Meet Notorious Art Forger Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Counterfeit Vermeers

Peo­ple love sto­ries of suc­cess­ful crim­i­nals. They must pos­sess some admirable qual­i­ties, we assume, some great dar­ing or cun­ning or keen insight. Myths sup­plant real­i­ty, and we for­get about the net­works of enablers that help ruth­less but not espe­cial­ly bright peo­ple suc­ceed. But suc­cess­ful art forg­ers present us with anoth­er case entire­ly. “Forg­ers, by nature, pre­fer anonymi­ty,” notes the site Essen­tial Ver­meer 3.0, “and there­fore are rarely remem­bered.” Yet the evi­dence of their mas­tery lies incon­tro­vert­ibly before us, fool­ing col­lec­tors, cura­tors, and even art his­to­ri­ans. Fakes, may be “the great art of our age.”

Or so claims the sub­ti­tle of 2013 book Forged, in which philoso­pher and con­cep­tu­al artist Jonathon Keats sur­veys the careers of six noto­ri­ous forg­ers, includ­ing Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, who “tricked the world—and the Nazis—with his coun­ter­feit Ver­meer paint­ings,” the TED-Ed les­son above tells us.

Van Meegeren’s biog­ra­phy seems almost script­ed. Hav­ing failed to inter­est crit­ics in his work as a young man, he became embit­tered and decid­ed to revenge him­self upon the art world with fakes. His choice of Ver­meer was “ambi­tious” to say the least, giv­en the Baroque painter’s rep­u­ta­tion for a unique tech­ni­cal bril­liance.

He worked for six years to re-cre­ate Vermeer’s mate­ri­als and tech­niques and per­fect an aging process for his can­vas­es. The foren­sic sci­ence that would today detect such meth­ods was not suf­fi­cient­ly advanced at the time. Yet “even today,” the les­son notes, authen­tic­i­ty is a mat­ter of the “sub­jec­tive judg­ment of spe­cial­ists.” Van Meegeren used such depen­dence on author­i­ty against the experts by cre­at­ing a work he knew would fill in a his­tor­i­cal gap, an ear­ly reli­gious peri­od of Vermeer’s from which no works sur­vived; also, con­ve­nient­ly, a peri­od when the artist’s tal­ents were less devel­oped.

“In 1937,” Essen­tial Ver­meer writes, “Abra­ham Bredius… one of the most author­i­ta­tive art his­to­ri­ans,” who had “ded­i­cat­ed a great part of his life to the study of Ver­meer” pro­nounced van Meegeren’s fake Ver­meer, Christ and the Dis­ci­ples at Emmaus (detail above), “a hith­er­to unknown paint­ing by a great mas­ter, untouched, on the orig­i­nal can­vas, and with­out any restora­tion, just as it left the painter’s stu­dio.” His praise was so effu­sive it allowed no room for doubt. This was “the mas­ter­piece of Johannes Ver­meer of Delft… every inch a Ver­meer.”

Van Meegeren coun­ter­feit­ed works by sev­er­al oth­er Dutch mas­ters and “was so good,” says the nar­ra­tor of a Sotheby’s pro­file, above, “that he duped art experts, muse­ums, and even Hitler’s right-hand man Her­mann Göring.” And here, the usu­al admi­ra­tion for art forgers—who can seem like hero­ic trick­sters next to their greedy, over­con­fi­dent marks—takes a patri­ot­ic turn. Tried for col­lab­o­ra­tion, the forg­er argued he was in fact a nation­al hero for trad­ing anoth­er coun­ter­feit Ver­meer, Christ with the Woman Tak­en in Adul­tery (below), to Göring for 200 works of loot­ed Dutch art.

Van Meegeren’s defense depend­ed on him con­vinc­ing the court that he had made the paint­ing. This took some doing. He had even for­gone using mod­els so there would be no wit­ness­es. As Sotheby’s Direc­tor of Sci­en­tif­ic Research James Mar­tin and art his­to­ri­an Jonathan Lopez show us, van Meegeren’s work real­ly was that con­vinc­ing, its flaws near­ly unde­tectable. He did serve two years for forgery and fraud, but in the end achieved his ear­ly desire for artis­tic fame and his lat­er wish to be regard­ed as an out­law hero. Per­haps more than most art world forg­ers, he is deserv­ing of both rep­u­ta­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Anato­my of a Fake: Forgery Experts Reveal 5 Ways To Spot a Fake Paint­ing by Jack­son Pol­lock (or Any Oth­er Artist)

How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edi­tion of Galileo’s Sci­en­tif­ic Work, and Almost Pulled it Off

F for Fake: Orson Welles’ Short Film & Trail­er That Was Nev­er Released in Amer­i­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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