Separating fact from fiction was always tricky where art forger Elmyr de Hory was concerned. But to Mark Forgy, a young Minnesotan who was backpacking through Europe when they met 40 years ago, the debonair Hungarian was a charming Svengali and father figure who introduced him to film stars and glitterati on the Spanish island of Ibiza, gave him an Old World education in art and culture, and provided a home and work for seven years until De Hory's death, by suicide, in 1976.

Celebrated as the "greatest art forger of our time" in Clifford Irving's 1969 biography "Fake!" and featured in Orson Welles' 1974 documentary "F for Fake," de Hory was -- according to his friend -- hounded to his death by a vindictive former art dealer and authorities intent on extraditing him to France to stand trial for fraud.

After closing De Hory's estate, which he inherited, Forgy returned to Minnesota and settled near Minneapolis, putting his exotic past aside until last month, when the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College opened an exhibit of about 70 pieces by De Hory; it will be up through April 18.

"I feel compelled to tell Elmyr's story again in my own voice, because in one sense my own story is only important when it's linked to his," said Forgy, who is writing a memoir about his years in Ibiza.

At first glance the Hillstrom show seems a cornucopia of modern masters -- sketches and a few paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and especially Modigliani, who was De Hory's favorite subject to fake. But only one piece is authentic. Everything else is by De Hory.

One of the prettiest drawings -- a putative Matisse of a dreamy beauty in a peasant blouse -- is on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum, which was given it as an example of a fake. The authentic Matisse next to it, on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is a more angular portrait, with strangely crossed eyes, a too thick neck and ill-proportioned arms. Although it's the real deal, the genuine sketch is not nearly so charming.

"Elmyr's piece has a sureness and facility of line that is quite amazing; there's no hesitancy whatsoever," said Hillstrom director Donald Myers, who organized the exhibit. Myers was introduced to Forgy about six years ago by a colleague in the college's art department who knew Forgy's wife, Alice Doll, a physical therapist. The couple had not shown their unusual collection before, but Myers immediately saw its potential as a teaching tool.

"And it's just such a fascinating story," he said. "Elmyr [pronounced El-meer] is one of those characters you can't forget."

An island encounter

It was a Sunday morning in November 1969 when Mark Forgy and a friend disembarked in Ibiza. A graduate of Hopkins High School, Forgy had drifted through two years of junior college in California and Minneapolis, using school as "my bulletproof vest, my draft deferment," to avoid being conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

"Elmyr was standing on the quay, waiting for someone else," Forgy recalled. "We asked if he spoke English. 'Like they do in Kansas City,' he said. We asked about cheap pensiones, found nothing available and decided to sleep on the beach. Later that night we ran into Elmyr at a bar. He said he had a guest suite and offered to let us stay."

That was the beginning of Forgy's seven-year sojourn. His hitchhiking pal moved on, but Forgy remained, working first as De Hory's gardener, then secretary, assistant and even somewhat improbably as bodyguard. Pictures from the era show Forgy to be a slender aesthete who would not have fared well in a fight.

Virtually adopting the 20-year-old Minnesotan, De Hory paid for his French lessons and gave him "the old fashioned Grand Tour" of Europe in an effort to turn him into a proper young gentleman.

Although De Hory, then 63, was gay, the two were not lovers, Forgy said. "That represented a bit of tension at first. It was more important for him to have the company that he sought, and I think I was a son by proxy that he'd never had."

From Budapest to Ibiza

Details of De Hory's life are somewhat elusive. Born in Budapest in 1906, he was educated in Munich and Paris, where he worked as an artist until World War II. He sometimes claimed to be a baron, but his aristocratic pedigree may have been embroidered on a bourgeois fabric. During World War II he was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis, his father died in Auschwicz and his mother was killed in Budapest -- shot by a Russian soldier to whom she refused to surrender her last fur coat. Or so De Hory told Forgy.

"I knew Elmyr better than practically anyone, but there were things he didn't want to discuss, and he had secrets," said Forgy.

De Hory turned to forgery by accident after the war when an acquaintance bought one of his drawings on the assumption that it was a Picasso. He didn't correct her. Soon he was peddling "Picasso" drawings all over Europe.

During the 1950s he expanded into the U.S. market and took up with a shady dealer, Fernand Legros, who pushed the work to galleries and museums. Some art mavens suspect there are hundreds of De Hory fakes lurking today in collections around the world. The pair came a cropper in 1967 when Legros offered a pseudo Maurice de Vlaminck painting in a French auction. Supposedly dating to 1906, the oil was still wet. Big oops.

De Hory never did prison time for his flimflammery, though in 1968 he was jailed on Ibiza for two months for "consorting with criminal elements, having no visible means of support, and homosexuality." His notoriety as a forger brought a measure of success. When Forgy knew him, De Hory continued to make art in the style of the famous, but signed with his own first name, Elmyr. It didn't fetch the stellar prices of the masters, but afforded him a nice living in a modern villa overlooking the sea.

Nevertheless, his life was under a legal cloud. It was Forgy who got the news that a Spanish judge had ordered De Hory extradited to France, where he feared he would be killed in prison. Forgy urged him to flee, but he took an overdose of sleeping pills and died as friends rushed him to a hospital.

In photos and videos, De Hory looks and sounds every bit the generous bon vivant who loved playing host and sharing evenings of laughter with good friends.

"He was so seductive and it wasn't an affectation," said Forgy. "He didn't need to impress a 20-year-old kid from Minnesota. But his deep, abiding interest in people made him enchanting. ... He didn't measure out his likability to someone because they were rich, famous or titled. It's all those natural, humane instincts that were his legacy to the people whose lives he touched."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431