by Brian Awehali
Most petty crime is dull, in both motivation and execution. But I have always wished I could be a great outlaw. Consider the outlaw, and the merits of his or her avocation: the perpetration of grand, spectacular, and/or marvelous crime. A widespread and enduring fascination with outlaws, hucksters, escapists, charlatans, and rogues of various ilk has always harkened to embrace the heroic combination of focus, ingenuity, bravery, determination, and intelligence needed to rise to a level of criminal infamy.
“I love the trite mythos of the outlaw,” wrote Tom Robbins, in his comic novel, Still Life with Woodpecker. “I love the self-conscious romanticism of the outlaw. I love the black wardrobe of the outlaw…The outlaw boat sails against the flow, and I love it. Outlaws toilet where badgers toilet, and I love it. All outlaws are photogenic, and I love that…There are outlaw maps that lead to outlaw treasures, and I love those maps especially. Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here, and I love that most of all.”
Great outlaws should be better known! Consider these three: Elmyr de Hory, Alves Reis, and Scott Scurlock. It should be noted that all three are dead, and that two of them died in poverty. Two also committed suicide, though one, an art forger, is rumored to have faked his death in order to escape actual death. Peaceful old age is a jewel rarely found cleaving to the heels of outlaws and, as with many famous painters, outlaws usually die penniless after a series of unfortunate events.
Elmyr de Hory, by far the greatest art forger the world has ever seen, successfully painted and sold as originals his counterfeit renditions of paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Modigliani, among many others. Born to a rich Hungarian family in 1906, Elmyr went to art school in Budapest before moving to Paris, where he seems to have squandered some of his artistic acclaim and momentum for amusement and sexual experimentation.
This is one key aspect of the great outlaw: a certain shiftlessness, not exactly idleness or laziness, but awaiting the right stimulation or opportunity. It also helps a great outlaw’s stature to spend some time in a prison of particularly “nightmarish” reputation, as Elmyr did after being arrested for ties to his lover, a British journalist and alleged spy.
Elmyr survived his imprisonment in part by painting portraits of some guards and thereby currying favor. Yet soon after his release, de Hory was re-imprisoned in a German concentration camp, where he was badly beaten and had one of his legs broken. Elmyr claims to have escaped from the camp infirmary on a still-broken leg, though he is also a well-established fabulist, as was his official biographer, Clifford Irving (famous for his fake autobiography of Howard Hughes).
After escaping, he eventually returned to Paris and set about creating a new life. He most likely couldn’t have known that he was about to earn a reputation as one of the most talented criminals in history.
In 1974, Orson Welles released “F for Fake,” his final major film, which cast de Hory in the main role, playing himself. The film goes into detail about much of de Hory’s life, while also unspooling a fascinating prismatic essay on authenticity, identity and the basis of value for art.
And, thanks to this glorious age of free internet video, you can check out Welles’ sometimes hard-to-find gem right here.
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I’d originally planned for this post to include excursions into the lives of de Hory, Reis and Scurlock, but realize now that blog posts are made for more brevity. One’s enough for today.