Han van Meegeren was a con artist who couldn’t complete his con — until his life depended on it.
Van Meegeren (1889-1947) did not set out to be a con artist. He simply wanted to be an artist. Born in the provincial Dutch city of Deventer, he grew up with a love of art and an ability to draw and paint. He exhibited his paintings first in 1917 and by the 1920s had become famous throughout Holland. His Dutch heritage led him to paint in the style of the Old Masters, something that more and more displeased the art critics of the time. Critics saw his talent as imitation, not in breaking any new ground, and one wrote that he showed “every virtue except originality.”
Such reviews enraged van Meegeren, and he decided to use his talent for imitation and take his revenge.
His plan was to create a painting and pass it off as a work of the great Johannes Vermeer, whose known works included only about 35 paintings. This work took him six years. He studied not only the techniques of the painter but assiduously copied the materials he used.
His “masterpiece” was The Supper at Emmaus. In 1937 Van Meegeren let it be known that he had found a lost Vermeer. It was examined by an art expert and pronounced genuine, and then it was purchased by The Rembrandt Society and donated to a museum in Rotterdam. Van Meegeren’s plan was that once all of this had happened and once the critics raved about the work, he would announce that it was a forgery.
But he had second thoughts — which undoubtedly included the 520,000 florins (about $6 million in today’s cash) that he was paid for the work. He changed his plan. He began creating another “masterpiece” that would again fool the art world. In all, he painted six Vermeers that brought him $60 million during the next six years.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. NEXT WEEK: Van Meegeren’s ironic end.
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