Han van Meegeren: an update on his motives

June 21, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, writers, writing.

The story of Han van Meegeren, often thought of as the greatest forger in the history of art theft, was the subject of a two-part series of posts that I offered to newsletter readers a couple of years ago. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Now, we have new information about this extraordinary, though not very exemplary, individual.

During the 1930s and 1940s in Holland, van Meegeren produced at least six paintings that he claimed were the work of Johannes Vermeer. These paintings fooled the authenticating experts of the time, and they were sold for vast amounts of money.

One of those paintings was bought by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering at the time when Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany. Goering paid more guilders for that painting than anyone had ever paid in the history of art. Owning a Vermeer was one of Goering’s proudest achievements.

Things didn’t go well for Goering after the war. He committed suicide while under a death sentence in a prison in Nuremberg, Germany.

Things didn’t go well for van Meegeren, either. He was arrested by Allied authorities and accused by the Dutch government of collaborating with the Germans. It was a serious charge, one that he could have been executed for.

That story is contained in the previous posts cited above.

What’s new is the information — or at least a very educated opinion — about van Meegeren’s motivations. He consistently claimed he began forging art because of the rough handling that he had received early in his career from art critics. He would show them, he said, by creating works of art just like the Old Masters and by doing so in such a way that critics and experts would think they are real.

A different view of this story is taken by Jonathan Lopez, the author of The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, a biography that makes no claim being sympathetic to its subject. 

Van Meegeren was no wounded artist merely seeking revenge, Lopez says. Instead, he was part of a multinational art forgery and theft network long before he made any claims of merely warning to send up the critics. His chief motivation: greed.

That network “found” lost artworks by the Old Masters, authenticated them in various and sundry ways, and then sold them for a lot of money to rich museums and art patrons. One of their major targets was Andrew Mellon, an American multi-millionaire an art collector, to whom two of the fake Vermeers painted by van Meegeren were sold. Melon later donated his entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Lopez’s book serves as the basis for a feature-length movie, The Last Vermeer, that was produced in 2020. I have seen the movie and am now reading the book. Both are fascinating.

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