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11:07 am
Fri August 1, 2014

Elmyr

Originally published on Fri August 1, 2014 4:54 pm

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Transcript

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now then, for our first piece it just goes to show that when a stranger invites you into his home, always say yes.

SNAP JUDGMENT's Joe Rosenberg has the story.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: At the end of a long country road about an hour's drive outside of Minneapolis, Mark Forgy lives with his wife, Alice, in a small house on a lake.

MARK FORGY: Hi, Joe.

ROSENBERG: Mark, how's it going?

FORGY: Great. Thanks for coming.

ROSENBERG: It's raining when I get there, which makes the house feel even cozier than it already is. But I haven't come from the ambience.

Shall we begin the tour?

FORGY: Sure. You can see immediately here in the entryway, space is a precious commodity in this house. So I feel compelled to fill every square inch with art.

ROSENBERG: The art - that's why I'm here.

FORGY: One of my favorite pieces when you come into the house, here, is this Modigliani.

ROSENBERG: Right there, just as you open the door, that's what greets you - a drawing by one of the great painters of the 20th century, Modigliani - a portrait of a woman.

FORGY: With this kind of ethereal otherworldly gaze.

ROSENBERG: Next up on the tour is a Picasso.

FORGY: One of his Spanish period picadors.

ROSENBERG: Which hangs right next to a Matisse.

FORGY: Just the epitome of Matisse's nudes.

ROSENBERG: The whole house is like this. Like Mark said, every square inch of the walls seems to be filled with priceless works of art.

FORGY: Brock, Picasso, Dufy, etc.

ROSENBERG: do you have any Cezannes?

FORGY: Yes, one right here. There we go.

ROSENBERG: That's crazy. I'm sorry. It's just crazy that I can be like, do you have a Cezanne? And you say sure.

We walk back over to the Matisse - the nude. And I ask him how much a painting like this might be worth.

FORGY: A Matisse of this quality would be in the millions of euros or dollars - Swiss francs - whatever denomination you want to pick.

ROSENBERG: Is this your entire collection that we are looking at?

FORGY: I would say this is probably about 10 percent.

ROSENBERG: Jesus. Where's the rest?

FORGY: In storage.

ROSENBERG: In storage, in a safe place.

FORGY: Yes.

ROSENBERG: Mark isn't an Internet billionaire. He doesn't work for some fancy museum. He's totally Midwest normal. And the story of how such a normal guy ended up with such an abnormal art collection starts like any good story - on a day Mark will never forget.

FORGY: It was a Sunday - the first of November, 1969.

ROSENBERG: Mark was 20 years old, backpacking around Europe with a friend, and they had just arrived on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

FORGY: It was past the height of the tourist season. Hardly a person was there at the port except for this one gentleman very dapperly dressed - had a brown tweed sport coat on, open collar shirt with an Ascot, Hollywood-type sunglasses. We went up to him and I asked him if he spoke English. He immediately beamed with a smile, and he said yes, like they do in Kansas City.

ROSENBERG: The dapperly dressed gentleman who did speak English but not like they did in Kansas City said that his name was Elmyr de Hory and that he was Hungarian who lived on the island.

FORGY: I could tell instantly that this was a very kindhearted and generous person. That was a trait that just bled through the moment I met him.

ROSENBERG: And sure enough when they asked him if he could recommend a cheap place to stay, he insisted that they stay with him at his home in the hills. And when we went up to his house, the facade of the house looked rather nondescript, but as soon as you opened the door it was quite obvious that it was kind of a sumptuous villa. It was situated on a cliff. The back of the house had a pool, a view that overlooked the Mediterranean. There were paintings on the wall - sculptures, books. And he explained to me that he was an artist, and I wouldn't have recognized a Picasso at that time. I was clueless but I knew it was a world beyond what I could have imagined.

ROSENBERG: Almost from the first day Mark was there, people started coming up to the house.

FORGY: Artists, writers, aristocracy.

ROSENBERG: They came to drink and talk and dance and do it all over again the next day, and always at the center stood Elmyr.

FORGY: He was probably the most charismatic and social creature that I have ever encountered in my life. He had the personality of an empresario and had an inexhaustible largesse.

ROSENBERG: Were you ever wondering, like, where does he, you know, get the money for all this? Like, what's going on here?

FORGY: All I knew was that he was an artist who disappeared into his studio every morning, and that I wasn't supposed to knock on the door or bother him when he was alone. And I know there was a great sense of mystery and mystique about him among his friends on Ibiza.

FORGY: They all surmised different bits about Elmyr's past, and very often none of it had any relationship to the truth.

ROSENBERG: But Elmyr clearly liked Mark. Maybe it was due to his unassuming Midwest manners or his boyish good looks or the fact that he never pried into Elmyr's past like everyone else. But for whatever reason, after his friend left, Mark's mysterious host offered him a job as his live-in assistant.

