LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
"The Forger's Spell" is a new book that tells, quote, "a true story of the greatest art hoax of the 20th century." It's the story of a man named Han Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter of limited ability who made a fortune as a forger inventing unknown paintings supposedly by Johannes Vermeer, the renowned 17th century artist. Edward Dolnick, an award-winning writer of books about art crime, sets this story in the years leading up to the Second World War. It ends with the unmasking of the forger and the people he fooled, including the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, Hermann Goering. Mr. Dolnick joins us in the studio. Welcome.
Mr. EDWARD DOLNICK (Author, "The Forger's Spell"): Well, thanks very much.
WERTHEIMER: Your forger, Han Van Meegeren, he tried his hand at imitating Franz Hals and other Dutch painters. But he decided to make a career of Vermeer, if you'll excuse the rhyme. Why?
Mr. DOLNICK: There were a couple of reasons to focus on Vermeer. One was that he was just about the greatest brand name of them all. In art this is the equivalent of Rolls-Royce or Tiffany or something. If you can get away with Vermeer, that shows how terrific you are. And it's where the money is. In addition to all that, Vermeer was a painter whose biography is almost a complete blank to us. That left lots of elbow room to fill in the gaps as you saw fit, because nobody knew what the real story was.
WERTHEIMER: It's also true, isn't it, that he didn't paint very many pictures? So there were only, today, only about 35 or 36 of them.
Mr. DOLNICK: That's right. There are hardly any Vermeers in the world. Rembrandt, say, painting at more or less the same time, paints about 10 times as many pictures. And that's typical. So for art historians, one of the great questions is where are all the others?
WERTHEIMER: When he decided to go for Vermeer, he did do a lot of research, a lot of experimentation on canvasses and paints and aging things. Now, I have one word for you here, Dolnick. Plastics.
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Mr. DOLNICK: One of the terrific, fun things in the story was that the forgery he got away with, the Vermeer that made his fortune which sold for millions of dollars, it was supposed to look like a painting made in about 1670, something like that. But the forger, as you say, couldn't get paint that looked right until he discovered that if you used plastic, if he dissolved a little plastic in with his other stuff, that let him get away with it. Because what he needed was to make paint that it would look old, which means that it had to be dry.
WERTHEIMER: You could, for example, in a modern oil painting you could press your fingernail into some blob of paint and probably make it dent.
Mr. DOLNICK: It would give a little. And it would give not just for a week or a month but for years. And to fully harden, it would take decades for an oil painting. So the great challenge for Van Meegeren was to make a painting that was really only three months old, act as if it were three centuries old. So what he does is goes out and buys a pizza oven. And time after time what happened is that the paints burned up, burned, melted. It didn't look good at all. Plastic was the answer to that problem, so it would harden but not lose its brightness, its life.
WERTHEIMER: Van Meegeren painted a number of very close copies of Vermeer's style - tiny pictures with lots of rich fabrics, lovely clear blues, bright yellows, the light coming from the left - all of the things that we associate with Vermeer. But then he didn't have any success with those. Some of the prettiest ones he didn't even try to sell, because he decided that what he had to do was something that was completely different. And you call this in the book "the uncanny valley." Could you explain that?
Mr. DOLNICK: What he learned was that if you come close to getting an imitation just right, the closer you come for a while, the more convincing people find it. But when you get super close, almost all the way there but not quite, at that point people begin to look closer. And suddenly they focus not on how close this imitation is to the real thing but on the last little gap that keeps it from being real. The experts would focus on the difference between the forgery and the real thing.
What turned out to be a much better strategy for Van Meegeren was to make a painting that had a few hints of Vermeer but wasn't like any of the known Vermeer's, and then let the experts fill in the gaps themselves. Let them say, aha, didn't I always tell you that Vermeer had much more to him than you thought? It's not all ladies reading letters. It's sometimes completely different paintings like this new one we've just found.
WERTHEIMER: He painted a whole series of pictures in the same style and discovered more Vermeers. And one of the most famous was Christ and the woman taken in adultery, and that was a major triumph because of who it fooled.
Mr. DOLNICK: At this point no Vermeer's, or essentially no Vermeer's, had turned up in centuries. All of a sudden they're turning up practically every six months, and the collectors want in on this game. And one of the biggest and greediest collectors of the day was Hermann Goering, the number two man in Nazi Germany, astonishing brute and megalomaniac and bully who also fancies himself at art connoisseur. He gets a Van Meegeren-Vermeer. He doesn't know, of course, it's a forgery. He thinks it's the real thing. He actually doesn't pay cash. He transfers 137 other paintings that he's looted. This is all during World War II, so he can grab whatever he wants. He takes looted paintings, trades 137 of them for this one Vermeer which is going to become one of the jewels of his collection.
WERTHEIMER: There's something else that seems incredible to me. This forger, Han Van Meegeren, he died a hero.
Mr. DOLNICK: At war's end, the allies had caught up with Goering's art collection, tens of thousands of pictures including this Vermeer. And the Nazis were meticulous with their paperwork when it came to art, as with everything else. And so the paperwork associated with Goering's prized Vermeer listed on it the name Han Van Meegeren. And it wasn't a name anyone recognized. And the police come knocking on Van Meegeren's door, and they say that they have only a couple of questions to ask. They expect it would be purely routine.
And the question is, please clear up for us how it was that your name came up in the sale of a Vermeer. And to the astonishment of the police, Van Meegeren doesn't have a very good answer. The great trouble for Van Meegeren as a forger was that he fooled one too many. He fooled Hermann Goering, and that brought all kinds of inspection. Most forgers fool one person too few, that's what does them in. Someone says, wait a minute, this is wrong. That never happened with Van Meegeren. What happened with him was this mix up with Goering which brought the authorities on the run.
WERTHEIMER: When they determined that he had managed to fool this incredibly repellent Nazi thug Hermann Goering, you turn it around at the end of the book that...
Mr. DOLNIC: Van Meegeren did a brilliant swindle. He was himself a bad fellow. He was in Holland all through the war years. Most of the Dutch were in desperate trouble under the Nazi occupation. Van Meegeren did quite nicely and palled around with the Germans. He was not a - an admirable fellow. He sells his painting, or a middleman sells it, to Goering because that's who will pay the highest price. When it all goes wrong at the end, Van Meegeren who's terrifically nimble and clever now makes this about face. He says, of course I sold it to Goering. I knew what better person to con than this great Nazi bag of wind. How could a person demonstrate his patriotism, his love of Holland, more than I did by conning the great enemy of the Dutch people? And the Dutch ate it up. They liked him.
WERTHEIMER: Edward Dolnick's book about Han Van Meegeren is called the "The Forger's Spell." Thanks very much for coming in.
MR. DOLNICK: Well, thank you.
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WERTHEIMER: To see paintings from both the master and the forger, visit our Web site at npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.