As he starts to perform a series of magic tricks, Orson Welles asserts that a magician is nothing more than an actor playing the role of a magician. From that opening, the film examines the nature of deceit, lies, authorship and, above all else, fakery.
The magic of Welles transitions into the magic of a pretty girl strutting her stuff in a miniskirt through the streets. Shots of her walking are intercut with reaction shots of men in cars and on the sidewalk who appear to be ogling her. Welles announces that the story of the girl in the short skirt and the men watching is from an experimental film about how men behave when they don’t know their actions are being recorded on film. Alas, the viewer will have to wait until later to find out the results.
The profoundly deep and dulcet tones of Welles then narrates a story about Elmyr de Hory, a skilled forger of famous artworks who made a success of fooling museums and collectors into thinking they were purchasing the real deal. Actual footage of de Hory shows him hosting a dinner party with guests from the elite of European society. When faced with queries about his guilt or innocence of the charges of forgery, he demonstrates a politician’s talent for evasiveness. Also at the party is Clifford Irving, de Hory’s biographer whose book out the painter is titled Fake. Welles notes the inherent irony of the title in light of a high-profile scandal involving Clifford’s own forged autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.
The point supplied by Welles arrives shortly after a conversation in which de Hory and Irving both relate how terribly easy it was to fool the art dealers into believing that the forgeries were authentic. The point? If these experts actually were incapable of determining the different between a forgery and an authentic work of art, would this failure not by definition mean that the experts could also be termed fakes?
This point is further deepened by the stories that Irving presents of getting his forged autobiography of Hughes past so-called “experts.” Even more disconcerting is the tale of how some of de Hory’s paintings were more questionable than others relative to their alleged authenticity and how some art dealers seemed almost to will themselves into overlooking such questionable elements. To underline the potential connection between the forger and the experts, Welles now reveals that the luxurious house in which the painter lives is owned not by de Hory…but by an art dealer.
Welles lets this information sink in before launching into his own stories of using fakery: wrangling a job with an Irish theater by pretending to be a famous actor from New York and his War of the Worlds radio drama adaptation which fooled listeners into believing they were listening to a real news report.
After some more background information about de Hory, he proclaims that what he did was not really forgery since he never forged the signature of the original artist on his recreations. This leads Welles to ponder whether authorship is ever an important detail since it all eventually succumbs to the ravages of time anyway.
And on this point, the film comes full circle back to the girl in the miniskirt. Her name is Oja Kodar and it turns out she was a muse of Picasso’s, having posed for 22 paintings by the Cubist master. She demanded that as the model, she be allowed to keep the paintings for herself. Some time later, Picasso received word that of an exhibition featuring 22 never-before-exhibited paintings of his. Rushing to the exhibition in a fury that Kodar has betrayed him, he discovered instead that all 22 paintings were forgeries. The forger was none other than Kodar’s own grandfather whom she took Picasso to meet. While Picasso insists upon the return of his paintings, the grandfather insists upon being recognized for the artistry of his talent for reproduction. This entire story is presented in the form of a recreation through dial0gue with the parts played by Welles and Kodar. Now, Welles turns and confesses that his earlier promise that everything which would be showed in the next hour was all true was not entirely true. The only part that was completely fictional, however, is the story of the girl in the miniskirt, Picasso and her grandfather.
The film ends with Welles quoting Picasso’s observation that art is merely a lie that allows the truth to be seen.