FORGY: So I began to understand Elmyr and his life because we established a rapport by ritual. After dinner we would have these fireside chats, and slowly his saga would unfold.

ROSENBERG: Elmyr told Mark that he was born into the Hungarian aristocracy and that even from a very young age, he seemed destined to become a great painter. Adults marveled at his craftsmanship and artistic maturity, and he eventually studied at some of the best art schools in Europe. But then the war came, and Elmyr lost his entire family to either the concentration camps or the fighting. After the war, he lived in Paris as a refugee, still trying to make it as an artist and failing until one day when a wealthy heiress visited his apartment and mistook a small pen and ink drawing of his for a Picasso.

FORGY: And Elmyr queried her. He said well, what makes you think that's a Picasso? And she said well, I know a Picasso when I see one. And she immediately added, would you be interested in selling it? And she offered him 50 pounds, sterling. And Elmyr told me that he didn't feel good about selling it, but that was the day his rent was due. And that 50 pounds would assure his living for the next month or two. And he always added afterwards - he said, I'd like to see the poor Hungarian refugee that would resist that temptation.

ROSENBERG: So Elmyr sold the painting. Then he went and bought himself a new suit and a nice meal.

FORGY: And he thought well, if it's this easy, why shouldn't I do a few more?

ROSENBERG: Elmyr found that he had a knack for imitating the styles of all sorts of artists, like Matisse.

FORGY: Just the epitomy of Matisse's nudes.

ROSENBERG: And Modigliani.

FORGY: With this kind of ethereal, otherworldly gaze.

ROSENBERG: And, you know, the rest.

FORGY: Brock, Picasso, Dufy, etc. And he said I never had a problem selling it to a museum or gallery. He said they never refused - never.

ROSENBERG: By the time he wound up on Ibiza, Elmyr had sold forgeries on three continents. He was so prolific a forger that he often saw his work in museums and art catalogs alongside originals by the actual artist, but couldn't remember which was which. In one instance, the artist himself was asked to authenticate one of Elmyr's forgeries, and he said he remembered the model well - that, in fact, he had made love to her that very night. Elmyr was that good.

FORGY: Really, no one else could match him. And on a number of occasions he would ask, would you prefer a bad original to a good fake?

ROSENBERG: His friends and neighbors on Ibiza, of course, didn't know any of this. To them he was just the mysterious Hungarian immigrant who came from money and liked to throw parties, until one afternoon when Elmyr passed by a cafe in town and noticed the headline of a major French newspaper.

FORGY: Elmyr's pallor turned absolutely white. All the blood had drained from his face.

ROSENBERG: The paper outed him as the forger behind a massive international art scandal, by name.

FORGY: Elmyr knew that he was doomed. It was just a matter of time before he would end up dragged off in chains.

ROSENBERG: But that's not what happened. It turned out that because he was wanted in France but had never sold any forgeries in Spain where he was actually living, he was off the hook unless the French could extradite him, which they couldn't. And his friends on Ibiza...

FORGY: The news spread across the island like brushfire and Elmyr became an instant celebrity. And I was there to witness all the side effects of his newfound fame. People started coming up to his villa and they were all in awe of Elmyr. Suddenly it was common to have dinner table conversations with people like Marlina Dietrich and Orson Welles. And he really began to blossom.

ROSENBERG: Elmyr regaled his new celebrity friends with tales from his elicit past, made grand pronouncements about the sad state of the art establishment and, of course, showed off his unique talent.

FORGY: He could create a would-be masterpiece, for example in the manner of a Matisse, and then with a certain nonchalance just destroy it - say to him, goodbye Matisse, and burn it on a whim. I think that was probably the happiest time of his life.

ROSENBERG: Elmyr also took Mark under his wing. He enrolled him in language schools, taught him all about art and architecture and literature.

FORGY: There always seemed to be a lesson around every corner. And I was a sponge absorbing it all.

ROSENBERG: Mark also observed things that were important to no one but Elmyr, like how to kiss the hand of a woman from a, quote, unquote, "good family."

FORGY: Elmyr always explained, you bend gracefully from the waist and you then pretend to kiss her hand. It was a total immersion in his life and his lifestyle.

ROSENBERG: Did Elmyr ever approach you sexually? Was that ever broached?

FORGY: Sure. It was a bit of a difficulty because I'm not gay, but we were able to overcome that because it was more important for Elmyr to have the companionship that I offered. I didn't realize right away how significant that was, but I found it strange that somebody as gregarious and sophisticated as he was actually a very lonely man. So Elmyr really became a father figure and I think he began to view me as the son that he had never had.

ROSENBERG: Elmyr and Mark even opened a small gallery together, where Elmyr showcased some of his own work. He made Mark the director and Mark remembers that it was the first time anyone had ever entrusted him with that kind of responsibility. But the gallery was also there to help Elmyr acquire the one thing he still didn't have.

