The Forger as Huckster: Two Books on Han van Meegeren

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The New York Sun

The forger isn’t just a swindler. He turns values upside down. He doesn’t merely change good coin for bad; he’s an alchemist in reverse, offering base metal for gold. This is why, in Dante’s “Inferno,” the poet puts forgers and counterfeiters together with alchemists near the lowest circle of hell. There, Dante and Virgil meet the forger Master Adam, a bloated and legless torso wracked with thirst; this false Adam is himself a counterfeit, a mocking copy of the father of mankind. In the Middle Ages, the penalties for forgery were harsh. In medieval Holland, such crooks might be consigned to the ketel, a great cauldron, to be boiled to death. Nowadays, we’re not only more merciful; sometimes we even have a sneaky admiration for con men, especially when they bamboozle the high and mighty and get away with it.

In the case of art fraud, however, whatever admiration we feel for the skill of a forger who passes off a modern fake as a venerable Old Master and makes fools of the experts is mixed with a sharp sense of betrayal. A painting that was once proclaimed a masterpiece suddenly loses its beauty when shown up as a forgery. How were we so thoroughly hoodwinked? What we thought was a Vermeer or a Frans Hals and flocked to see turns out overnight to be nothing but kitsch. And yet, isn’t it the same painting, fake or not? We can all be deceived by counterfeit bills. But a forged artwork makes us question our very eyes.

Han van Meegeren was among the most skilled and successful forgers of the past century; his fakes made him a millionaire. His shady story has been well known for decades but until recently the full depth of his dishonesty remained unplumbed. Arrested at war’s end by the dogged police officer Joseph Piller, a Dutch Jew who somehow survived the Nazi occupation, van Meegeren saved his skin by claiming that he hadn’t actually trafficked in stolen art — he was accused of selling Vermeer’s painting “Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery” to Hermann Goering — but, in fact, had painted them, and other rediscovered “Vermeers,” himself. In postwar Holland it was better to be tried for forgery than for collaboration, which carried the death penalty, and van Meegeren became something of a Dutch folk hero, as the artist who took the Nazis for a million-dollar ride.

The van Meegeren legend was as phony as his Vermeers, and two new books, appearing almost simultaneously, attempt to set the record straight. In “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper, 361 pages, $26.95), science journalist Edward Dolnick gives a brisk and vivid account of van Meegeren’s fraudulent exploits. His book reads like a thriller; crooks high and low, from “fat, swaggering, casually cruel Hermann Goering” to the charmingly candid English forger John Myatt, rub shoulders with deluded art dealers, preening connoisseurs, and duped collectors. But Mr. Dolnick also provides fascinating detail on the “art” of forgery, brought to new levels of ingenuity by van Meegeren. Thus, by adding Bakelite to his paints and warming his canvases in a makeshift oven, he could replicate the hardened surfaces genuine centuries-old paintings display; he even grew skilled at faking the wormholes in antique frames. And Mr. Dolnick is very good, too, on the historical circumstances, especially the daily horrors of life in Nazi-occupied Holland, where the forger grew rich while his countrymen starved. As it turns out, those circumstances had everything to do with van Meegeren’s phenomenal success.

In “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt, 340 pages, $26), the artist and historian Jonathan Lopez tells the same story but gives it, by contrast, unexpected depth. In his thoughtful and elegantly written account — which he calls “a liar’s biography” — van Meegeren is exposed not merely as an unprincipled peddler of phony masterpieces but as an opportunist with Nazi convictions. He worked with the odious Jan Ubink, editor of “De Kemphaan,” or “The Fighting Cock,” for which he prepared lurid covers in the color schemes of the Reich. And he was pals with Ed Gerdes, a true believer who became the detested “art tsar” of the Nazi occupation. Even van Meegeren’s own paintings not so subtly appropriated mawkish Nazi propaganda motifs. Though both authors have drawn on sources in Dutch, Mr. Lopez is steeped in the literature of the period and it shows to fine effect.

At his trial, which began in 1947, van Meegeren posed as an unjustly neglected artist who had taken his revenge on the art establishment through his forgeries; and they had deceived such eminent authorities as Abraham Bredius, who praised the saccharine “The Supper at Emmaus” as “the greatest Vermeer,” and Dirk Hannema, director of the Rotterdam Museum, who made it a star exhibit. (It now hangs in a side corridor among the museum’s curiosities.)

Though both books are beautifully illustrated, Mr. Dolnick’s includes color plates that make it possible to see genuine Vermeers side by side with van Meegeren’s forgeries. It’s hard to believe anyone could be fooled. Mr. Dolnick notes that the most successful forgeries incorporate contemporary elements to which we unwittingly respond, and Mr. Lopez agrees. But Mr. Lopez clinches his case by including the so-called Greta Garbo Vermeer (usually known as “The Girl with a Blue Hat”), a forgery Mr. Dolnick fails to mention. This is a cloying portrait in which van Meegeren slyly adopted features taken from posters for Garbo’s “Anna Christie.” But Mr. Lopez goes further. He suggests that van Meegeren prospered because the Nazis had “distorted the very realm of perception itself.” In the age of the Big Lie, the world Vermeer depicted with such loving precision itself seemed a forgery.

The New York Sun

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