Van Meegeren on trial (Getty images)

Why do people believe in imaginary returns, frauds and fakes?

Bernard Madoff, A.I.G. , W.M.D.’s … How did this happen? Do we believe things because it is in our self-interest? Or is it because we can be manipulated by others? And, if so, under what circumstances?

Last year, two different books on that subject appeared within months of each other. Not only did both tackle the question of fakery, they were both about the same man: Han van Meegeren, arguably the most successful art forger of all time. Edward Dolnick’s “The Forger’s Spell” was released first (Edward Dolnick’s wife is on the board of The New York Times Company), followed by Jonathan Lopez’s “The Man Who Made Vermeers.” The titles provide a clue to the different goals of the authors — Dolnick’s interest in the nature of the trickery, the spell that Van Meegeren cast; Lopez’s interest in the nature of the man who did the tricking, the man who cast the spell.

There is something compelling about two people writing about the same man at the same time, as if the authors themselves might be doppelgangers, or at least mirrored two aspects of Van Meegeren’s biography.

Both books begin on May 29, 1945. Shortly after the liberation of Holland, Han van Meegeren, a painter and art dealer living in Amsterdam was arrested for collaboration with the Third Reich. He was accused among other things of having sold a Vermeer to Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring — essentially of having plundered the patrimony of his homeland for his own benefit and the benefit of the Nazis. To save his skin — the penalty for collaborating was imprisonment or hanging — Van Meegeren revealed that the painting sold to Göring and many other paintings that he had sold as works of the Dutch masters were forgeries. He had painted all of them.

On July 21, 1945, The Times weighed in on the story: “Authenticity of Several Paintings Sold as Vermeers Is Questioned”.

The authenticity of several paintings introduced to the public as newly discovered works of Jan Vermeer, seventeenth century Dutch master, is in question and the case has become a national sensation in England. Originally many of these paintings were introduced to the public by Hans van Meegeren (sic), modern Dutch painter. Soon after the liberation of the Netherlands Van Meegeren was arrested for collaboration with the Germans and is now in prison awaiting trial. The press agency Anepaneta, which operates as a government mouthpiece, asserted a few days ago that Van Meegeren had made a statement that he himself painted the supposed Vermeers… Art experts say they are not convinced that the statements attributed to Van Meegeren are true. The director of the Rotterdam Museum said the prisoner was a fantasist who had a grudge against museums and similar institutions. A painting restorer in The Hague said that if one of the disputed works which he transferred to new canvas recently, “Pilgrims to Emmaus” [“Supper at Emmaus”] was indeed a forgery, then the painter must be considered a genius in that particular line.

“A genius in that particular line.” But what “particular line” is this? If the painting was indeed a forgery, then must the painter be considered a genius? Incredulity followed by skepticism. The Times article continued:

“If the rumors prove to be true,” the newspaper [“Volkskrant”] said, “then the best experts and completely reputable persons have been the dupes of a deception which was fashioned with unparalleled skill and in which, besides the forger himself, many middlemen must have taken part…” Van Meegeren and other major figures in the Netherlands charged with collaboration have yet to be brought to trial.

Van Meegeren was one of the “major figures in the Netherlands charged with collaboration.”

Time magazine was more forthright in their appraisal. In an account dated just 10 days after the Times article (Time, July 30, 1945), Van Meegeren is unambiguously described as a “Dutch Nazi.”

When the exquisite Christ at Emmaus was found in the linen closet of a Paris house (TIME, Sept. 19, 1938) it was one of the big art stories of the decade… Last week, a Dutch Nazi confessed that he had painted the “Vermeer” himself — and, what’s more, had knocked off six others, plus two Pieter de Hooches for good measure… The master picture-forger was one Hans van Meegeren, a little-known Dutch artist. Although he worshiped Adolf Hitler, he felt no compunction about unloading a fake on fellow Nazi Hermann Göring. Göring got Christ and the Adulteress in a trade for 173 paintings… Some Dutch art experts, who stand to lose considerable prestige over the affair, just plain don’t believe a word of Van Meegeren’s story.

But just what was it that they didn’t believe? Presumably, that he had really painted these “masterpieces” himself. They wanted him to prove it. And so, Van Meegeren was asked to paint yet one more forgery, “Christ in the Temple.” But of course, it really wasn’t a forgery. This time the authorities knew that Van Meegeren was the painter.


Erroll Morris
New York Times