The Man Who Made Vermeers

The life and crimes of master forger Han van Meegeren.

The Man Who Made Vermeers

The Lace Maker, forgery in the style of Vermeer, 1926. National Gallery of Art, Andrew Mellon collection.

As a legitimate artist, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) never amounted to much. But he found fame and fortune as a forger, and today his name is inextricably linked to Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), the old master whose paintings he imitated.

Van Meegeren’s con was undeniably effective—to a point. One of his forgeries (The Supper at Emmaus) was once assessed as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” And in the wake of his arrest following World War II, he managed to cast himself as a folk hero, lauded for having swindled Nazi leader Hermann Goering.

In “The Man Who Made Vermeers” (Harcourt), author and artist Jonathan Lopez “unvarnishes the legend” of Van Meegeren, revealing the extent of this master forger’s trickery, while at the same time dispelling the elaborate myths he propagated.

Earlier this month, Failure interviewed Lopez about his well-received new book, which is one of five finalists for the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Award for nonfiction crime writing. Among other things, we were looking for the answer to the following question: When it comes to the life of a forger, what constitutes success?

What prompted you to investigate Han van Meegeren’s story and write a biography?
The intellectual aspects of the story attracted me first, instead of the more obvious hooks—like the fact that Van Meegeren’s most famous dupe was Hermann Goering, or that there were enormous sums of money involved with the Vermeer swindles. There’s a lot to be learned from mistakes, and the Van Meegeren case represents the most spectacular set of errors by art experts, collectors, dealers, and museum officials in history. I wanted to find out how it all happened and why.

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