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A very surreal Salvador Dali and a very dodgy Belgian art dealer

With his trademark wax moustache and pleasure from giving lect­ures in bizarre settings, Salvador Dali (1904–89) thrived on court­ing con­t­roversy and enjoyed a wildly eccentric lifestyle. Throughout his life, his detractors said the man was more concerned with cul­tiv­ating his own avant-garde im­age than the quality of his artistic output. Friends staunchly defended the Spanish painter, say­ing that he simply lived his brand of surrealism as much as he painted it.

Three Dali films were written, revealing just how much Hollywood loved Dali stories decades after the painter’s death. The first film to appear was Little Ashes (2008), a biography star­ring Rob­ert Pattison about Dali’s avant-garde teen years in 1920s Madrid. The film centred around his sexually ambiguous friendships with the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca and aspiring filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

The 2nd film, Dali, was to be directed by British film-maker Sim­on West, and to star Antonio Banderas as Dali, with Catherine Zeta-Jon­es as his hot wife Gala. It would explore how the painter conqu­er­­ed America and the world with sex, sin and sur­realism, only to succumb later to world wide scandal and misfortune. But was the film produced?

The third and most cont­roversial film, Dali & I: The Surreal Story, came from a 2008 book by little known Belgian art dealer, Stan Lauryssens (born 1946).  His book alleged that most of Dali’s works were faked and were done so with the artist’s approv­al. This sent shock waves through an art world which was long used to str­an­ge Dali stories.

Dali & I: The Surreal Story, 2008 
by Stan Lauryssens 

In Spain, where Dali was a national hero, Lauryssens’ book caus­ed outrage. This was apparently because A] Lauryssens portrayed the art­ist and his wife Gala as two insatiably charged lovers who reg­ul­arly sh­ared in orgies with famous actresses. But I wasn’t sure about the out­rage - rather I thought the Spanish would semi-admire Dali’s exotic sex life. B] Lauryssens told how he sold thousands of fake Dali paintings and how Dali approved of the fake-Dali indus­t­ry

The Salvador Dali Foundation, which controls Dali’s estate, vig­or­ously denied many of the claims made in the “Dali & I” book, and threatened to sue Lauryssens. When the book, which has been transl­ated into 33 lang­uages, was released in Spain, the Foundation said: The contents of “Dali & I” lack the most minimal credib­ility and were only part of a promotional campaign for the book and the film. Of course Hollywood was going to be attracted to this shock­ing book!

Long before he entered the fake art world, Lau­r­yssens had been inv­olved in many other dodgy activit­ies. He later moved into journalism where he pretended to interview a host of Hollywood celebrities for a Belgian magazine. In 2 years he had fake-inter­viewed every major Hollywood star, including Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.

In 1972 Lauryssens turned his attention to Salvador Dali. He made up a great story about how Dali and Walt Disney were working on a cart­oon together. That story caught the attention of a shady investment group in Belgium who assumed Lauryssens was a Dali expert and hired him as a fine art dealer. So, at just 25, Lauryssens found himself flying around Europe buying up Dali paintings, despite having no prior experience in the world of fine art.

Lauryssens thought that some Dali’s less popular stuff was dis­taste­ful to look at, so it was very hard to find buyers. Eventually he was introduced to some of Dali’s entourage who said the best mon­­ey could be made in selling fakes because they were the items that tended to have his most popular elements, like the melting clocks. The more he indulged in fake Dali works, the more Laurys­sens uncov­ered a world where fake prints, sculptures and litho­gr­aphs were created by the people closest to Dali. In fact probably 75% of all the works attributed to Dali were not done by him.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Salvador Dali was able to churn out thousands of artistic pieces - paintings, scul­ptures, prints, lithographs and photographs. And from the 1960s on, the fakes were clear­ly with the painter’s alleged approval since Dali needed a truckload of cash each month to fund his lavish lifestyle. In any case, Dali readily admitted he had made enormous sums of money by signing hundreds of quick sketches and lithographs which would then sell for huge profits.

Persistence of Memory, 1931 
by Salvador Dali 
a surrealistic image of melting pocket watches, at MoMA

Dali himself was an enormous fan of film which he believed was a superb medium for surrealist art. He didn’t create films him­self, but he contributed to other peo­ples’ surrealist film-making from 1930 on. Dali coll­ab­orated with Alfred Hitchcock to produce the famous dream sequence in his 1945 thriller Spellbound. Hitchcock called on Dali to use his surrealist vision to build a bizarre set that could re­­present a dream. A 1946 collaboration with Walt Disney was aban­d­oned only 3 months into production, after Disney ended the pro­ject. "Destino" was only resurrected and redone by Disney’s nephew, Roy, and a team of French animators in 2003, long after both Disney and Dali had died!

In the early 1980s, before his prison stint, Lauryssens moved next to Dali in his seaside villa in Catalonia. The dealer said that Dali had lost his hair, his stomach was swol­l­en and his limbs shaking. It was all a far cry from the flashy show­­man. 

Lauryssens was finally tracked down by Interpol in the late 1980s and served two years in gaol for selling forgeries. He did not deny his part in the art crimes. And in the end, Lauryssens made and lost millions in modern art, selling Salvador Dalí fakes.

Yet the surrealist's work must have been a hot commodity for shady businessmen, looking to launder their cash. After all, when Dali died from heart failure in 1989, his estate was worth a huge $87m!


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