How Mediocre Dutch Artist Cast 'The Forger's Spell'
How Mediocre Dutch Artist Cast 'The Forger's Spell'
Were it not for a knock on the door in 1945 Amsterdam, Han van Meegeren might have been forgotten. He was a small and dapper man, a Dutch artist of limited ability. He was also a forger — and the force behind what a new book says was the greatest art hoax of the 20th century.
Van Meegeren passed his paintings off as newly discovered works by renowned 17th century artist Jan Vermeer. He fooled experts and collectors, including the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany, Hermann Goering, and pocketed the equivalent of $30 million before he was unmasked.
Edward Dolnick, author of The Forger's Spell, says there were several reasons why van Meegeren, who tried his hand at imitating Franz Hals and other Dutch painters, decided to make a career of Vermeer.
"One was that he was just about the greatest brand name of them all," Dolnick tells guest host Linda Wertheimer. "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, Dolnick notes, Vermeer's biography is almost a complete blank. The absence of information left "lots of elbow room to fill in the gaps as you saw fit because nobody knew what the real story was," he says.
That Vermeer produced only about 35 or 36 paintings was also helpful. Other major painters of the time, such as Rembrandt, typically created 10 times as many works. "So for art historians," Dolnick says, "one of the great questions is: Where are all the others? So you might guess that there once were more and they were lost, which is what a forger would like you to guess. It might also be that he simply painted terribly slowly. No one knows."
When van Meegeren settled on Vermeer, he did extensive research and experimentation with canvasses, paints and aging techniques. And he developed an ingenious way to hoodwink the experts through the use of plastics.
The forger's biggest challenge was making a painting that was only a few months old seem as if it were 300 years old. It takes decades for an oil painting to fully harden — if you press your finger into a blob of paint on a recent painting, you could probably make a dent. Van Meegeren needed to make paint that would look old, which meant it had to be dry.
So he bought a pizza oven, Dolnick says, and tried time and again to mix a paint that could withstand the heat of the oven and harden, but not lose its brilliance. Time and again, his experimental paints burned up or melted. Then he hit on dissolving a small amount of plastic into the paint and that let him get away with his colossal hoax.
Although van Meegeren made a number of painting that mimicked Vermeer's style — tiny pictures with rich fabrics, clear blues and bright yellows, light streaming in from the left — they were unsuccessful. Instead, he decided he had to create works that were vastly different because of a phenomenon that Dolnick refers to in his book as "the uncanny valley."
"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," Dolnick says. "But when you get ... almost all the way there but not quite, at that point — and no one quite knows why — 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.
"Van Meegeren found that a forgery that was close was almost worse than if he hadn't tried at all, because as soon as it was close, the experts would focus on the difference between the forgery and the real thing," he says. "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 that wasn't like any of the known Vermeers, 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.'"
Taking a huge gamble, van Meegeren began to make paintings that people might think looked strange but would say was a Vermeer.
It paid off handsomely.
"The experts didn't say, 'This painting purports to be a Vermeer but doesn't look like any of his. I wonder if maybe it's not,'" Dolnick says. "What they said is, 'It doesn't look like any Vermeer, therefore Vermeer was even a greater genius than we knew. Who knew he was such a multifaceted man?'"
The painting that made van Meegeren was called "Christ at Emmaus," after the Bible story in which Christ reveals himself to several disciples after he has risen from the dead. It was different from any Vermeer in that it was religious in subject matter and much larger than anything Vermeer was known to have done. In essence, the painting was "proof" for the experts of what they had thought must exist but had never seen.
"Christ at Emmaus" was so well received that van Meegeren began churning out one biblical painting after the other, each selling for millions of dollars. "Now they didn't have to look like the Vermeers that we know, they only had to look like the Vermeer that he had introduced into the accepted works," Dolnick says. "So van Meegeren's task got easier and easier."
One of the most famous of the series was titled "Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery," which Dolnick says was a major triumph because of whom he fooled into buying it.
"At this point, essentially no Vermeers 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," Dolnick says. "One of the biggest and greediest collectors of the day was Hermann Goering, the No. 2 man in Nazi Germany. ... He takes looted paintings and trades 137 of them for this one Vermeer, which is going to become one of the jewels of his collection."
But that painting was also van Meegeren's undoing.
The Nazis were known for meticulous record-keeping, and after World War II ended, the paperwork for Goering's prize "Vermeer" listed van Meegeren's name. When the police rapped on van Meegeren's door in 1945 to question him about what they thought was a routine matter, the forger didn't have a very convincing answer.
"Most forgers fool one person too few, that's what does them in. Someone says, 'Wait a minute, this is wrong,'" Dolnick says. "That never happened with van Meegeren. What happened with him was this mix-up with Goering, which brought the authorities on the run."
