I bought my van Gogh in 1979. A lovely still life with peasant laborers, a small house and fields around Arles where he lived in the 1880’s. I had seen several of his oil paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California and had fallen in love with the man’s artistry and his history. I bought the complete collection of his letters to his brother Theo and came to realize that he was not just the crazy painter I had thought in my younger days. He was a brilliant, insightful, well read and educated, passionate and cultured man. I even reread Lust for Life by Irving Stone and watched the 1956 movie of the same name with Kirk Douglas as the troubled Dutch painter who committed suicide at age 37.
I had barely begun my life as a surgeon at that age and only started writing novels at that same age. And here he had already created a collection of masterpieces of which any museum would be proud to have even a single one. The Norton Simon Museum has several, including famous self-portraits, the total lot for which I am sure he spent many millions of dollars.
Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian born in Budapest in 1906, was an artist and forger, alleged to have sold over a 1000 forgeries to reputable art galleries and individuals throughout the world. While he made a fortune he also lost a fortune after his fakery was discovered and he committed suicide in 1976, dying like many of those artists he copied…penniless. The biography “FAKE” by Clifford Irving became an international best seller!
In 1979 a young man came to my office indicating that he was in need of cash and wanted to sell copies of several framed masterpiece oil paintings he had in his storage. He explained he had worked for an art forger named De Hory who had died. And he was surprised that I had heard of De Hory. (I loved to study art history and learned about De Hory a few years before.)
This young man had worked for De Hory and now had over a hundred works, copies in the style of impressionist painters, and wanted to sell them, acknowledging that they were fakes. The following week he brought ten paintings to my office. I was amazed to see these, framed oil paintings by Monet, Pissarro, Utrillo, Matisse, Cezanne, and yes, van Gogh. Each appeared to have been taken off the wall of a museum and I stared at them all for several minutes. The frames alone were aged and were worth at least one hundred dollars each.
“How much?” I inquired.
The young man hesitated, then looked up at me sheepishly. “A thousand for all of them?”
I had not expected such a low number and sighed to myself as I thought of having these masterpieces, each fraudulently signed by the artist, to hang on the walls of my office or home. I agreed to his terms and took possession of my masterpieces. De Hory had fooled the best and most knowledgeable art connoisseurs, sold to the best museums and dealers in Europe and New York. For a while he had fooled them all until his exposure.
I hung three of the paintings in my waiting room, A bridge scene by Monet, portrait of a woman by Matisse and the van Gogh. For almost six months I never heard a word from anyone; my practice has been a mixture of middle class, indigent and poor patients, many Hispanic and Vietnamese and young people with hernias and gallbladder problems.
A 66 years old man and his wife with a serious disease came to see me in 1980 and spent time in the outer office examining the paintings. When he came into the exam room, he asked me the question I had awaited for many months and had been prepared to answer.
“Are those real oil paintings? The van Gogh is signed “Vincent”.
I was able to answer him honestly. “Yes, they are real oil paintings!”
“Oh my God”, he said. “They must be worth millions and you have them hanging in your office like that.”
“Do you like them?’ I asked.
“They are magnificent,” he stated, wide-eyed.
“Then I must tell you that although they are real oil paintings, they are not painted by the artists whose names appear on them. They are excellent forgeries by a man named De Hory. Do you like them less now?”
The man looked at me and smiled. “No…Yes. They are wonderful. And you have debunked the art world by having beautiful original oil paintings which did not cost millions.” He nodded and asked if I had more of the fakes.
I took him into my private office and showed him several others and he went up to them and stared for a while.
“Can touch them?”
“But of course.”
I gave him the name of the dealer, but when he called, there were no more paintings left. They had all been scooped up years ago.
From time to time I have friends or visitors looking at the paintings in my home, assuming since I am a surgeon and must be wealthy (which I am not, having gone through three divorces and other nonsense) they must be original. They rarely ask me the “question” and I do not offer an explanation. They think they are seeing an original Matisse or Monet and it pleases them and they will probably talk about it to their friends.
“Psst. Did you know that Joel has original van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Matisse paintings?”
And when I overheard this once, I piped up and said, “and did you hear that for his seven Impressionist oil paintings he spent: