Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fake! by Clifford Irving

Subtitled The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, Fake! is the only kind of true-crime book I can get into: not the story of a murderer, but of a classy kind of con artist.

As any fan of Orson Welles's F for Fake will already know, Elmyr de Hory was responsible for a real shake-up in the art community. For decades, he sold all over the world paintings of his own as the work of old masters. But his story never reads as a mean-spirited attempt to get rich, mostly due to the approach.

Author Clifford Irving (who would, just a few years after writing this book, pull off his own fake -- with the fictional Autobiography of Howard Hughes) portrays Elmyr as a sympathetic figure. He only did it when he needed money; when he was flush, he focused on his own art career, and never painted in others' styles during those periods.

Sadly, his own career never took off, and so he was repeatedly forced to go back into his particular bag of tricks and produce works in the styles of Picasso, Modigliani, Derain, Renoir, and others until he was finally caught, though he was never convicted due to what was essentially a technicality. Elmyr always claimed to have never signed any of the paintings (although his business partners may have) which keeps the paintings from being outright forgeries.

Fake! is a terrific book. Part biography, part crime story, part world travelogue, and probably part fiction, it remains wholly engaging and eminently readable.

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