The Man Who Made Vermeers

The life and crimes of master forger Han van Meegeren.

The Lace Maker
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.

What role did your knowledge of Dutch play in your research? 
There have been many books about Van Meegeren over the years, but none gets at the issues that interest me most. I wanted to present the story with a deep sense of history. I spent several years sifting through documents—correspondence, investigation reports, and trial testimony, for instance—in a variety of Dutch archives. At the same time, I immersed myself in the literature of the period. There would have been no way to do this without knowing the language. 

I also conducted interviews with descendents of Van Meegeren’s friends, patrons, and partners-in-crime. These people all speak perfect English—as does almost everyone in the Netherlands—but they seemed to find it endearing when I tried to communicate in Dutch. It gave me a measure of credibility, I think. Also, I often say things in Dutch that are inadvertently comical.

Can you paint a picture of Van Meegeren? 
If you look at photos of Van Meegeren from his trial in 1947, you’ll see that he looks a bit like [Academy-Award winning actor] David Niven—silver hair brushed back from his forehead, impeccably tailored suit—all very soigné. He predated Ian Fleming’s novels, but he cultivated the kind of amused disdain that we might associate with a James Bond villain. In fact, I think he would have liked people to imagine him that way—as a dangerous, impressive character with whom one would fear to bandy words. But no one took him that seriously because he was so over the top, especially in his cynicism, which tended to become quite voluble when he was drunk, which he was more often than not. Also, he was extremely short and spent a great deal of time chasing after very tall women, and inevitably made him seem like a bit of a sight gag—an amorous, overdressed pipsqueak. He was definitely more Dr. Evil than Dr. No. 

Why didn’t Van Meegeren find success as an original artist? 
It’s often said that he had no talent. Personally, I think that’s a bit too harsh. Van Meegeren actually did have some ability, and he enjoyed a measure of success as a society portraitist during the 1920s. But as he became involved with forgery, he lost his way artistically and never made good on the promise he had shown in his early work. Easy money from the sale of fake old masters left him a bit lazy with regard to his legitimate career, and once the imitative logic of forgery took over his creative thinking, it became very difficult for him to refine a truly personal artistic vision. In his review of my book in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl had a wonderful line about this: “The state of being oneself dies when set aside.”

How did Van Meegeren come to forge paintings?
He was recruited during the ’20s by a colorful art-world character named Theo van Wijngaarden, who was a legitimate picture restorer in addition to being a promoter of fakes and a minor art forger in his own right. Van Wijngaarden developed a slew of technical refinements that allowed him to produce fakes that could evade most of the tests routinely deployed in the unmasking of forgeries at that time, but his artistic ability was somewhat limited, particularly when it came to depicting the human figure at close quarters. As a result, he needed to employ a more talented painter to produce high quality forgeries. That painter was Van Meegeren.

What does it take for a forger to succeed at his craft? 
The technical hurdles are not insignificant, but Van Meegeren was lucky to have Van Wijngaarden to look after that side of things for him, particularly in the early days. Van Meegeren’s special talent lay in the aesthetic, or what one might call the mental side of forgery. A fake doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind. The best fakes may imitate the style of a long-dead artist, but they also tend to reflect the tastes, attitudes, and visual culture of their own period. Most people can’t perceive this: they respond intuitively to that which seems familiar and comprehensible in an artwork, even one presumed to be hundreds of years old. It’s part of what makes fakes so seductive.

Was this sense of contemporary appeal especially relevant to forging Vermeer?
I think so. In Van Meegeren’s day, scholars were still attempting to sort out who Vermeer was as an artist. Very few authentic paintings by him were known to exist, and most of those had been identified only recently. So the Vermeer forgeries that came on the market during the ’20s and ’30s played up to this atmosphere of inquiry and investigation. They fit a fictional narrative of Vermeer’s career, thereby answering the implied question, “What else did Vermeer do?” For instance, did he do portraits? Did he do religious scenes? And so on. 

From today’s vantage point, these forgeries now seem astonishingly anachronistic, because they weren’t really about Vermeer per se; they were about the way that the seventeenth century was perceived in the 1920s. Van Meegeren’s earliest Vermeer forgeries have more in common with his society portraits than with any work by Vermeer. At the time, this went unnoticed, and probably made the fakes all the more appealing on a subconscious level. They seemed both authentically old and hauntingly up-to-date. 

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.

How so?
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.

How did he dupe Goering into buying Christ and the Adulteress? 
That’s the thing that Van Meegeren is most famous for, but it happened completely by accident. He never intended to dupe Goering. He had hoped to sell Christ and the Adulteress—like all of his other wartime Vermeer forgeries—to a Dutch buyer. But the dealer involved with the transaction sold it—not knowing it was fake—to Goering, who coveted a Vermeer as the ultimate trophy picture. 

