Han van Meegeren: His Vermeers fooled everyone (part 2)

In May 1945 Dutch artist Han Van Meegeren found himself on top of the work. The war was over, the Nazis were gone, and he was a rich and famous man. He was about to take a steep tumble.

It started with a visit to his studio by members of the Allied Art Commission who were trying to track down the original owners of a painting by Johannes Vermeer titled Supper at Emmaus. It has been found in the collection of Hermann Göring, and because the Nazis kept very good records, Van Meegeren’s name appeared as one of the subsequent owners — the one who had sold it to Goring.

Who was the original owner? they asked. Van Meegeren refused to say.

He did so for a very good reason. The painting was a forgery, one that Van Meegeren had painted himself, had passed off as a genuine Vermeer in the 1930s, and had made a ton of money from when it was certified as the real thing by Abraham Bredius, a leading art historian of the day. After his “success” as passing off Supper at Emmaus as genuine, Van Meegeren painted six other “Vermeers” and became fabulously wealthy.

Despite the efforts of the Dutch to protect their artwork from the Germans, Supper at Emmaus ended up in the Göring collection and was exhibited prominently. Now it was coming back home, and Van Meergeren had a dilemma — a potentially deadly one. When he refused to reveal the owner of the painting, he was arrested and charged with collaboration and treason. A conviction would probably mean execution.

After six weeks in prison, Van Meegeren confessed. He was a forger, not a find of long-forgotten masterpieces.

But, by that time, no one believed him. They thought he was confessing just to save his own skin. In an attempt to convince people of his confession, Van Meegeren invited reporters to watch him paint a Vermeer. The demonstration was convincing, and the charges against him switched from treason to fraud.

At his trial, in yet another twist of this twisted tale, some of the art experts who had originally certified his paintings as genuine,  testified that they still believe they were — and that Van Meegeren was lying. Still, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. He was freed and was living at home while awaiting the sentence to begin when he had a heart attack on Nov. 12, 1947. The next month, he died.

Frank Wynne, the author of I Was Vermeer: The Legend of the Forger Who Swindled the Nazis, says that Van Meeregen taught the art world a valuable less: doubt.

Han van Meegeren’s greatest gift to the art world is doubt. If forgers throughout the ages have taught us anything, it is to re-examine why we love what we love, to overcome our obsession with simple authenticity and appreciate the work for itself. Is a minor Rothko truly worth more than the finest Ellsworth Kelly? Are we captivated by the serenity and light of a Corot watercolour, or simply the signature? https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3654259/The-forger-who-fooled-the-world.html

You can explore more of the Van Meegeren story beginning at this website devoted to his life and work.

Above: Han Van Meegeren (from a photo taken at his trial), watercolor

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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