Education and Communications

The Art Forger Who Tricked The Nazis – Noah Charney

It was one of the strangest trials
in Dutch history. The defendant in this 1947 case
was an art forger who had counterfeited millions of dollars
worth of paintings. But he wasn’t arguing his innocence— in fact, his life depended on proving
that he had committed the fraud. Like many art forgers,
Han van Meegeren was an artist whose original works had failed
to bring him renown. Embittered towards the art world, van Meegeren set out to make fools
of his detractors. He learned all he could
about the Old Masters— their biographies, their techniques,
and their materials. The artist he chose for his deception
was 17th century Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer— an ambitious decision given Vermeer
was famed for his carefully executed and technically brilliant domestic scenes. Working in secret for six years,
the forger perfected his art, copying numerous works as practice. He mixed his own paints
after researching the raw materials and pigments available in Vermeer’s time. He bought 17th century canvases,
created his own brushes, and aged the works
by applying synthetic resin and baking them to dry
and crack the paint. A forensic test could have detected
the synthetic resin. But at the time, such tests
were neither advanced nor widespread, and even today verification
of a painting’s authenticity relies on the assessment
of art specialists. So it’s a matter of their subjective
judgment— as well as their reputation. And this is where van Meegeren
truly outwitted the art world. From his research, he knew historians
believed Vermeer had an early period of religious painting influenced
by the Italian painter Caravaggio. The leading authority on Vermeer,
Abraham Bredius, was a huge proponent of this theory,
though none of these works had surfaced. So van Meegeren decided to make one. He called it “The Supper at Emmaus.” Bredius declared van Meegeren’s fake
the masterpiece of Vermeer’s oeuvre. Van Meegeren’s forgery was not totally
up to Vermeer’s technical standards, but these inconsistencies
could be made to fit the narrative: this was an early work, produced before
the artist had come into his own. With the stamp of approval
from the art world, the fake was sold in 1937
for the equivalent of over $4 million in today’s money. The success prompted van Meegeren
to forge and sell more works through various art dealers. As unbelievable as it may sound, the art world continued to believe
in their authenticity. When the Nazis occupied Holland
during the Second World War, Hermann Göring,
one of Hitler’s top generals, sought to add a Vermeer
to his collection of artwork looted from all over Europe. Van Meegeren obliged, selling him
an alleged early Vermeer painting titled “Christ with the Adulteress.” As the tide of the war turned,
so did van Meegeren’s luck. Following the Allied victory, he was
arrested for delivering a priceless piece of Dutch heritage to the Nazis—
an act of treasonous collaboration punishable by death. To prove the painting
wasn’t a national treasure, he explained step-by-step
how he had forged it. But he faced an unexpected obstacle—
the very expert who had enabled his scam. Moved to protect his reputation, Bredius
defended the painting’s authenticity. With few options left, van Meegeren
set to work on a “new” Vermeer. When he presented the fake to the court,
they finally believed him. He was acquitted for collaborating
with the Nazis— and sentenced to a year imprisonment
for fraud. Though there’s evidence that van Meegeren
did, in fact, collaborate with the Nazis, he managed to convince the public
that he had tricked Göring on purpose, transforming his image into that
of a folk hero who had swindled the Nazis. Thanks to this newfound notoriety, his works became valuable
in their own right— so much so that they were later forged
in turn by his own son. The same canvases went from
revered classics to despised forgeries to works of art respected for the skill
and notoriety of the forger.
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