Hans van Meegeren
Hans van Meegeren duped a string of wealthy collectors into paying vast sums for fake artwork of the Old Masters. One victim was Reichsmarschall Herman Goering.
by Robert Walsh
When many people are asked to name a selection of truly master criminals they’ll probably come up with the usual suspects: Jack the Ripper, Charles Ponzi, notorious English highwayman Dick Turpin or maybe legendary Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. One name that’s highly unlikely to appear is possibly the greatest (and certainly the boldest) art forger in criminal history, Hans van Meegeren.
Van Meegeren was born in October, 1889 in the Dutch town of Delft, the same town as the equally legendary artist Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century master. Van Meegeren, like any aspiring local artist, was a fan of Vermeer and was keen to become Delft’s other big name in the art world. He succeeded, but in a way that even the most inventive crime fiction writers couldn’t possibly have dreamt up.
It’s fair to say that the art world in general (and the Dutch art scene in particular) wasn’t exactly overwhelmed while Van Meegeren was painting under his own name. The general consensus among Dutch art critics was that he wasn’t nearly as talented as he aspired to be, was technically crude and, creatively speaking, fairly unoriginal. In short, he was generally regarded as a journeyman painter rather than another Vermeer. Like many people possessing a creative temperament and an artist’s ego, Van Meegeren was constantly stung by the criticism (and sometimes outright dismissal) heaped upon him by critics and contemporaries. Eventually he devised an elaborate (and, some would say, slightly crazy) plan to humble his critics, elevating himself to the standing he craved while doing so at their expense.
Initially, his career as an artist had gone well enough. He earned a decent living painting portraits for wealthy European and American socialites, exhibited his work in his native Holland and further afield and early in his career was invited into the HaagseKunstkring (a select Dutch artistic society composed of young, gifted painters and writers). If he had a problem with the Dutch art establishment it was that his talent as a creative, original artist had peakedby the early 1930s and by the mid-1930s his personal and artistic relationships with his peers had almost totally dissolved. This was due to his own increasing bitterness at the Dutch art community not tolerating his increasingly confrontational attitude and not giving him the recognition he felt himself entitled to.
A Grand Plan
His plan to reverse his fortunes was both technically challenging and perversely brilliant. Rather than simply forging copies of classic paintings by famous artists, Van Meegeren opted to create supposedly undiscovered pieces by a variety of Old Masters. Having (so he hoped) comprehensively duped the critics and collectors previously so dismissive of his own works, Van Meegeren then intended to openly admit he was a forger, create havoc in the art world, humiliate his critics and reap the rewards of the resulting publicity. By the strangest route and largely beyond his control he managed exactly that and, ironically for a forger, any painting proved to be a Van Meegeren is nowadays worth a lot more than it would be otherwise.
His first obstacle was purely technical. Even in the 1930s it was possible for any collector to run scientific tests on a suspect painting. If the canvas wasn’t old enough to match the lifespan of the supposed artist, if the chemical composition of the paint was incorrect or if the brushstrokes were obviously made using a different type of brush (Vermeer was well known to use brushes made from badger hair, for example) then a fake could easily be detected. Granted, with advances in forensic and scientific testing since the 1930s (when Van Meegeren was producing his best work and plenty of it) his fakes would never pass inspection today, but in this era he managed to come up with raw materials sufficiently similarto those of the Old Masters he admired so much. Certainly close enough that they easily fooled the critics and collectors he so despised.
Van Meegeren devised an aging process that, by 1930’s standards, made his fakes almost indistinguishable from the real thing. His paint was custom-made by grinding pigments in oil of lilac and then adding just the right amount of phenol formaldehyde resin dissolved in either benzene or turpentine. The resulting paint had all the right characteristics of a genuine 17th century artist’s paint.
Finding canvas that would pass inspection was rather easier. Van Meegeren simply obtained cheap, almost worthless paintings from the same era, removed the original paint and then recycled the blank canvas into forgeries close enough to fool many art critics and collectors. During the 1930s he produced fakes by a variety of distinguished artists, selling them as newly discovered works. His particular masterpiece came in 1936 when he created a fake Vermeer named “The Supper at Emmaus” which Van Meegeren personally regarded as his finest work. It was instantly accepted by many top-level Dutch experts as being the genuine article.
Hans van Meegeren’s most famous dupe, Reichsmarschall Kerman Goering.
Scamming Kerman Goering
One of his better works was “Christ and The Adulteress” which his artistic agent sold to a German art collector in 1942 for the equivalent of $7 million in today’s money. The collector was none other than Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe and one of Adolf Hitler’s most senior colleagues. Goering (himself an avid art collector) had no idea he’d paid so much for a fake and gave it pride of place in his personal gallery at his official residence, Karinhall. Aside from the obvious risks attached to making a fool of one of Nazi Germany’s most senior figures (while also pocketing a huge amount of his money) the decision by Van Meegeren’s agent would have serious consequences for his employer, although eventually his post-war legal problems would provide him with notoriety, celebrity and the public profile that he so desperately craved.
