The story of Léonardus Nardus (1868 -1955) - and it is some story - has been told here and there in the chess press, yet it deserves to be still more widely known (by coincidence, he gets a passing mention on page 51 of the latest issue of Chess Magazine, March 2012). His escapades in the art world, where too he is a well-nigh forgotten figure, are also documented in a few places. This post relies, almost entirely, on these accounts. My thanks to those, and also a couple of correspondents. They are all acknowledged at the end.
Among his victims was Philadelphian Peter Widener, who made his money from tramcars. Not short of a buck or two he built this modest pile, Lynnewood Hall, to house his art collection.
Widener was himself taken for a merry ride, though Nardus never admitted fraud (a position loyally endorsed by his grandson, to this day). On the warpath in 1907/8 Widener was persuaded by wiser counsel not to expose his gullibility to public ridicule, and experts were discreetly called in to confront Nardus and settle matters behind closed doors (even so, the scandal found its way into the press). Nardus agreed to take back, and replace, some of his dodgy merchandise, which he later auctioned off.
Le Château d'Arnouville-les-Gonesses,
with an Orangerie behind the tree.
He was an able artist in his own right, with an apparently effortless facility in a John Singer Sargent sort of way, with the same aptitude for portraiture. Here he paints himself, and succumbs to the besetting temptation of all portraitists: that of showing their subject from their best angle.
Nardus par lui-mêmeHe was clearly a sure-footed talent. One can imagine him casually dashing-off this, and others like it, while skipping one step ahead of his pursuers.
Nardus also played a decent game of chess. Even while otherwise up to no-good in the States he frequented the Manhattan Chess Club, as this press cutting from 1906 mentions. It shows him disposing of a strong French player, with complimentary notes by Frank Marshall no less.
Our, ahem, hero provided financial support to David Janowski (for which, as a compulsive gambler, he was no doubt grateful) putting up the money to enable him to play Lasker in 1910. There is even a recorded position of a Nardus victory over his client/protégé played in Biarritz in 1912.
Nardus (black) to play and win v Janowski, Biarritz 1912.
The position has been given with a white pawn on h4.
From The Field 2 August 1913.
Top: L. Hoffer and R.J. Loman "In difficult positions he does not smoke!" Middle: J.Mieses. Bottom: C.(sic) J. Breyer and Dr. Olland.
At the end of his larger-than-life Nardus died in straightened circumstances in 1955, but was honoured by an exhibition of his own works in Tunisia in 2007. This ravishing picture shows the sort of thing he was capable of at the top of his game:
We’ll take it on trust that the pieces in the retrospective were painted by Nardus himself. By contrast, suggestions that he had himself occasionally passed off his own handiwork as that of more illustrious artists - that he was therefore himself a forger - continue to surface, suspicions encouraged by his having painted, in 1916, the portrait of (and therefore having associated with) master forger Theo van Wijngaarden. The latest accusation is that back in 1917 he knocked out a “Van Gogh” or two, and successfully sold them as such.
So, that was the story of Léo Nardus who, like another - Da Vinci - was of many talents, in no particular order: artist, swordsman, swindler, linguist, philanthropist, benefactor, fixer, forger, and last but not least, chess-player.
Historical FootnoteIt is possible that this post provides the first published outing of the Nardus-Gromer (sic) game since it appeared, in relative obscurity, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle back in 1906. It also seems likely that his opponent was in fact Jacques Grommer (it is not often that our humble blog gets the chance to offer a correction one hundred and five years later) who was successful in tournaments at the café de la Régence in Paris, earning him the unofficial sobriquet of French champion as given in the clipping. Grommer emigrated to the States, but not until 1912, so for that reason it seems probable that the game was played in Paris.
Thanks to Olimpiu Urcan, and also to Dominique Thimognier of Héritage Echecs Français, for their generous assistance.
Wikipedia has an article on Nardus, in Dutch.
Two Tunisian sites show a nice selection of Nardus artwork: Tunis Art Gallery and Harissa.
Antonio De Robertis' article, in Italian, discusses the likely Van Gogh forgeries.
Jonathan Lopez writing on Nardus in the art world in Apollo 2007 can be accessed via his website
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Chess in Art Index