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.
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.
On the advice of a vain, prickly old art critic named Abraham Bredius – who as a young man had pulled several genuine Vermeers from obscurity and who, desperate for a final triumph, staked his reputation on his assessment of “Christ at Emmaus” as Vermeer’s greatest masterpiece – a Dutch museum snapped up the painting for a fantastic sum.
Over the next seven years, van Meegeren sold five more “Vermeers” of decreasing quality. While occupied Holland starved around him, the dissolute painter raked in the equivalent of $30 million in today’s dollars.
When he was finally uncovered, police found money and jewels stashed under the floorboards of his mansion.
Meantime, Nazi art dealers were scouring Europe’s museums and private collections, “buying” trainloads of priceless paintings, sculptures, and tapestries to feed the rapacious appetites of Germany’s newest art collectors: Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering.
The author of the Nazi Holocaust had plans to stock a grand museum with his finds, but his second-in-command was not so magnanimous.
“I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly,” Goering declared. After losing several genuine Vermeers to the Führer’s own collection, Goering leapt at the chance to buy a van Meegeren forgery – a failure that galled the Reich Marshall even in his cell at Nuremberg.
Dolnick, the author of a previous award-winning book on art crime, brings all these characters and dilemmas alive, but his portrait of Goering, the “perfumed monster,” is the book’s most powerful. From his fanatical art hoarding, to his pet lions and phallic-legged tables, to his penchant for showing up at public functions practically in drag, Goering was a strange and in many ways ideal mark.
Though van Meegeren spent the war years defrauding his countrymen and palling around with Nazis, “the man who swindled Goering” died a hero. At trial, he claimed that duping the head of the Luftwaffe had been the height of patriotism. The Dutch ate it up.
A willingness to be deceived
Why did his hoax work? Today, the forger’s pale, clownish Christ looks like a joke beside the famous “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Even in van Meegeren’s day, appraisers at the renowned Paris art dealer Duveen Brothers called his Emmaus a “rotten fake” that looked like “a poor piece of painted-up linoleum.”
But these voices were drowned out by the general excitement over “the defenseless, pitiable, human Christ” that seemed to reach across the centuries to speak to their troubled time. In “The Forger’s Spell,” Dolnick has made a reckoning of the crime that speaks to our own.
Mary Wiltenburg is a freelance writer in Atlanta.