Money was never an issue for van Meegeren. His fakes went unexposed and for increasingly high prices. A rough estimate is that, in total, he pocketed somewhere around $60 million in today’s money from his many forgeries. He owned houses and hotels, moved around Europe freely before the war and relatively freely during it. He was said to have accumulated so much cash that he began hiding jars and boxes around his many homes and that future residents were still finding caches of pre-war Dutch banknotes even well into the 1960s. His desire for recognition far outweighed his admittedly lavish tastes, a desire that probably extended from his childhood and would only grow stronger as time went on. He could easily have exposed himself as a forger and humiliated many of his detractors long before the end of World War II but instead continued turning out fakes, reaping the profits while laughing privately at those experts he had taken for the fools he thought they were. It was with the end of the war (and the liberation of his native Holland) that a certaindeal with a certain German collector reared its ugly head and he was finally forced out into the limelight.
Van Meegeren in the Crosshairs
In May of 1945 van Meegeren was visited at his studio by two military officers representing the Allied Art Commission. The AAC was busily investigating the vast trade in stolen artwork during the Nazi era. The Nazis (when they bothered buying things instead of simply confiscating them) kept meticulous records of their dealings with art vendors. What they’d bought, where they bought it, how much they paid and (bad news for Van Meegeren) who they paid it to were all easily checked, providing an investigator had access to the right paperwork. The AAC investigators certainly did.
The name of Hans van Meegeren appeared on some of those papers in connection with the supposed Vermeer masterpiece “Christ and The Adulteress” as bought in 1942 by one Hermann Goering. For the first time in his long career as a master forger, Hans van Meegeren was now in extremely serious trouble. What made things especially grim was that he was arrested and held for trial as a suspected Nazi collaborator instead of as a forger. In early post-war Holland forgery didn’t carry the death sentence. Collaborating with the Nazis (especially top-level Nazis) very definitely did.
Van Meegeren was now in a highly dangerous and equally surreal situation. In order to prove he wasn’t a collaborator he would have to admit that he’d been selling forgeries for over a decade. If he confessed to being a professional forger he’d certainly draw a jail sentence for what the Dutch then called “falsification.” If he failed to prove that he was a common criminal and that he’d actually had the nerve to take a top-level Nazi for a fool then he’d quite likely be shot as a collaborator. In the years immediately after the war the Dutch were in no mood to show leniency to collaborators which left him with only one option: Cop a plea for being a top-level international forger and take whatever jail sentence the court chose to hand down.
After six weeks in custody, van Meegeren’s sense of self-preservation and desire for public attention finally won through. During yet another interview with Dutch investigators he finally cracked and bluntly told them that he was a forger. He freely admitted selling forgeries for over a decade and that the painting he sold Goering wasn’t a genuine classic from one of Holland’s greatest artists but was really a fake he’d painted himself. The cat was finally out of the bagand Hans van Meegeren was about to become an Old Master of the criminal variety. He’d serve some time, certainly, but he’d avoid the firing squad and still be able to reap the benefits of becoming a celebrity crook after his release. So far, so good, all except for one small problem.
The investigators didn’t believe him.
Van Meegeren’s artistic talent and instinct for fakery had landed him in a cell, possibly with a firing squad waiting for him. He’d come clean about his extensive criminal career and, when he’d finally shown his true colors, the authorities refused to accept his plea that he was only a common criminal, not a traitor to his country. Just to stay alive he’d now have to completely incriminate himself of lesser charges and simply accept whatever mercy the Dutch chose to offer.
Proving He Was a Forger, Not a Collaborator
Van Meegeren made the authorities a startling offer. He would prove his criminal talents by producing yet another faked painting using his standard mimicry, showing beyond doubt that he really was the master forger he claimed to be. His original plan to make himself a star and shame his detractors had come to fruition, granted. But it had come by a route so convoluted and downright bizarre that truth really had become stranger than fiction.
In front of the court he assembled his raw materials and set to work. While the judges, jury, international media, and the Dutch art community witnessed his every brushstroke(no doubt cringing at the mention of the journeyman they’d sent packing before the war). Van Meegeren showed every little trick and detail he’d used to fool so many people into parting with so much of their cash and credibility. Van Meegeren delivered a tour de force performance, proving beyond reasonable doubt that he wasn’t a collaborator, but certainly was one of the all-time great master forgers.
The charges of collaboration were dropped, the Dutch art community was left in a state of huge collective embarrassment and the most the judges were prepared to give van Meegeren was a token one-year sentence for “falsification.” Van Meegeren himself became an international star touted by no less a writer than Irving Wallace as “The man who swindled Goering.”American art lovers especially regarded him as though he was more of a prodigal son than a career criminal.
Sadly for van Meegeren, his fame has long outlived him. While waiting to start his token jail sentence his health (which had been slipping for years through heavy smoking, heavier drinking and an addiction to morphine-based sleeping pills) finally gave out. He succumbed to a severe attack of angina the day before he was due for transfer to a Dutch jail. He lingered for a few weeks, but the damage was done and he died without serving so much as a day of his sentence.
Hans van Meegeren’s fame has survived through his surviving paintings and his legacy as one of the masters of forgery. Ironically, for a master forger, his known fakes and pieces painted under his own name are now worth considerable sums – some have netted six-figure prices, such is the art world’s appetite for his work. Not because they are artistically brilliant, but simply because there are many collectors prepared to pay decent prices to have either a fake Old Master or a genuine van Meegeren in their collections, something which would certainly have been immensely gratifying to him. He set out to achieve fame and fortune and he did so, albeit by so bizarre a route that even he must probably have shaken his head at the sheer strangeness of it all.