- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

I WAS VERMEER: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S GREATEST FORGER

By Frank Wynne

Bloomsbury, $24.95, 276 pages

REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER

IIf every man has a little larceny in his soul, how about a bit of forgery? The Dutch artist Han van Meegeren had enough to fill a museum gallery and, curiously, became a national hero.

He was born in 1889 and as a boy was captivated when an artist and art teacher of the old school taught him that color didn’t just come out of tubes. Rather, color “is something to be crafted, something you can make and control as did the great artists of the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt van Rijn did not buy his paints … nor the Master of Delft, Jan Vermeer. They worked with stone and clay, with the grinding board and muller … They understood how the intensity of colour fade … how it blanches in the light.”

On the cusp of adulthood, van Meegeren defied his dictatorial father’s command to become an architect and learned art instead. Both gifted and determined, he won a coveted prize with a watercolor of a church interior that almost mimicked the work of an admired 19th-century painter. Applauded as a prodigy (with a wife and baby to support), he fell flat on his painterly face when his work simply did not sell; sophisticates were genuflecting at the altars of modernism while he painted homages to the icons of yore.

Angry, desperate and broke (albeit a hedonist and spendthrift), he discovered that riches could be made in forgery almost by accident — but only almost, because he set out to paint great art with a motive aforethought. He intended to make pictures that would be lauded as old masters’ lost masterpieces, then announce his authorship in order to embarrass the critics, scholars and tastemakers who had scorned or ignored works signed with his own name.

In order to make pictures that could pass as antique, he honed his boyhood skills of mixing paints from old formulas, even using pricey lapis lazuli for celestial blues worthy of Christ’s tunic and his Virgin Mother’s robes. Then he bought centuries-old works in junk shops and scraped away the old paint down to the original canvas on which he would start fresh (and no newfangled x-ray machine could prove the new work false by finding something underneath). He invented ways to counterfeit the patina and texture of old art, including craquelure, the characteristic spiderwebs of minute cracks.

A genuine genius of sorts, he solved all the technical problems, then contrived compositions — religious pictures and genre scenes — that could have been painted by Vermeer, Franz Hals and Pieter de Hooch, et al. In the case of Vermeer, some of the master’s early oeuvre was known and his mature works were famous; van Meegeren created transitional scenes that seemed to bridge the gap. Cognoscenti leaped to theorize that this newfound “Last Supper” and that “Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery” were works by Vermeer himself on the threshold of his maturity more than 250 years earlier.

By some a bald commercial standard, van Meegeren was one of the most successful painters of the century. By heterodox standards, he overdid it all: opium addict, drunk, cheat, adulterer, paranoid and sybarite. He could afford these vices because his counterfeit masterpieces made him millions as he enlisted conspirators to market them and they were certified by experts, then bought for great museums.

Andrew Mellon got two, which became part of the original inventory of the National Gallery of Art (and have since been consigned to storage in perpetuity). Hitler’s grotesque deputy Hermann Goering prided himself on buying a couple of “old masters” that were wrought by this living Dutchman. Ironically that was part of the reason van Meegeren got caught — when Nazis’ looted treasures began to make their way back to rightful owners after World War II.

Arrested for “collaborating with the enemy, to wit knowingly selling a national treasure,” then grilled by police, he astounded them when he confessed to gulling the art world, and only proved his confession to incredulous authorities by demonstrating his gifts: Imprisoned, he painted a new fake under the eyes of experts.

In Pyrrhic victory, he shamed critics and shook up art markets everywhere. Having fooled Nazis and esthetes alike, he became the toast of Holland, a kind Butch Cassidy of a faux Renaissance. His defense would argue that he had helped the Dutch cause by cheating the Third Reich, but inevitably he was convicted of fraud, then almost given a royal pardon.

Van Meegeren’s story has been told before. It was featured in contemporary press coverage, including a Saturday Evening Post take-out by Irving Wallace, a radio program, television show and books as late as 1991. The fact remains that he was not the only forger of art, only the most famous, one who got caught; others have plied the trade since art was first bought and sold, as many ply it still. Witness Thomas Hoving’s dictum that 60 percent of the works offered to him at the Met were “not what they appeared to be” and a critic’s jibe that of 2,500 genuine Corots “7,800 are in American collections alone.”

Still, there is another dictum: That every generation rewrites history to suit itself. So be it with this engaging historical yarn. For our era of addictions and carnal appetites, Frank Wynne has portrayed a flawed striver driven by thirst and lust. For today’s readers who wallow in psycho-social analysis, he has written the sympathetic portrait of a gifted artist who wasted his genius through venal and egotistical weaknesses that us moderns can appreciate and almost forgive. For the well-heeled connoisseur and wannabe collector alike, he has written a cautionary tale that is very entertaining, a delight!

One final note: The editors added a useful dividend in eight pages of van Meegeren reproductions (and a few Vermeers). They’re barely bigger than postage stamps, and the color is about as true the forger was honest, but this signature is illustrative. It gives the reader a visual taste of images that are central to the narrative. That’s good bookmaking!

Philip Kopper, author of three books about museums, including the 50th-anniversary history of the National Gallery of Art, writes about culture, history and the arts.

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