May 15, 2007
I went with a couple of old friends to a movie called Hoax a couple of weeks ago. There was only one other couple in the Cineplex compartment with us, and the movie disappeared within the next week. Never mind, I promise it'll surface again at Oscar time, and probably garner Richard Gere his first statuette, most deservedly.
The picture outlines an adventure in the life of writer Clifford Irving, who had minor success with a book about art forgery, and himself went on to perpetrate one of the biggest hoaxes in the 20th Century, one which involved a fiction he wrote claiming it to be the authorized autobiography of mysterious recluse Howard Hughes. The caper was bold to the point of being outrageous, and the risks Irving took were almost pathological. In the bargain, he lost everything. Now it's a major motion picture and will probably keep him afloat for the rest of his life.
The scam depended upon the very reclusiveness of Hughes. Irving had banked on the old man staying hermetically sealed in his Las Vegas apartment as he -- Irving -- wove more and more complex tales of phone calls and correspondence, involving his wife and a friend to participate in the cover-up. When the publishers, agents, and the phalanx of journalists became suspicious, Irving made the audacious claim that Hughes now wanted a $1 million advance before he would release the material.
Irving's tale ended with his own confession and jail time for himself and his wife. The man who had always been fascinated by hoaxes and forgeries finally got caught after Howard Hughes emerged from his self-imposed darkness to announce in a conference call to the editors that he had never met Clifford Irving -- had not, until this episode, even heard of the man.
The episode fascinated another expert in sleight-of-hand and forgery, filmmaker Orson Welles, who had known Elmyr de Hory, the art forger Clifford Irving had written his first book about. Welles created a wonderful documentary about both de Hory and Clifford Irving, called "F" for Fake which I caught in an insomniac evening on Turner Classic Movies in the wee hours this morning. This one contends that there would be no art forgeries if there were no art experts, and that more often than not, the so-called experts can't even spot a fake anyway.
There is a moment when Welles quotes a few lines from Rudyard Kipling's "The Conundrum of the Workshops." Granted, Orson Welles reading the telephone book sounds like the most profound poetry ever written, but this one bears considering:
When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"
We have often pondered the question here, but not, I hope with the Devil at our backs. Welles' point is that the concept of Art being something grander than it appears is the work of art experts, and that art experts are responsible for the art market, and that the art market is responsible for the inflated prices that made art forgery lucrative and illegal.
I wish Welles had lived to see Hoax. In "F" for Fake, he says that when he was developing ideas for the movie that became Citizen Kane, he considered several powerful men as the model. For some reason, he chose William Randolph Hearst -- but his second choice would have been Howard Hughes.
With my title, I suggest that I'm somehow going to tie the concept of hope, or at least a fair version of it, into this post. I can't think of any way to do that. I was faking it. I just thought the addition of that word made a better title.