The late Vermeer forgeries fooled Nazis and non-Nazis alike because they were created in Hitler’s realm and blended in perfectly with the prevailing atmosphere. But it’s not difficult to imagine that Goering might have found something especially appealing about Christ and the Adulteress. We know, for instance, that other major Nazis, like Heinrich Hoffmann [Hitler’s ‘court’ photographer], rhapsodized over these pictures. It’s ironic, since Hoffmann was simply seeing his own aesthetic—the Nazi aesthetic—reflected back at him in the guise of Vermeer. It’s also quite sinister. 

How did Van Meegeren want to be remembered? And is this, in fact, how he is remembered?
After the war, Van Meegeren’s primary concern was to avoid being associated with anything even remotely concerned with Nazism. He succeeded in doing that by re-inventing himself in the mold of a folk hero. The mechanics of how he pulled that off are quite complex, and you’ll have to read the book to understand exactly how he did it. But I think Van Meegeren was delighted by the side benefits of this gambit—particularly, that he gained a brief moment of fame. As far as the general public was concerned, he was Robin Hood, the Artful Dodger, and the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo all rolled into one. And that’s generally the way he’s remembered.

How has the Van Meegeren case contributed to our understanding of Vermeer as an artist?
A lot of careful, critical looking went on in the wake of the Van Meegeren case, and as a result, most of the fake and misattributed works that had been jammed into Vermeer’s oeuvre during the first half of the twentieth century got excised. Older books on Vermeer now make for perplexing—indeed, almost risible—reading because they contain so many strange and unfamiliar pictures. In contrast, pick up the catalogue of the 1996 Vermeer show at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll find that the chaos has been swept away. With no more than thirty-six paintings now firmly attributed to the master, there are certainly fewer Vermeers, but Vermeer is much the better for it.

How did the National Gallery come to discover that two of its “Vermeers” were by Van Meegeren?
Like virtually every museum or collector possessing examples of Vermeer’s work that had come to light during the previous quarter century or so, the Gallery began to get suspicious soon after World War II. But anytime the attribution of a picture is questioned, arguments naturally begin to fly back and forth. 

In the case of the Gallery it took a very long time for the two fakes—The Smiling Girl and The Lace Maker—to move, step by step, down the scale of esteem from “Vermeer” to “Follower of Vermeer” to off-the-wall-and-into-storage. In part, this was due to the technological limitations of picture analysis at the time. 

By the late 1950s, the Gallery’s curators were pretty well convinced that the works were not by the master, but initial lab tests showed that all the pigments were appropriate to the seventeenth century. So the pictures remained on view, even though by that point almost no one took them seriously as works of Vermeer. Eventually, more sophisticated tests proved both pictures to be indisputably modern, and in the 1970s the Gallery officially designated them as such. 

In the 1990s, Arthur Wheelock, the curator of Dutch art at the Gallery, did some very impressive research that traced the forgeries back as far as Van Wijngaarden. However, it was only this past summer, in July, that I published an article in Apollo [“Van Meegeren’s Early Vermeers”], extending Wheelock’s line of inquiry and explaining Van Meegeren’s role in actually creating the fakes in Van Wijngaarden’s employ. The Apollo article drew upon my interviews with Van Wijngaarden’s descendents, documentary evidence from a variety of sources, and close visual comparisons of the fakes with Van Meegeren’s contemporary portraiture. 

Whether the Gallery will actually list the pictures as definitively being by Van Meegeren is an open question. Since he never confessed to his early fakes, there is room for doubt, and frankly, if you’re running a museum, Van Meegeren’s name is just about the last one you want in your catalogue.

Are there any museums or exhibitions devoted to forged paintings?
There’s a terrific museum of forgeries in Italy, Il Museo del Falso, that is part of the University of Salerno’s Center for the Study of Forgery. They collect only fakes and have everything from fake Renaissance masters to fake Andy Warhols. 

There are also frequent exhibitions throughout the world. The best ones tend to focus on a single forger or group of forgers. There was an excellent exhibition in Belgium a few years ago on Jef van der Veken, who specialized in forging Van Eyck. And in 2004 there was a truly amazing show in Siena [“Icilio Federico Joni and the tradition of forgery in the 19th and 20th century”] that looked at Icilio Joni—the master of the fake Italian Primitives—as well as the circle of forgers working in Italy in his day. 

Has technology made it more difficult to forge paintings today?
Technology has made it considerably easier to prove a picture fake, but generally speaking, by the time a forgery has raised enough questions to prompt scientific analysis, it has already been bought and paid for. A professional forger seldom has to fool the people with the spectrometers and x-ray machines, just the starry-eyed optimist with the checkbook. In that sense, very little has changed since Van Meegeren’s day. 

Can casual observers typically spot a forgery?
Yes and no. Absolutely no one would be fooled by Van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgeries today. Their expiration date has come and gone, and they now look like what they are: twentieth century pictures. But good, convincing fakes continue to get made and continue to deceive laymen and experts alike. Until Scotland Yard recently encouraged him to retire, John Myatt enjoyed a nice run duping the experts at Christie’s and Sotheby’s with fakes in the style of Matisse, Chagall, Gleizes, and Dubuffet. Forgery will always be with us. And anyone who thinks he could never be fooled is probably a prime candidate for fleecing.