who died at 35, and de Hory adds 50, that drives the supply up and the price down. Ditto if there are 500 excellent paintings by Modigliani but de Hory adds 50 trite ones that diminish Modigliani’s reputation.

“One mission of museums is to display original art to the public,” Loll says. “When you show something as authentic which isn’t authentic, it is a violation of that trust.” If de Hory inserted 1,000 illegitimate works of art into the art market, as he was thought to have done, how many artists, heirs, and public institutions has he damaged? “Hundreds of years ago it was commonly assumed that students in workshops would copy the master’s work, and if it was good enough the master would sign it,” Loll says. “Nowadays authenticity means something different. Is there a palpable link to the moment and person and time? I need to be able to create a line, and that connection equals value. If I can’t prove that Warhol had a hand in making a silkscreen, is it authentic?”

That’s a good question, especially because artists’ work can now be reproduced without them. The silkscreens Andy Warhol used to make silkscreen prints, the molds used to cast Rodin sculptures, and the negatives used to make Ansel Adams photographs are all still in use. What’s the difference between a de Hory Matisse from the 1960s and a brand-new, legally authentic Rodin issued by Rodin’s estate a hundred years after Rodin’s death?

“Well, what’s the difference between a Prada purse and a knockoff?” Loll counters. “I have an Elmyr in my kitchen. It brings me joy. It’s a beautiful picture. But I know what it is. If I bought it as something else and found out it wasn’t, I might feel differently. There’s something called neuroaesthetics. What people believe changes their experience of an object. If you are told something is a great work by a real master, you enjoy it. If you’re then told it’s actually a fake, then you don’t like it anymore. Elmyr was very sweet to Mark Forgy. But to others, he was a con man. He swindled them out of millions of dollars. Even today plenty of people buy Elmyr Modiglianis planning to pass them off as Modiglianis. It’s ongoing fraud.”

That’s why, in France, a perfectly beautiful Chagall forgery is about to be burned. The British businessman who bought it in 1992 for 100,000 pounds says he is fond of it and would like to hang it on his wall. But the committee that authenticates Chagalls, headed by two of Chagall’s granddaughters, has decided it’s a fake and must be destroyed.


Art critic Blake Gopnik has no problem with forgeries. “What I argue is that they’re not by the forger at all; they’re by the artist,” says Gopnik, who writes for the Daily Beast. “The crucial thing about them is not the manual skill of making the art—that’s a very small part of any artwork. It’s the idea—the idea and the way of moving your hand. Artists make discoveries. They discover an idea plus a technique. Forgers are just people who have this weird ability to channel the ideas of other people through their manual skill. In Rembrandt’s day only he could figure out how to move his hand and use paint to convey his ideas, but once he discovered what he discovered, no matter how profound, others could create those Rembrandtian objects. Today everyone knows how gravity works and are free to use that themselves. You’re not damaging Isaac Newton when you use his idea of gravity.”

Similarly, you’re not damaging Matisse if you use the color and line discoveries of Matisse. “Rembrandt produced works the way Armani produces works. It is about training up a bunch of people who can make Rembrandtian objects,” Gopnik says. “A good forger doesn’t deserve much more thought than a good employee of Armani. And it’s not as if people don’t love copies. We live in the midst of millions of perfect copies. They’re called posters. The market, the art market, is what hates forgeries.”

The art market hates forgeries because they interrupt the idea of what the market wants art to be: a precious object that goes up in value. But there’s another way to value art and that’s in the marketplace of ideas. To the extent that Mark Forgy’s house of de Horys on the lake gets us to consider the discoveries Matisse made, argues Gopnik, a de Hory is as valuable as a Matisse.

The scandal of de Hory has always resided in the basic assumption that a Modigliani painted by Modigliani is inherently better and more valuable than a fake. But what if that’s not true? In the book Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age, Jonathon Keats points out that over thousands of years, art has done many things: inspired devotion to the baby Jesus, connected the present to the ideals of classical myths, and showed new and valuable ways of seeing the world. At the same time, forgers have always been there, forging whatever at the moment is most popular.

De Hory made larger than life most of the biggest concerns of the 20th century: identity, originality, authenticity, identity politics, and man in the face of history. And he did it in a way that causes tension, anxiety, and self-examination in the art market and resists commodification to this day. “Think of all of those paintings as props in this larger act of deception,” Keats says. “It is work which is becoming more problematic years after his death. And this hoard that Forgy has is important. It will end up somewhere. It may be dispersed, it may end up in a museum collection, it may end up in 10 museum collections, but wherever it goes it will remain something that has to be contended with.”

Contended with the way Marcel Duchamp’s purchased urinal, titled Fountain, had to be contended with; the way Andy Warhol’s supermarket Brillo boxes had to be contended with; the way Robert Rauschenberg’s act of erasing a Willem de Kooning had to be contended with; the way Sherrie Levine’s photograph of one of Walker Evans’s photographs had to be contended with.

“Forgery and appropriation are different,” says Erik Doeringer, an emerging artist whose work deals with appropriation. “Forgery attempts to pass itself off as something it’s not, and appropriation asks questions about art. But forgers end up asking questions appropriation can’t, such as: How much are they actually faking being a forger? What is real and what is boasting? Some forgers who have been caught say, ‘My work is in tons of museums.’ You don’t know how much truth there is to that and how much they’re exaggerating to make themselves look more masterful.”

Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol questioned their own art. Sherrie Levine dragged in Walker Evans. De Hory drags in dozens of towering artists, plus every institution and private collector that has their work. On top of that, says Doeringer, there’s something very contemporary about de Hory. When we look at an artist like Cindy Sherman who creates characters, dresses as them, and photographs herself, we see someone playing with identity; de Hory, whose birth name was probably Hoffman, fully invented an identity and moved in.

“One reason why stories about forgery are popular with the general public," Doeringer says, "is that it ties in with this perception that the art world is bogus, or that anyone can make these things, that experts are fools, that a little guy can go against a rich robber baron and win. There’s also this element of an endless hoax, which seems contemporary.”


Bad-boy British artist Damien Hirst, thought to be the richest contemporary artist of our day, suffers frequent accusations of plagiarism. He’s accused of not being, for instance, the first person to present an embalmed crucified sheep as art. Plagiarism, of course, is the mirror image of forgery: In forgery, you present your work as someone else’s; in plagiarism, you present someone else’s work as yours. In the age of the Internet, in which any two or three words in a Google search are likely to reveal that someone, somewhere, has already crucified a sheep, why continue to live in thrall to 1950s ideas of forgery and plagiarism?

“The MIA did a show on fakes maybe 30 years ago, and it was fascinating,” says Eike Schmidt, a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “There was one piece that was supposed to be an Aztec sculpture. It was very old Hollywood really, but if it had been authentic someone could have gone to jail because it would have been illegally removed from Mexico. At that point, perhaps you’re relieved to find you have a fake. And of course there have been cases of art that was thought to be fake which was destroyed, and then someone realized no, it was real all along. Oops.”

The Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1593, was considered one of the greatest artists of her time, but after her death she wasn’t fashionable and her works were typically assigned to other artists and often given new signatures to fetch then-higher prices; she disappeared. When she came back into fashion in the 20th century, art historians made careers of reassembling her body of work.

There are hundreds of valuable artists about whom almost nothing is known—the Master of Frankfurt, for instance, is one of the most important painters of the northern Renaissance. The Master of the Housebook was the most important German engraver before Dürer. By consensus their names were not important at the time, so we don’t know them. What is valuable in art is an act of consensus, says Elizabeth Armstrong, curator of contemporary art at the MIA. Consensus between the art market, the lawyers, and the public. “The vast majority of art in the world is authentic but not at all valuable. So no one is forging it. Value, monetary value, is only and always will be a function of what the market will bear. The market is people, so you can never tell what the market will do.”

If the de Horys are not worth anything today, who knows what the world will make of them in 400 years? De Hory could be the next Artemisia Gentileschi. Or the world could go in a different direction and decide that all early-20th-century paintings are more or less a similar class of objects, in the same way that we think of medieval French tapestries. Maybe a de Hory will by consensus become interchangeable with a Matisse. Or maybe it won’t.


Mark Forgy may be sitting in a museum of treasure, trash, crime, memories, or objects that estate-sale-goers will buy, take home, and bring to Antiques Roadshow for the next 500 years, giving headaches to Modigliani, Dufy, and Matisse scholars for the next thousand. No one knows. Without the consensus of society to give them a value, the paintings throb with all the anxiety, uncertainty, beauty, and mystery with which de Hory imbued them, and they make Forgy’s house feel like a butterfly cage, alive and bright and unnerving.

Whatever they are, Forgy would like to sell a few of them to fund new adventures in travel with his wife. But as the owner of the greatest collection of real de Horys, Forgy has a new problem: fake de Horys. One of Legros and de Hory’s scams, back in the day, was to make a painting, photograph it, have the photograph printed on glossy paper, and then to take a glossy color plate out of an art book on, say, Matisse and replace it with his own new color plate for instant provenance. In the 1990s a man named Ken Talbot republished Clifford Irving’s book Fake! with dozens of new color plates of brand-new de Horys, using the old dealer’s ruse against him at industrial scale. So now Forgy spends his days patrolling the Internet to warn people of the fake fakes.

“I was never Elmyr’s bodyguard,” sighs Forgy, tilting his head in the characteristic way that moves his floppy hair away from his beautiful eyes. “But now you could say I’m his body-of-work guard.” The irony of the great faker being faked is not lost on Forgy, nor is the fact that somewhere, probably in China, there’s a painter who is likely paraphrasing de Hory’s own words. He or she likely doesn’t feel bad for de Hory; he or she feels good for himself or herself.

Forgy feels what he always felt: bad for de Hory, mystified by de Hory, but above all grateful for de Hory, grateful for the sensitive genius who bucked the system till it bucked him. At home, Forgy makes coffee and watches the birds flit past the windows of his private Fort Knox of fakes, for which he traded his innocence. They are worth exactly as much as they were when he fled Minnesota in 1969, which is precisely nothing. Or a whole hell of a lot.
 


NOW, REALLY GO DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE . . . 

Dara's story might be over, but like any good tale it likely left you wanting more. On the next page we've got the "more", as we've catalogued the Mark Forgy/ Elmyr de Hory rabbit hole including an art forgery quiz game, video of Mark Forgy's stageplay based his time with Elmyr, a trailer for Orson Welles' F for Fake, and exclusive access to the entire rarely-scene BBC documentary that inspired it.


Comments