Master Swindler

Reviewed by Daniel Stashower
Sunday, July 20, 2008


A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

By Edward Dolnick

Harper. 349 pp. $26.95

In Amsterdam at the close of World War II, a dapper little man named Han van Meegeren, a noted art dealer, faced a charge of collaboration with the Nazis. At issue was a painting by Johannes Vermeer that had found its way, with Van Meegeren's help, into the hands of Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command. If the court found him guilty, Van Meegeren faced a death sentence. For several days the prisoner had been vague about his role in the transaction, but at length, under persistent questioning, his composure broke: "Idiots!" he yelled. "You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it's not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!"

"This is the true story of a colossal hoax," writes Edward Dolnick at the start of this gripping historical narrative. "The time was World War II. The place, occupied Holland." If that has the stentorian ring of an old RKO "Radio Picture," it must be said that the broad strokes of Van Meegeren's story sound like a vintage Hollywood two-reeler: "The Painter Who Fooled the Nazis!" If Jack Warner had gotten his hands on the material, there would have been roles for Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt.

"Everything about the case was larger than life," Dolnick tells us. "The sums that changed hands soared into the millions; the artist who inspired that frenzy of buying was one of the best-loved painters who ever lived, Johannes Vermeer; the collectors vying for masterpieces included both Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering." Van Meegeren, the man at the center of the drama, was a "middling painter of old-fashioned taste" who found a higher calling as the most successful and opportunistic art forger of the 20th century. While his fellow Dutchmen suffered and starved during the Nazi occupation, Van Meegeren lived a life of dizzying opulence through the sale of "newly discovered" Vermeer masterpieces.

Dolnick, a veteran science writer, knows his way around a canvas. His previous book was The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. He is careful to place Van Meegeren's deception in a suitable frame, detailing circumstances that allowed the forger to exploit a "Vermeer gap" -- created not only by the scarcity of the artist's work but also by the values it represented. During the war years, Dolnick explains, "admiration of Vermeer took on a new dimension that had little to do with his marquee value. Art historians and ordinary art lovers alike saw embodied in the great painter the very qualities that Goering and his ilk had put most at risk."

This cultish devotion to Vermeer sparked a thriving market, first among Dutch collectors who wanted to keep their national treasures out of Nazi hands, and later, after the outbreak of war, among German art scouts, who coveted Vermeer as the rarest of all jewels. "In all the world there are only three dozen Vermeers," Dolnick explains. "Even a conqueror with Europe at his feet could do nothing to alter that brute fact."

But Van Meegeren could. For years critics had scorned him as a minor talent who could do little but ape his betters. He responded by turning his energies to fakery, an arena in which he proved supreme. Over a long period of rigorous trial and error, he developed a process that made him, according to one expert, "the Edison of art forgers." It was not enough simply to mimic Vermeer's technique; Van Meegeren diligently recreated the artist's original materials, down to the lead-based paints and marten-hair brushes. Once the canvas was complete, he subjected it to various stresses to harden and crack the paint, in order to simulate the passage of three centuries and convey the necessary patina of age. It is strangely mesmerizing to witness Van Meegeren bend to his labors, though in effect we are simply watching paint dry.

By the time the "perfumed monster" Hermann Goering enters the picture, The Forger's Spell has raised provocative questions about the nature of art and the psychology of deception, anticipating more recent fabulists such as Clifford Irving, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. The man who understood these issues best may well have been Van Meegeren himself. "Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it," he declared after his exposure. "Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?" ยท

Daniel Stashower is the author of "The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder."

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