The Man Who Made Vermeers
The life and crimes of master forger Han van Meegeren.
What constituted success for a forger like Van Meegeren?
At first, it was mostly about the money, and also the pride of having one’s work accepted as a timeless masterpiece, which was undoubtedly a big ego boost. But after a while, Van Meegeren wanted more, perhaps because of egotism. He eventually turned forgery into an endeavor with a political and intellectual agenda behind it.
Van Meegeren and a friend named Jan Ubink gave a great deal of thought to the concept of value in the arts, and they published their ideas in a right-wing magazine called De Kemphaan that Van Meegeren bankrolled using the money from his early Vermeer forgeries. In his own contributions, Van Meegeren denounced modern art as the degenerate output of Bolsheviks, “negro-lovers,” and Jews, closely paraphrasing Adolf Hitler’s arguments from Chapter Ten of Mein Kampf.
Van Meegeren and Ubink posited that true art should be judged on the basis of its ability to represent the essential spirit of the race or nation that produced it—what the Germans would call the Volksgeist. In time, Van Meegeren would use forgery to project a reactionary idea of the Germano-Dutch Volksgeist onto Vermeer. Just as Van Meegeren’s early Vermeer forgeries contain hints of contemporary society portraiture, his later forgeries are laced with subtle references to Nazi propaganda art. But whereas the anachronisms in Van Meegeren’s 1920s fakes were probably inadvertent, I believe the Nazistic echoes of later ones were planned. Van Meegeren spent too much time thinking and writing about the subject for it to be happenstance.
Can you explain Van Meegeren’s relationship with Nazism?
On a personal level, Van Meegeren greatly admired Hitler—a fellow traditionalist artist, among other things—and during World War II, he curried favor with the German occupation government of the Netherlands in some very unseemly ways. He gave money to Nazi causes, did Nazi-themed artworks as direct commissions for the occupation government’s arts minister, and contributed similar pictures to Nazi-sponsored art exhibitions in Germany, where he publicly dedicated at least one of his entries to the Führer. He also sent an inscribed book of drawings to Hitler as a token of esteem. I think it’s fair to say that Van Meegeren found Nazism quite appealing.
On the other hand, he never officially joined the Nazi Party, and despite occasional crude comments in De Kemphaan, he wasn’t a pathological anti-Semite. Ultimately, Van Meegeren’s interest in the Nazi movement—like virtually everything else about him—was mostly narcissistic. He liked the idea of being the Übermensch—of standing, as it were, outside of history and bending the world to his will. For a forger, that’s a very powerful idea.