Old Master, New Mimic

Read Time:
7m 39sec

The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth
Century’s Greatest ­Forger.

By Frank Wynne. Bloomsbury USA.
276 pp. $­24.95

In August 1937, Abraham Bredius produced a masterpiece. Bredius, the foremost expert on Dutch painting, examined a picture for a lawyer who said he represented a young woman from a wealthy Dutch family that had fallen on hard times. Two days later, Bredius declared that he’d discovered a painting by Jan Vermeer (1632–75): “This magnificent piece . . . has come to ­light—­may the Lord be ­thanked—­from the darkness where it has lain for many years, unsullied, exactly as it left the artist’s studio.” With a brief treasure.

But Bredius was wrong. The Supper at Emmaus, as the painting came to be known, was a forgery, and not a crafty one. It depicts Jesus after his resurrection breaking bread with two disciples while a serving woman holding a pitcher stands to the side. The figures are lumpy and ­ill ­formed, their clothes concealing what the forger couldn’t render. The space behind Jesus is unadorned, whereas in Vermeer’s finest work, maps, tapestries, and paintings hang from the walls, and individually rendered ­tiles—­usually Delftware, a product of the painter’s ­hometown—­decorate the baseboards. Vermeer’s windows are often ornate and thrown open to the day, with figures mirrored in the glass. Light reflects off a bowl’s lip or the beads of a pearl necklace, and glows from within his human sub­jects. In the forgery, just the corner of a window is visible, and the only light is ­drab.

The Emmaus wasn’t a knockoff by a ­lesser-­known ­17th-­century artist or a stu­dent of the master. Not more than a few weeks old when Bredius inspected it, the painting was the handiwork of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (1889–1947). While still a student, van Meegeren won a prestigious national art prize, but the rewards for being the year’s best young Dutch painter were modest. He turned to forgery for fast profits and out of frustration with his contem­poraries, whose abstractions and experi­ments he thought pointless, decadent, and dull. By painting in the guise of more famous artists, he became a shameless ­success.

The story of van Meegeren has been told before, in several ­out-­of-­print biographies and scholarly works of art history. Frank Wynne, a ­London-­based journalist and the English translator of Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Elementary Particles, adds little to those accounts of the forger’s fizzy rise and ignominious fall, and he only cursorily considers the uncomfortable questions about the art world raised by a forger’s achievements. What makes one ­painting—­or one ­painter—­more valuable than another? Are such determinations rational, or arbitrary and faddish? Wynne treats such questions as brief pauses in a brisk ­page-­turner. He has his story to ­tell.

Reading this easily digested, only occasionally thoughtful historical reenactment is rather like watching the actors at Colonial Williamsburg, or the weekend warriors who band together to replay the Battle of Gettysburg. In a typical passage, Wynne describes a domestic argument between the painter and his wife when they were alone, in which her “sensuous lip” quivers. Van Meegeren and others speak in so many unsourced passages of dialogue that one wonders whether Wynne has purchased liveliness of plot and character at the expense of solid history. His eagerness to embellish what is already dramatic leads him to overreach, not unlike Bredius and his expert ­colleagues.

The Supper at Emmaus is larger than most works by Vermeer, about whom so little is known that one writer called him “the sphinx of Delft.” Its subject matter bears only a glancing resemblance to his ­better-­known, achingly detailed domestic ­scenes—­the milkmaid with a pitcher, the noblewoman writing a s oeuvre includes few religious subjects, but Bredius and other prominent critics had long supposed that the artist, who converted to Catholicism so that he and his wife-to-be could marry, painted other religious works now unknown to ­us.

Those critics further speculated that there must have been a transitional period between Vermeer’s early canvases, which tend to be larger, more romantic, and clearly influenced by Caravaggio, and his smaller, more placid later works. With so few paintings credited to ­Vermeer—­in Bredius’s day there were roughly 50; today there are only 35, and even that number is thought to be padded with ­forgeries—­the critics believed that the paintings of his middle period were lost, casualties of time and the neglect into which Vermeer’s work fell for nearly two centuries after his ­death.

