June 3, 2013 by Reader's Connection
My thanks to Steve Bridge at Irvington for sending this review of Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell; a True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
In 1938, a mildly popular Dutch artist named Han van Meegeren, frustrated by the lack of acclaim that he felt his own art should have generated, decided to show that he was the equivalent of the great Dutch masters of the past. After long research and testing of paints, styles, and aging techniques he produced a painting that appeared to be a previously unseen work of one of the very greatest painters: Johannes Vermeer, who lived more than 200 years earlier. Vermeer’s most famous painting to most of us today is *The Girl with the Pearl Earring.* Van Meegeren’s forgery was entitled *Christ at Emmaus.* Even though today we might say the picture looks nothing like a real Vermeer, many art experts of the time fell all over themselves praising it. The painting sold for the equivalent of several million dollars in today’s money. Van Meegeren painted and sold several more fakes and made millions more.
He might have gotten away with it and we might still have these lower-quality paintings hanging in major museums today, labeled as the works of a master, if he hadn’t run into some misfortune. He sold one of the fakes to Adolph Hitler and one to Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goering. It wasn’t the Nazis who got him in trouble. No, Hitler and Goering were happily taken in by the forgeries. But when the war ended and American, English, and French art experts began going through all of thousands of pieces of museum art bought or stolen by the Nazis, they found these supposedly priceless “Vermeers.” And the one in Goering’s collection listed Han van Meegeren as the seller.
Van Meegeren was facing charges of treason and possible execution for collaboration with the Nazis. His only way out was to confess to the forgeries. But now no one would believe him. Even after Van Meegeren showed all of his techniques to the police and art investigators looking into the case, the art critics and the people who had come to love the forgeries would not believe they were anything but real. Van Meegeren was forced to paint another fake in front of witnesses in order to save his life.
This is really several books in one. It includes discussion of the real Vermeer and why he is so popular today and a biography of the forger van Meegeren. But it also includes a history of the Nazis’ looting of Europe and a brief biography of Goering. It is also a history of art forgery and a discussion of the inventive techniques used by van Meegeren, including using Bakelite (the world’s first synthetic plastic) to artificially age the paintings. Finally it is a study of how easy it is to fool all of us and why it is often easier to fool “experts” than people with little knowledge of the subject.
Completely fascinating from all angles.
The Forger’s Spell is also available as a downloadable e-book.