- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

THE MAN WHO MADE VERMEERS

By Jonathan Lopez

Harcourt, $26, 352 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOHN M. TAYLOR

Everyone enjoys a good art hoax, unless of course he is one of the victims. When targets include Nazi boss Hermann Goering, we have the makings of a good story. So it is that we are offered yet another book about Han Van Meegeren, perhaps the most inventive forger of the last century, whose fakes of old Dutch masters set the art world on its ear in the period before and during World War II. Art historian Jonathan Lopez has now raised the bar for any future books on the forger with “The Man Who Made Vermeers.”

Van Meegeren was born in the Dutch city of Deventer in 1889. He appears to have had a lonely childhood, but impressed teachers with his skill at drawing. He aspired to a career as a painter, and as a young man developed a considerable reputation as a portraitist. But Van Meegeren had an expensive life style — he married twice and supported several mistresses — one that could not be sustained by portraits alone. In 1923, he and a colleague turned to forgery, successfully selling “works” of Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch. “Seduced by the easy money and thrilling gamesmanship of his initial forays into forgery,” Mr. Lopez writes, “the young Van Meegeren … lost his sense of calling.”

Van Meegeren decided to specialize in the works of the 17th-century master Jan Vermeer. After a period of relative neglect, Vermeer had been rediscovered and his works were in demand. At the same time, his total production had been small (there are only 35 unchallenged Vermeers today) and experts had had relatively few opportunities to compare his paintings. Moreover, the art world had long assumed that there were more Vermeers to be discovered - products of a “religious” period when Vermeer was believed to have focused on biblical subjects.

Van Meegeren’s greatest challenge was to replicate the materials Vermeer had used. But old canvases were available, and the forger was skilled at developing his own pigments. His sales pitch was to employ intermediaries and to allow his buyer to “discover” a long-lost work of the master.

Van Meegeren sold his first Vermeer, “Lady and Gentleman at the Spinet,” in 1932. Five years later, while living in France, he produced “The Supper at Emmaus,” which some critics hailed as the finest Vermeer they had ever seen.

Despite a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, Van Meegeren prospered throughout the 1930s and into the years of World War II, which proved a boon. According to Mr. Lopez, “Everyone in continental Europe was bidding up the prices of gems and old-master paintings… . It was not at all uncommon for items of dubious or unknown origins to show up on the market.” Loyal Dutch citizens were prepared to pay high prices to keep great paintings out of German hands, even as “cultured” Nazis such as Goering competed to build up their private collections.

The dapper, silver-haired Van Meegeren became rich. Obsessed by real estate, the forger snapped up almost everything in sight, sometimes paying in cash. By the end of the German occupation, Mr. Lopez writes, Van Meegeren owned 57 properties in Amsterdam, including a hotel.

Van Meegeren had been cozy with the Germans, and this fact contributed to his downfall. In May 1945, he was arrested for collaboration, specifically for having sold a purported Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” to Goering for the equivalent of $7 million in current dollars.

Conviction on the charge of collaboration might have carried the death penalty. To save himself Van Meegeren confessed that he was a forger, and to prove it dashed off a “Vermeer” for stunned Dutch authorities. He should be viewed as a patriot, Van Meegeren insisted, for having swindled Goering. “I had been so belittled by the critics that I could no longer exhibit my work,” he claimed, assuming the martyr’s role. His trial became a sensation, and public opinion rallied to the forger.

In November 1947, however, the court found Van Meegeren guilty of forgery and fraud, and sentenced him to one year in prison. To learn how he evaded even this light sentence the reader is referred to Mr. Lopez’s well-researched book, whose only defect is that the illustrations are not in color.

The forger’s revelations shook up the art world, and scores of experts who had authenticated his “Vermeers” dove for cover. Yet in Washington, the National Gallery took 20 years to move its two Van Meegerens “step by step down the scale of esteem from ‘Vermeer’ to ‘Follower of Vermeer’ to off-the-wall-and-into-storage.”

The author concludes that Van Meegeren “possessed all the technical prowess he might have needed to become, for instance, the Edward Hopper of the Netherlands: he simply didn’t possess the vision.”

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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