Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Faking It : Elmyr de Hory - The Century's Greatest Art Forger

In the Forgery Business

In order to survive, Elmyr began to once again draw and paint. He quickly learned that he had an uncanny talent for reproducing the drawing style used by Picasso. In fact, many of his friends and acquaintances mistook his drawings for Picasso originals. According to an article by Anita Amirrezvani, in 1946 Elmyr sold one of his first drawings to a British friend who believed that the reproductions were actually original Picasso drawings. Sensing an opportune moment, Elmyr devised an illegal yet potentially lucrative scheme.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
 

At the time it was not an uncommon event for people to gather their most valuable possessions to sell them. Many had no source of revenue during the war and had to pawn what they could. Elmyr was not much different. Yet, instead of selling the few things he owned, he decided to pass his paintings off as if they were genuine Picasso works to earn a living.

Before long, he was gallivanting from gallery to gallery selling his wares, explaining that the works were from his familys estate. None of the gallery owners questioned Elmyr and were pleased to have the opportunity to buy such rare merchandise. They had no idea that the drawings were superb forgeries that captured the mood and style of Picasso.

Elmyr began to draw as much as he could to keep up with the growing requests.   For each re-creation Elmyr churned out, which usually took no more than an hour to produce, he made a profit between $100 to $400 and sometimes more. As the demand for the drawings grew, so did Elmyrs wallet.

In the summer of 1946, Elmyr told a friend,    Jacques Chamberlin about the true nature of his work. Chamberlin was impressed with Elmyrs daring stunt and the earnings he made from it. Chamberlin wanted a piece of the action since he also was in a financial bind. Chamberlin suggested that they begin a business partnership, where the two would travel Europe selling the reproductions to the highest bidder.   Elmyr would also continue to create more replica drawings.

The men traveled in style from city to city, raking in huge profits from the sales of the forgeries and spending their earnings on extravagant clothes, food and hotels. The profits were purportedly to be shared equally, but Elmyr became suspicious of Chamberlins actual take. It wasnt long before he began to realize that his partner was stealing from him. He discovered that Chamberlin was lying about prices for which he sold the paintings and had kept the majority of the profits for himself. Angered, Elmyr ended the partnership and resumed doing business by himself.

Elmyr traveled throughout Europe and South America selling his works to unsuspecting galleries. In 1947, he visited the United States on a three-month visa. According to Irving, he fell so in love with the U.S. and its people that he overstayed his limit by what would later turn out to be more than eleven years. Over those years, Elmyr moved between New York and Los Angeles, continuing with his illegal exploits. He mingled with the rich and famous, some of whom bought his drawings.

Elmyr would sometimes stop producing forgeries and instead create his own original works. The forgery business had provided him with sufficient funds, and he wanted to prove that he could be just as successful on his own. To his dismay he had difficulty selling his own creations and his money rapidly dwindled. Disheartened that his original art was unappreciated, he returned to forgeries that now netted him hundreds of thousands dollars.

Amedeo Modigliani
Amedeo Modigliani
 

Eventually, gallery owners began to ask if Elmyr had drawings or paintings for sale from artists other than Picasso. Realizing the demand in the marketplace, Elymr decided to try his hand at reproducing works of other famous masters, thus expanding his repertoire. Surprisingly, he discovered that he could forge works by other great artists     such as Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. Moreover, instead of just producing drawings Elmyr began to work with the more difficult medium of oil, which he could sell for higher prices.

However, with every new sale the risk of getting caught increased. Elmyr already had an unpleasant brush with Klaus Perls, which he feared would prompt rumors about his unauthentic works. Furthermore, Klaus could now identify Elymr, which would later cause even more troubles for him.

Elmyr decided that it would be beneficial to use pseudonyms, to make him less identifiable. Some of the alias he used included, Elmyr von Houry, L. E. Raynal and Louis Cassau. He also figured it would be a better idea to work his scheme from a greater distance, ending his gallery-door-to-gallery-door sales. He devised a more secure method in which to sell his paintings that would limit his face-to-face contact with clients. He chose to do most of his business by mail. This approach saved time and money and led Elymr to a new way of life.

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