In 1945, Han van Meegeren was arrested in a liberated Amsterdam by a Dutch resistance fighter, not only because van Meegeren (an art dealer and painter) had close ties to local fascists, but because during the war he had sold off one of his nation’s greatest treasures, a recently discovered Vermeer, to none other than Hermann Goering, head of the SS and a man who envied Hitler’s collection of Old Masters. But van Meegeren had an excuse, one that turned him from arch-traitor to something like a patriot—the Vermeer he had sold to the German was a fake, painted by van Meegeren himself.
That’s not all. Pride of place in the Dutch Boijmans Museum was held by what more than one critic called Vermeer’s greatest painting, The Supper at Emmaus. This, too, was from the brush of the master forger.
What makes Jonathan Lopez’s book such an engrossing read are not only his details of art forgers and their methods (such as over-painting on canvases fitting a particular period, after scraping them to the base layer), but his description of how van Meegeren read the minds of the collectors he was set on fooling.
A Dutch–fascist theorist of the 1930s, and friend of the forger, claimed that the Netherlands’ earlier glory—don’t forget it was the world’s chief power in the 17th century—was based on the fact that, though the elite was Protestant, the masses were Catholic, and their spirituality gave the era a special, elevated tone. Vermeer, who was a Protestant that had married into a Catholic family, had, aside from a few early, weak works, never painted a religious picture. Since the artist left few works overall, many critics speculated that he may have taken up biblical themes in lost pieces. Van Meegeren obligingly provided them, after being inspired by the kitsch he saw at the Aryan art festival accompanying the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But here’s the crowning touch. Not only did the Vermeer forger dupe Goering and leading art dealers, he even tricked the man who arrested him, selling the soldier the story that he took up forgery because his first gallery show had been trounced by critics, and he was determined to make fools of them (and the Nazis) with his new Old Masters.
All previous books have shared this view of the forger’s life, which, Lopez shows, is also fake. Van Meegeren was an old hand at forgery, way before his first art show, and was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, pouring some of his ill-gotten gains into supporting a right-wing, anti-degenerate art magazine. Lopez does a wonderful job depicting the pre-World War II art world, in which American millionaires like Andrew Mellon proved particularly easy pickings. He also gives a vivid depiction of the crafty and corrupt van Meegeren, a well-rounded portrait depicting his absolute shallowness.