One recurring theme of this blog and/or my interests is the looted art of World War 2. I’ve read books and watched movies and even trained my internet history to find me articles related to this subject. (I say that I trained my internet, which is a lot less creepy than saying the internet is stalking me.)
Thus, one day I was at the public library (tbh that’s how many of my life’s adventures begin) and I found this book on a Dutch art forger who swindled the Nazis and made a fortune. The book is called The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (2009). Even better, the book predates The Monuments Men book (2013), thereby also predating the movie, which meant it existed before the Nazi Art Thing was a thing.
(There were a few other books dedicated to this subject, most notably The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1995), and The Monuments Men. Author Robert Edsel created The Monuments Men Foundation in 2007, but it was the book in 2013 that really brought the subject to the public consciousness, and then the film in 2015 made its popularity skyrocket.)
Enough history about history.
The Forger’s Spell is about a vain little Dutch man, Han Van Meegeren, who was trained as an artist but never had a notable professional career. He would do local portraits or Christmas cards but never to critical acclaim. I believe the critics called his work ‘overly sentimental’, or ’emotionally overwraught’ – descriptions that make perfect sense to an art critic but seem quite arbitrary to a non-artist. Well fine then. If he couldn’t make it on his own, he would make it under the name of artists whose works would sell.
Some where, some how he met a fellow who became his business partner. Criminology 101: never do your own dirty work. This other fellow would be the one selling the artwork to dealers, museums, and collectors. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I believe Van Meegeren heard through the grapevine that Goering greatly coveted a Vermeer to go with his three castles worth of art and statues looted collected during the war. So Van Meegeren got to work and one of his Vermeers was sold made it as far up the Nazi command chain as Goering.
Van Meegeren produced many Vermeer forgeries that made it to collectors and museums, each one claiming to be recently discovered. The Dutch museums had a field day with exhibits and special shows dedicated to these “lost” treasures, even at the expense of Rembrandt. The public got swept up in the hype, declaring each “new” piece to be sublime and a masterpiece. All dissenters were hushed and ridiculed, and maybe even had their careers as art critics destroyed.
But it was his success that was his eventual downfall. His go-between fell through in one transaction so he had to make a deal himself and show his face. It was also curious that in occupied Netherlands, he managed to have a mansion on the river, throw parties, and live it up like Jay Gatsby almost every night. After the war, in 1945, one of his pieces was found in Goering’s possessions. Unfortunately, this was the piece sold earlier where he had to show his own face. People started asking questions, and the answers led back to him. He was arrested for being a Nazi accomplice and sympathizer, the punishment for which was death. Instead he confessed to a lesser crime of forgery, sentenced to one year in prison, but died only six months in. In fact, that he duped Goering, Hitler’s right hand man, turned him into some strange sort of hero.
How did it get that far? How was he able to swindle basically the power of the Third Reich and fool art critics? He had all sorts of interesting techniques to give his paintings the required characteristics. For example, he used Bakelite, an early synthetic plastic, to give his Vermeer forgeries that appropriate aging and crackling look. His earlier Vermeers looked like the real thing while his later ones looked like, well, a disaster.
This book’s author has a whole chapter dedicated to the tricks of forgery, but it boils down to the fact that the critics saw what they wanted to see. They wanted to see a Vermeer, and so they did. It helped that Van Meegeren had found ways to make the paint look like it had aged, used the right frames, found 200-year old canvas to paint over. Had the critics used scientific analysis, the paintings would have failed, but they didn’t. Only during his trial after he had confessed to using Bakelite did they test the paint. Even nowadays, to use chemical and scientific analysis, which seems like common sense to us, could come off as a major affront to a critic’s reputation and expertise.
There was a lot of interesting stuff in here. I recommend this book, which gives a fascinating look into the art critic and art forgery world. This is especially interesting and possibly relevant when you consider the literal ton of Nazi looted art that was discovered recently (blog post here). Perhaps there is someone out there audacious enough to slip in a couple of home made pieces for their own personal gain.
Image source (Yes, I know Tumblr is not a proper source)