Van Meegeren’s success in passing off his Emmaus, for which he received 520,000 guilders, the equivalent today of about $4.7 million, encouraged him to continue forging. During the next few years he rushed off six more Vermeers, including The Last Supper, which fetched 1.6 million guilders, and three other religious canvases, which sold for a combined 4.2 million ­guilders—­extraordinary sums of money for any artist, in any age, but all the more ­jaw ­dropping when set against the widespread deprivation in Europe during World War ­II.

Van Meegeren’s later forgeries piggybacked on his earlier work. He copied himself, creating paintings that resembled his own fakes more than original Vermeers. Critics dutifully called attention to the striking way in which each latest discovery was so much like The Supper at Emmaus. In all, van Meegeren is believed to have painted 11 Vermeers, three canvases in the style of Frans Hals, and a couple mimicking Pieter de ­Hooch.

Through a web of intermediaries, van Meegeren sold Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, his sloppiest Vermeer by far, to Hermann Göring for the price of 1.65 million guilders and the return of hundreds of Dutch old masters looted by the Nazis. After the war, van Meegeren was arrested and imprisoned for ­treason—­for selling a national treasure to the enemy. Six weeks in custody sufficed to extract his confession: He was Vermeer. Few people believed ­him—­nobody, after all, likes being ­fooled—­until he forged one last Ver­meer for the authorities. Convicted of lesser fraud charges and sentenced to a year in prison, he died in 1947, before serving a ­day.

Van Meegeren’s patrons were not rich, uninformed collectors, people with all the money in the world and no taste. Rather, they represented major museums, galleries, and private collections. Wynne speculates, correctly, that nationalism and wartime anxiety fueled the intense bidding for the fakes. As the world came undone, the least the Dutch could do was preserve their cultural heritage. To seal the deals, the forger relied on the art world’s overly cozy network of buyers, critics, and museum curators. That world, like all small worlds, protects its own. After van Meegeren’s deceptions were made plain, few people sought to press charges. Most didn’t want to acknowledge publicly that they’d been duped. Others simply refused to accept the truth. One critic insisted that van Meegeren was a boastful liar, and prided himself on having rescued the fakes from being destroyed, as Dutch law ­dictates.

Van Meegeren understood, as other forgers do, that the stamp of authenticity can trump art. The proof, however spurious and ­cobbled ­together, that a painting is by Vermeer (or any other ­name-­brand artist) is at least as important as the quality of the work. It was enough for the forger to create a plausible resemblance to Vermeer. Van Meegeren’s early forgeries crassly combined elements of authentic paintings, ­cut-­and-­paste style, into pastiches. While he eventually became an accomplished mimic, he was never a great painter. But he didn’t need to be, for a painting’s market value derives not just from the quality of the individual canvas but largely from the reputation of its putative creator. Today the art world is not appreciably different. Wynne concludes with an object lesson: In 2004, casino developer Steve Wynn paid $30 million at auction for a Vermeer that is far from the artist’s ­best—­and one not all experts agree is ­authentic.

Everyone wanted van Meegeren’s forgeries to be masterpieces. The buyers and curators wanted desperately to acquire a Vermeer for their collections. The critics wanted, no less desperately, to claim responsibility for adding one more work to Vermeer’s ­all-­too-­slim catalogue raisonné. And experts such as Bredius wanted to confirm their pet theories. Pride and ­self-­regard colored judgment, and no one truly saw what he was looking at, because no one dared look ­closely.

The forger’s story may be read as an enduring fable about the art world. A modern-day Aesop might cast the tale with a wily crow and selfish foxes: One day, the crow set the foxes fighting for control of an apple. The apple, the crow swore, was unlike any other in the world, and the foxes chose to believe him. But the apple was really nothing special, and the crow, in the end, was found out and driven from the forest for its lies. But what of the foxes that desired blindly and wildly, and so were fooled? Should not they too learn a moral from such a ­story?

—Paul ­Maliszewski

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