FORGY: He thought that after he was exposed he would get the recognition that he'd always longed for his entire life. And that people would see him as a great artist in his own right. It never really came to pass.

The demand from the public was, oh, would you please do a Degas - a race course scene for me - I always wanted one of those.

ROSENBERG: But Elmyr couldn't do fakes anymore; not with the French still trying to extradite him. So these weren't even real forgeries, they were just homages in the style of a more famous artist, which Elmyr was then obliged to sign with his own name often to the disappointment of his clients.

FORGY: So that was the double-edged sword in his life. And I remember him once trying to identify the reasons why that was. And he said to me quite candidly - I have the talent, the technical know-how. But I may not have the imagination.

I think at the end of the day what really was most important to Elmyr was not being a fine artist. What he really craved most was love and adoration. That was really what made his heart beat faster. And he really thought public recognition, even for his infamy was a far better alternative than being completely unknown. And I know that in some instances he caved into the pressure to again do fakes and forgeries.

ROSENBERG: And this was life with Elmyr. Fine food, culture, partying and the occasional forgery. Mark ended up living it for eight years, until one day, when Elmyr asked him to go check on the result of the latest extradition hearing.

FORGY: I said, Elmyr they tried this on previous occasions and they didn't succeed. Why would this attempt be any different? But I think he just sensed that there was something in the air, something different about it. So, I went to a pay phone near the church and I called a woman who knew the judges in the tribunal. And I identified myself and she immediately began crying.

ROSENBERG: The extradition she explained had gone through. Elmyr was going to prison.

FORGY: It was the most emotional moment of my entire life. I've never had to do anything or experience anything as harsh as that moment. Because I knew that I had to return to the house and give Elmyr this bleak news. I returned to the home, found Elmyr in his dressing gown, unshaven, which was unusual for him, and I immediately sat in the chair opposite him and broke down in tears. And he tried to comfort me and he said, Mark it's OK. And I said, no, it's not OK.

I tried to plead with him, I said, look we can go to Morocco, we can go to some other country were they don't have an extradition (Unintelligible), we can fight this and he was calm. And he said, Mark I have very little time and every day there was a lesson. So, he said, remember what Nietzsche said - he said, life is something we can always exit when we want to. Then he went upstairs and took an overdose of sleeping pills and cognac. I stayed downstairs in the house. In a kind of trance - a vigil. Absolutely torn because I didn't know what to do. I wanted to rescue him but at the same time I did not want to see him arrested and sent off to prison. And I decided then I needed some help. So, the friend and I went up the stairs to his bedroom and he was lying on his side face down in the bed. I approached the bed and I said Elmyr and he turned over and he looked at me. And I could see this vacant stare that he was looking but not really seeing me. And then we tried to lift him from the bed and we took him downstairs and put we put him in the car and we sped off back to Ibiza to take him to the clinic. And I was cradling him in my arms in the back of the car. And he died en route.

ROSENBERG: Elmyr left mark everything. His letters, his personal belongings and of course his art. But when Mark had the letters translated he learned that Elmyr's family hadn't died during the war after all. His mother had even tried repeatedly to get in contact with him but Elmyr never wrote back nor was Elmyr de Hory even his real name. In the basement of a synagogue in Budapest a ledger reveled that the Hungarian aristocrat, who had taught Mark how to kiss a lady's hand was actually the son of a Jewish merchant. His birth name was Elemer Hoffmann. But when I asked Mark if any of this makes him angry he says, no. It makes him sad.

FORGY: Elmyr lied to me directly but I think I understand why he did. He had an opportunity to paint his own portrait. And it was far easier to deal with this fantasy than to own up to the truth. But I wish I had had the opportunity to know the whole truth about Elmyr. Because I would've told him that nothing would have changed. I still would have loved him as deeply for his imperfections or flaws, the deception, the deceit and I know he loved me.

ROSENBERG: Back on our tour Mark sits in his living room surrounded by fake masterpieces or maybe masterpiece fakes, trying his best to guard Elmyr's legacy. Believe it or not he actually has to stay on the look out for fake Elmyr's, fake fakes. He said Elmyr probably wouldn't mind if they were any good. But they're usually not. And even in death the man has a reputation to maintain. But when I ask him if he could only save one thing from the house, what would it be. He points to a painting above the couch and it's not a forgery at all, it's a portrait of Mark and it's signed Elmyr.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Mark Forgy for sharing his story with the snap. To find out more about Mark and Elmyr's life together pick up a copy of Mark's memoir "The Forger's Apprentice." Check out his website, Elmyr.net. That story's produced by Joe Rosenberg. The sound design by Renzo Gorrio.

Now when SNAP JUDGEMENT returns we've got the worst sound you'll ever hear, and the most terrible thing that could ever happen, at least that's what it looks like a first. Went SNAP JUDGEMENT The Grand Illusion continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.