It’s said that when Hermann Göring, one of the most infamous Nazis, discovered his prized painting, the rediscovered Vermeer he had paid over 1.5 million guilders for, was a fake, he looked ‘as though for the first time he had discovered that there was evil in the world’. The mastermind behind this deception? A Dutch forger named Han van Meegeren.
Described by many as one of the most famous forgers in art history, van Meegeren mainly forged works by the Dutch painter Vermeer, making millions during World War Two as he sold his works to greedy Nazi collectors. But was van Meegeren a national hero for duping the Nazis, or simply just as greedy as them, looking to finance his expensive taste for drugs, women and alcohol?
Born to a Catholic family in Deventer, Henricus (nicknamed Han) van Meegeren developed a passion for Dutch Golden Age art – and particularly that of Vermeer – at a young age. His parents were dismissive of his passion, believing he’d never make a career from it, so van Meegeren was sent to study architecture in Delft, although he never sat his final exams.
He married Anna de Voogt, a fellow art student, in 1912, and the family moved to The Hague so van Meegeren could study and teach at the Royal Academy of Art there.
A legitimate career?
Van Meegeren worked legitimately in art for a number of years, producing commercial designs as well as sketches, drawings and paintings which were popular in the Netherlands. He travelled Europe, making good money from portrait commissions: many of his patrons recognised the influence of Dutch Masters in his work, but critics began to suggest his work was not relevant in the contemporary world, which was filled with avant-garde Cubism, Surrealism and Modernism.
His marriage to Anna broke up in around 1923, mainly on account of his numerous infidelities: mixing with wealthy clientele in some of Europe’s most glamorous cities had given van Meegeren a taste for the high life.
It was also around this point that van Meegeren began to turn to completing forgeries in order to supplement his income. Aside from financial gain, it seems van Meegeren also wanted to prove his critics wrong: he’d also been accused of mere imitation, showing little artistic genius of his own. Forgeries were a way of snubbing those who had implied the skill of copying and imitation was any lesser: it seems he believed if he could convince people his work was by real Dutch Masters, he would have won a victory over his critics.
The perfect forgery
Successful forgery takes research: van Meegeren had to learn about pigments, so he could mix his own paints from pigments as artists like Vermeer would have done, as well as the type of brush that would have been used (badger hair, in Vermeer’s case).
He worked on repurposed 17th century canvases and experimented with a variety of techniques to get the right finish on his work – paint cracks over time, so this cracking had to be developed artificially. It’s thought van Meegeren spent 6 years developing, practicing and perfecting his technique.
In 1936, he painted a work he called The Supper at Emmaus, which he passed off as a previously undiscovered painting by Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer is perceived to be one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
He was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1860s, but had a relatively small body of work attributed to him, making him a relatively good artist for attempted forgers: experts and collectors still believed it was very possible there were more works by Vermeer out there. As a result, over-eager attributions were made by scholars hoping to ‘fill in the gaps’ of Vermeer’s career and work.
Having past his work on for ‘verification’, van Meegeren succeeded in his aim: Dr. Abraham Bredius, an art historian, wrote a piece in The Burlington Magazine, declaring The Supper at Emmaus to be ‘the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer’. The painting was bought for 520,000 guilders (around €4.5 million today) by the Rembrandt Society and donated to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
Van Meegeren moved to Nice, and bought a 12 bedroom house with the proceeds of the sale: he lived there for about a year, continuing to experiment with techniques to further his ability to forge. He returned to the Netherlands in 1939, settling in a small village called Laren.
Herman Göring takes an interest
Despite the outbreak of war, van Meegeren had continued to make a tidy profit in forgeries: the war meant that there were far fewer Vermeers on hand to compare the forgeries and legitimate paintings side by side, and provenance became far less important. In December 1943, van Meegeren and his second wife moved back to Amsterdam, where they lived a life of luxury in the war-torn city.
Whilst van Meegeren may not have been a Nazi himself, he certainly had fascist sympathies and collaborated with the regime to make a profit.
A year previously, another Vermeer forgery entitled Christ with the Adulteress had been sold to a Nazi art dealer, Alois Miedl, who in turn, sold it on to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The painting became one of Göring’s most treasured possessions, not least because of the price he had paid for it – it’s estimated that Göring’s purchase of Christ with the Adulteress may well have been the most anyone had paid for a piece of art, anywhere in the world at that point in time.
The painting was found in an Austrian salt mine by a member of the so-called Monuments Men in May 1945, and it did not take long for the work to be traced back to van Meegeren.
Collaborator, fraudster or hero?
Van Meegeren was arrested by the Allies, who accused him of plundered Dutch cultural property and collaborating with the Nazis – crimes which technically carried the death penalty. He had lived a life of luxury – in 1946, he boasted of owning 57 properties – whilst his fellow citizens were eating boiled leather and gruel. He was, ultimately, a forger and a fraud: a fact he managed to spin to his advantage.
He pled guilty to having forged the painting, but claimed he had no idea it would end up in Nazi hands. He spun the truth to make it look as though he had gone out of his way to outwit the Nazis, showing their lack of cultural understanding and portraying himself as some kind of ‘man of the people’ hero figure.
Amazingly, the courts were sympathetic. Van Meegeren only received a one year sentence on the grounds of forgery: the trial involved chemical laboratories testing pigmentation and chemical compounds which proved much of what he used would not have been available to 17th century painters. Somewhat poignantly, he died one day into his prison sentence following a heart attack.
Van Meegeren remains a counterfeiter of legendary status: his work was found in major art collections across the Western world, and it took years for many of the paintings to be recognised as fakes. Many of these are now on display as works in their own right – analysis of exactly how their style fooled experts is an interesting topic and highlights styles, themes and techniques used by Dutch Golden Age artists.
Ultimately, van Meegeren’s greatest forgery was the story he told about himself. Historians have suggested his primary motive had always been money, and the forgeries were increasingly a means to an end, a way of keeping up his lavish lifestyle. The Dutch people wanted to believe that he had the noble intention of wanting to fool and dupe the Nazis, but the reality was much less virtuous and more selfish. Van Meegeren was not only a master forger, but a master story spinner too.