May 29th 1945. Netherlands. Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter of some fame, is arrested for collaboration with the Nazis. The investigators are accusing him to have sold a painting – Christ with the Adultress, attributed to Vermeer – to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for 1.65 million guilders (approximately 7 million dollars of today). If this accusation is proved, this is treason and van Meegeren will be sentenced to death.
Who is Han van Meegeren?
He was considered a modest painter but a really good connoisseur of the Dutch Golden Age painters, particularly Johannes (Jan) Vermeer: one of the greatest painters of the time.
Van Meegeren did complete his studies at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and some of his early paintings were exposed for some time in 1917. In 1919, he was also accepted as a select member to the Haagse Kunstkring, an exclusive society of writers and painters.
His enthusiasm for the Dutch Golden Age paintings probably started when he was a child but, when, much later, art critics were not expressing good opinions regarding some of his work, he felt extremely disappointed. Instead of abandoning his career in art, he decided to actually prove his talent in another way: by copying paintings of some of worlds most famous Dutch painters of the Golden Age! He was so good at this that Abraham Bredius, the at-the-time great expert of Dutch paintings, defined the Supper at Emmaus the “finest Vermeer he had ever seen”: it was painted by van Meegeren. But there is more: this painting was first acquired by the Rembrandt Society for 520,000 guilders (about 4 million dollars of today), then donated to the Museum Bojimans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, where it was highlighted with a few hundreds of other Dutch masterpieces dated between 1400 and 1800.
It has been calculated that, during his life, van Meegeren earned between 5.5 to 7.5 million guilders (around 25-30 million dollars of today) this way, which he used to acquire a significant amount of real estate, jewelry and works of art: in a late interview, he candidly admitted that he owned 52 houses and 15 country houses, including some beautiful mansions along the famous Amsterdam canals.
The truth is that one of van Meegeren’s agents sold the Christ with the Adulteress to Nazi banker and art dealer Alois Miedl in 1942. Experts could probably have identified that it was a forgery because, with time, van Meegeren’s health declined and so did the quality of work. But it couldn’t be compared to any other genuine Vermeer’s painting, since most museum collections were in protective storage as a prevention against war damage!
So the only way for van Meegeren to save his life was to admit that it was a forgery. Which he did. But nobody believed him. So he decided to give the world the ultimate proof of his ability: in the presence of court-appointed witnesses, he painted his last forgery, Jesus among the Doctors, also called Young Christ in the Temple, in the style of Vermeer!
It took between July and October 1945 to complete the painting and impress the jury! He was acquitted from the charges of collaboration with the Nazis and released from prison in February 1946.
But the public prosecutor then brought charges of forgery and fraud, and asked for a two-years sentence. The court commissioned an international group of experts to address the authenticity of van Meegeren’s paintings. They confirmed that most of them were forgery – though the matter has been debated for a long time until more advanced investigation techniques completely dissolved any doubt. And van Meegeren was finally found guilty of forgery and fraud and sentenced one year.
He never spent time in prison because of his very bad health. He finally died of the consequences of an heart attack on December 30th 1947.
His masterpieces of forgery
Starting from the work of the international group of experts, through the years, about 18 paintings have been re-attributed to van Meegeren instead of antique Dutch painters.
It is possible that other van Meegeren’s paintings hang in art collections all over the world, probably in the style of XVII century Dutch masters, maybe currently attributed Frans Hals and the school of Hals, Pieter de Hooch, and Gerard ter Borch: the Frans Hals catalogue mentions four paintings with the same names, attributed to Frans Hals or the “school of Frans Hals”, one of these could easily be by van Meegeren…. A painting called Smiling Girl hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has been recognised by the museum as a fake; it was attributed to a friend of van Meegeren, Theo van Wijngaarden, but might have been painted by van Meegeren.
All in all….
This is still generating curiosity today; in September 2012, two authors separately issued new versions of van Meegeren’s story – with updated details: Han van Meegeren Revisited by Frederik Kreuger and Master Art Forger – The Story Of Han van Meegeren by John Godley. It has also been inspiration for novelists like B.A. Shapiro with his The Art Forger: A Novel. Van Meegeren is even mentioned in Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel.
In reality, we still don’t know for sure which paintings are from the Dutch Golgen Age and which ones are van Meegeren’s lovable forgeries. But is it so important?
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