Han van MeegerenHan van Meegeren (Deventer, October 10, 1889 - Deventer, December 30, 1947) was a Dutch painter and master art forger.
Van Meegeren's life was linked to that of the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who died in 1675. Vermeer had not been particularly famous until around the beginning of the 20th century, and only about 40 of his works had survived.
At the end of the Second World War, the Allies came upon a salt mine in Austria where the top Nazis had hidden works of art they had plundered from the occupied countries of the Reich. The military brought in art experts to ensure that the treasures were properly handled, identified, and repatriated. Among the treasures were artworks from the collection of Nazi Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring. Göring's collection included a Vermeer that none of the experts were familiar with, and investigation traced it back to a Dutch citizen who was running a nightclub in Amsterdam named Han van Meegeren.
The Dutch authorities pegged him as a collaborator when he could not explain the origins of the Vermeer, and arrested him in May 1945. Van Meegeren was potentially in very serious trouble, as he could be charged with treason, which carried the death penalty. After several days of intense interrogation, he told the authorities the truth, which they did not believe at first: He had painted the Vermeer himself.
Exactly how Van Meegeren became a fraud is an interesting story, because he didn't do it for the money, at least not at first. He had been born in Deventer, the Netherlands in 1889, and had developed skills as a painter and a strong interest in the Dutch classic painters. His father violently opposed his work as a painter, but Han van Meegeren had a passion for it and could not be swayed from his life's work.
Still, he had chosen a difficult path. He had turned away from modern art and there was no way he could achieve recognition painting in the styles that were popular centuries earlier. He was belittled by the critics to the extent that he could no longer exhibit his work.
Van Meegeren thought the local art critics were mean and ignorant, and he decided to prove it by publicly embarrassing them. Van Meegeren was intimately familiar with the painting techniques of the Dutch masters, and decided to produce a fake Vermeer. He would let the art critics praise it, and then reveal that it was a fraud, proving their ignorance. His specific target was Dr. Abraham Bredius, who was a recognized authority on Vermeer and who Van Meegeren particularly despised.
Van Meegeren was a painstakingly methodical forger. The painting not only had to be executed in Vermeer's style and skill, it had to look ancient as well. Van Meegeren found a 17th-century canvas to paint on, created his own paints from raw materials by old formulas to ensure that they were authentic, and used the same kind of brushes that Vermeer was known to have used. He came up with a scheme of using phenol and formaldehyde to cause the paints to harden after application, as if they were centuries old. After completing the painting, he baked it to dry it out completely, rolled it over a drum to crackle it a bit, and later washed it in black ink to fill in the cracks.
It took Van Meegeren several years to work out his techniques, and when he was done he was pleased with his work. It wasn't just that he thought it was a convincing fraud. He had always wanted to walk in the steps of the masters, and he felt that his forgery, Christ At Emmaus, was a fine work in its own right.
Van Meegeren put his fraud in motion, and Dr. Bredius was completely taken in, just as Van Meegeren had hoped. The Dutch art establishment was completely fooled as well, though when the painting was shown in Paris one perceptive or possibly merely cynical critic called it a "rotten fake".
Van Meegeren was enjoying this wild ride, but it was only starting. He wanted to reveal the fraud, but when he sold the fake Vermeer for the equivalent of what would now be several million dollars, he unsurprisingly had second thoughts. He had proven to his own satisfaction that the Dutch art establishment was ignorant, and that would have to do as long as he could make good money.
Between 1938 and 1945, he produced six more fake Vermeers, as well as fakes of works by Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch. It would seem that people would have become suspicious after a while, but with the distractions of the war and Nazi occupation Van Meegeren was able to continue his activities essentially unmolested. Since there was an active and secretive trade in artwork anyway during the occupation, his fakes could ride along with the process as parasites.
One of Van Meegeren's forgeries was sold in 1942 for the 1.6 million Dutch guilders, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold. The last of Van Meegeren's fakes was Christ With The Adultress, which changed hands a number of times and finally ended up in the collection of Reichsmarshall Göring, who handed over an outrageous sum for it. Göring wasn't too concerned about the money, however, since he paid in counterfeit currency.
Christ With The Adultress was found in the Austrian salt mine by Allied forces, and led to Van Meegeren's arrest. When he told the police that it was a forgery, they didn't believe him, and challenged him to show he could paint a copy of one of the supposed fakes. He replied that he could create an entirely new fake.
He was put under house arrest, and in three weeks he painted a new forgery, The Young Christ Teaching In The Temple, under the eyes of undoubtedly flabbergasted police. The story got into the press and attracted worldwide media attention. The charge was changed to one of forgery. In the week before the trial, a poll showed he was the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the prime minister.
The trial began on 29 October 1947. Van Meegeren, then 58 and in failing health, was delighted with the show and the media attention. He really wanted to be found guilty, simply as confirmation that he was a master forger. The art experts didn't want to testify, since it would confirm they had been duped, but a committee was put together to investigate the forgeries.
Van Meegeren knew his paintings would be X-rayed to see what was painted on the old canvas underneath, and he told the committee what they would find. They did so, and after only two days on trial, Van Meegeren was found guilty of forgery. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
His health was so bad, however, that he went to a clinic instead of prison. He died on 29 December 1947. Although Van Meegeren may have not been much of a role model, he had walked in the steps of the Dutch masters as he had always wanted to do; made a fortune for himself in trying times; made fools of the art establishment that had reviled him, and who nobody else liked; even tricked the Nazis; become an international celebrity and a national hero of sorts; and then made an exit effectively unscathed.
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