Van Meegeren was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison in 1947. Nearly two months later, he died of a heart attack without serving even a day.
Ironically, he died a hero.
Although van Meegeren had hobnobbed with the Nazis during the occupation of Holland, he styled himself as a Dutch patriot during his trial.
As Dolnick puts it: "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."
The Forger's Spell
A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
Hardcover, 349 pages |purchase
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Excerpt: 'The Forger's Spell'
Chapter One: A Knock On The Door
Amsterdam, May 1945
Until almost the very end, Han van Meegeren thought he had committed the perfect crime. He had pocketed more than $3 million—the equivalent of about $30 million today—and scarcely a trace of scandal clung to his name. Why should it, when his dupes never even knew that someone had played them for fools and taken them for a fortune?
Even now, with two uniformed strangers at his door saying something about an investigation, he thought he might get away with it. The two men seemed polite, not belligerent. No doubt they had been impressed by the grandeur of 321 Keizersgracht. Maybe they really did have only a few routine questions to sort out. Van Meegeren decided to keep his secrets to himself.
Van Meegeren was a small, dapper man of fifty-five with a tidy mustache and gray hair swept back from his forehead. His house was one of the most luxurious in Amsterdam, on one of the city's poshest streets, a neighborhood of bankers and merchant kings. Imposing but not showy, in keeping with the Dutch style, the house rose four stories high and looked out on a postcard canal. Most impressive of all in space-starved Amsterdam, where every staircase rises as steeply as a ladder, the house was nearly as wide as it was tall. The front hall was tiled in marble, and envious rumors had it—falsely—that the hall was so big that guests at Van Meegeren's parties raced their bicycles around it. On the other hand, the rumors about indoor skating were true. Van Meegeren had found a way to convert his basement to an ice rink so that jaded partygoers could skate in style.
Joop Piller, the lead investigator on this spring day, would not have been a guest at those parties. A Jew in Holland—and Holland lost a greater proportion of Jews in World War II than any other Western European nation—Piller had fought in the Dutch resistance from 1940 to 1945. In years to come, many would embellish their wartime credentials, but Piller was the real thing. His last mission had been to set up a network to rescue Allied pilots after the Battle of Arnhem and smuggle them to safety.
Piller had only begun to learn about Van Meegeren. Holland in 1945 was short of everything but rumors, and Piller had picked up some of the gossip swirling around Amsterdam. Van Meegeren had friends in all the worst—which was to say, pro-German—circles; he was a painter and an art collector; he was a connoisseur of old masters and young women; he had lived in France and had won that country's national lottery.
Skeptical by nature, Piller was inclined to wave all the talk aside. Still, it was easy to see why the rumors flew. What kind of artist lived like this? Rembrandt, perhaps, but Van Meegeren was no Rembrandt. He was, according to all that Piller had heard, a middling painter of old-fashioned taste and no special distinction. He was apparently an art dealer as well, but he seemed to have made no more of a splash as a dealer than as a painter. He supposedly had a taste for hookers and high living and a reputation as a host who never let a glass stay unfilled. Other tales hinted at a kind of self-indulgent posturing. He had brought his guitar to a friend's funeral because "it might get boring."
The bare facts of the artist's biography, as Piller would begin to assemble them over the next few days, only deepened the mystery. Van Meegeren was a Dutchman born in the provincial town of Deventer. He had studied art and architecture in Delft, the hometown of the great Johannes Vermeer. He had won prizes for his art, but he was as out of tune with the current age as his favorite teacher, who had taught Van Meegeren to prepare his own paints like his predecessors of three centuries before. Despite the occasional triumph, Van Meegeren hardly seemed marked for greatness. In college he got his girlfriend pregnant, married her at twenty-two, and settled down uneasily near Delft. There he tried, without much success, to support his family with his art.
Van Meegeren spent the 1920s in The Hague, where life improved. He gained a reputation as a playboy and a portrait painter whose skill was perfectly adequate but whose client list was positively dazzling. In 1932 (by this time, with a new wife), he left Holland for the French Riviera. In the small town of Roquebrune, he moved into a spacious and isolated villa perched high on a cliff above the sun-dappled Mediterranean. As the Great Depression strengthened its grip, Van Meegeren somehow continued to thrive. In 1937, after five years in Roquebrune, he moved to even more imposing quarters, purchasing a mansion with a dozen bedrooms and a vineyard in Nice.
But at his first meeting with the little man in the big house, Piller knew only that Van Meegeren's name had turned up in the paperwork of a dodgy art dealer. And so, when Piller took out his notebook and posed the question that would set the whole complicated story in motion, he had suspicions but not much more. Tell me, Mr. Van Meegeren, he asked, how did you come to be involved in selling a Vermeer?
Excerpt from The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick, published by Harper, © 2008. All rights reserved.