There are two varieties of art crime: art theft, and art forgery. You could ask: Why should anyone care about art crime?
Well, believe it or not, stolen art is often used as currency by terrorist organizations. Experts estimate that as much as half of the art on the market and/or in museums is fake. Half, as in one out of two. Forgery is so huge a problem that virtually any work of art, unless the artist is still alive and present, requires bucketloads of scrutiny, paperwork and provenance, and sometimes chemical and forensic analysis, to verify its authenticity.
This brings me to today’s topic: Han van Meegeren.
When you think about art theft, two major things come to mind: the Nazis looting art from half of Europe, and the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
When you think about art forgery, one name looms above all others, Han van Meegeren.
So, Han (not like Solo, his real name was Henricus, and Han is the diminutive form of that) was born in the Netherlands in 1889. He had a pretty unremarkable upbringing, although his father could have been a better parent.
Van Meegeren went to architecture school but hated it and wanted to be an artist. He was skilled enough to win some awards and have a few small exhibitions. Before long, critics started harping on him for being too derivative of the Dutch Old Masters since van Meegeren’s style was old fashioned.
Impressionism was all the rage at the time and van Meegeren had some not-so-nice thoughts about it. The world was not excited by his old-school paintings. This set van Meegeren firmly on the “I am a misunderstood genius” pathway, and totally soured him on the art world. Since his own paintings wouldn’t sell, he decided to forge the Old Masters’ works.
A lot of art forgers paint copies of existing, well-known paintings. Meanwhile, there are others who create new works in the style of famous artists and pass them off as originals. This was van Meegeren’s deal.
He spent years perfecting techniques to replicate the work of the old Dutch Masters, so they would pass as 300-year-old paintings. He would take random inexpensive 17th century paintings, remove the existing paint and use them for his own paintings so the canvas would be of the appropriate age. He would mix his own paints with the components of the paints they used at the time and made his own brushes. A big problem he faced was that oil paints take decades or even centuries to dry completely to hardness. So, he had to find a way to make his oils harden quickly to pass muster– he did this by mixing them with phenol-formaldehyde resin, better known as Bakelite, the hard plastic that mid-century phones and bangles were made out of. Then he’d introduce craquelure and rinse them in ink to darken the cracks.
He started copying the styles of various old masters, but then he went for the really big fish. He started creating paintings and passing them off as the work of Johannes Vermeer.
Now this was a huge deal.
Vermeer was, and probably still is, the second-most famous Old Dutch painter, after Rembrandt (fun trivia fact: “Rembrandt” was his first name. His full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn).
Vermeer’s works had more or less been forgotten before being rediscovered in the late 19th century. Arguably, his most famous painting till date is the “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” He is a Dutch national treasure and all the more precious because there are only thirty-four authenticated Vermeers known to exist.
This is the painter van Meegeren chose to copy. Not only was it an audacious hoax, but he knew that the art world would do anything to acquire a new work by Vermeer so they might jump on anything that he’d put out as a real Vermeer.
I’m no expert, but here is an actual Vermeer:
Here is one of the “Vermeer” paintings by van Meegeren:
To my untrained eye, that does not look nearly as good as the original Vermeer.
However, the art critics bought it. They chalked up the inconsistencies to the fact that it was one of his “early works” and thus not as sophisticated as his known body of work. Abraham Bredius, the leading authority on Vermeer saw it and pronounced it as “the masterpiece of Vermeer’s œuvre”.
In 1937, van Meegeren sold “The Supper at Emmaus” at what would be equivalent to $4 million dollars today.
He took inspiration from the fact that Vermeer had an early period where he dabbled in religious paintings influenced by the Italian painter, Caravaggio. Van Meegeren also fooled the art world by copying the work of other artists. His fakes sold for millions of dollars.
But as all good things do, this too came to an end.
Van Meegeren sold numerous other “originals”. By the 1940s, he was selling his paintings all over Europe. And guess who were the biggest buyers of paintings in the 1940s? The Nazis!
One of van Meegeren’s “Vermeer” paintings ended up being sold, via a dealer, to Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s most trusted Generals. After the war, when the Allied powers had won and Göring’s art collection was being reclaimed, the painting was traced back to van Meegeren.
This was a difficult time for our protagonist. He was put on trial for treason and collaboration, because they thought he’d sold a priceless piece of Dutch national heritage, a Vermeer, to the Nazis.
Now, the penalty for treason is death. In order to save himself, van Meegeren had to admit that he hadn’t sold priceless Dutch masters to Göring and that the painting was faked. By him.
Abraham Bredius– who needed to save his dignity– was trying to prove the paintings were real. So, in the end, with no option left, van Meegeren forged another “original” Vermeer in court. This helped him prove all the paintings he had sold to Göring were actually fake. He engaged in a fair bit of spin, too. His actual reasons for faking a Vermeer and selling it were almost entirely about money and spite but he was able concoct a motive that he wanted to “teach the Nazis a lesson” by making them think they had a real Vermeer, when in fact it was a fake. This played pretty well in post-war Holland. In fact, van Meegeren became something of a folk hero, enjoying tremendous fame and popularity.
Van Meegeren received a year in prison for fraud. After his brief stint in prison, he started confessing about some of the paintings he’d forged. Chemical tests verified the fakes. This did not detract from, but rather added to, his folk-hero status. Everyone sort of enjoyed the fact that he’d fooled all the art critics. Especially Bredius.
In one of the great ironies of the world, van Meegeren’s fame grew so large that his own paintings, including the fakes, became valuable in their own right. Some of his faked Dutch master paintings hang in museums alongside the genuine articles (attributed to van Meegeren, of course). Eventually, his work became valuable enough that people started forging them. Most notably his own son.
There are still van Meegerens floating around out there masquerading as the work of other artists. The BBC show “Fake or Fortune” identified one in 2011 by finding the bakelite resin in the paint.
And that is the history of Han van Meegeren.
– Stuti, Delhi Public School, Noida5 Likes