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The Forger's Spell

How a second-rate painter fooled Europe and the Nazis.

By Mary Wiltenburg / July 31, 2008



It was nearly the perfect crime. In the madness of war-torn Europe, a talentless Dutch painter named Han van Meegeren managed to hoodwink the continent with a series of grotesque forgeries he claimed were the lost masterworks of beloved Delft painter Johannes Vermeer.

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The forger made millions, ensnaring in a collective blindness Europe’s most prominent art authorities and an authority of another sort: reviled Nazi leader Hermann Goering.

In his riveting new art thriller, The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, author Edward Dolnick reveals how van Meegeren did it, and why, and whom he drew into his unlikely drama. The resulting tale is likely to captivate not just readers moved by war, art, and the art of deception, but anyone interested in human vanity and our sometimes baffling ability to see only what we want to see.

Despite the power of the man he duped, the forger was no one special. A small, sulky womanizer with a persecution complex and a poor choice of mustache, van Meegeren spent his youth painting swooning portraits of the Dutch aristocracy.

His best-known contemporary was Piet Mondrian – but while Mondrian produced the colored grids and squares for which he is now known around the world, van Meegeren was turning out misty deer and babies blowing bubbles. Critics were not kind.

Convinced of his own genius, van Meegeren decided to get even. “Revenge keeps its color,” he wrote. “Who waits, wins.” So the forger waited. And while he waited, he worked. He set his sights on Vermeer, the prince of the Dutch Golden Age, whose life is largely a mystery and whose body of work is a tenth the size that of painters like Rembrandt.

Van Meegeren studied the 17th-century master’s paintings, and produced several that aped his signature elements: heavy curtains, pearl earrings, deep blues, women reading letters, light falling from the left.
But these were too close to pass muster with art connoisseurs, and he kept them hidden. Instead, van Meegeren chose a departure from the artist’s usual subject matter, a quiet religious scene he titled “Christ at Emmaus,” to be his first “Vermeer.”

How the ‘experts’ were fooled
The hardest part of forging a 300-year-old painting, it turns out, is not putting paint to canvas, but drying it. Oil paint dries slowly, becoming hard and cracked over decades, while a painting rendered months ago remains squishy.

After years of experimentation, van Meegeren hit on a solution: plastic. Small amounts of newly discovered Bakelite, mixed into paint and baked in a pizza oven, achieved a consistency virtually indistinguishable from dry, centuries-old paint. As a final touch, van Meegeren cracked the canvas over his knee to create a lacework of small fissures.

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