By Darla McCammon
We learned last week that Han Van Meegeren achieved his goal of proving himself an artist that could create masterpieces.
Unfortunately, no one but him knew he was the talent behind his famous Vermeer forgeries. His work was purchased by royalty, the Netherlands government, and even a famous Nazi art collector, the brutal Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s henchmen.
The Nazi connection became the downfall of Van Meegeren. World War II was nearing an end in 1945 and somehow, Meegeren had been traced through details of the sale of what was believed to be an authentic Vermeer. The painting ended up in the hands of Field-Marshal Hermann Göring. The authenticity of the painting was not being questioned by Netherland authorities, but rather a case of treason was brought against Van Meegeren for collaborating with the enemy! What a conundrum for Van Meegeren. The punishment for treason was death. The crime of forgery did not carry the threat of a death penalty.
Van Meegeren found himself in an impossible situation. No one believed his story–that he had forged the painting in question. Not only that, he informed them, he had negotiated a trade for the Vermeer in exchange for 200 Dutch paintings—all originals. Disbelief mounted when he told the court he had painted two ”Pieter de Hoochs” and at least five additional fake Vermeers during the period from 1937 till the date of his arrest in May of 1945.
His claims were met with ridicule and disbelief. He countered with the argument that he was actually a national hero for foisting off the fraudulent work The Woman Taken in Adultery to the Nasty Nazis.
It was almost two years later in Amsterdam in October 1947 when the trial of Meegeren took place.
In an incredible concession, the court decided to allow Meegeren to demonstrate his ability to create a masterpiece in order to prove his innocence. The courtroom was arranged so that he would have all the supplies and materials necessary to duplicate his talent. He would be under guard and it was decided he would paint another “Vermeer” titled Jesus Among the Doctors.
He was required to work just as he had on his other forgeries. As his work progressed he shared insights with onlookers: “I was spurred by the disappointment of receiving no acknowledgments from artists and critics—I determined to prove my worth as a painter by making a perfect seventeenth-century canvas.”
The court avidly watched and learned some of his secret tactics, including using aged canvas and supporting frames, paint that fit the time period and that looked hardened by age, and other secrets. He talked openly about how he duped his clients and even professionals in the art world. He told how he had tricked the art world with the help of an art critic in his famous Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus.
He built on that success to try new forgeries and told the court how he used intermediaries to help him “find” work that had been supposedly lost and now mysteriously was found through some estate sale or other believable method.
Meegeren’s work along with his chatter evidently convinced the jurors to the point that his charges were changed to forgery. He was ordered to spend one year in jail. He told a questioning reporter, “I’m sure about one thing: if I die in jail, they will just forget all about it. My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money but for art’s sake.”
Van Meegeren’s story led to huge changes in the international art establishment where considerable embarrassment prevailed as details of the successful forgeries came out. Learn more about this next week.