A Forger’s Choice Between Death for Treason, or Prison for Fake Masterpieces
Shortly after WWII ended in Europe, Han van Meegeren, a second-rate Dutch artist in recently-liberated Amsterdam, was accused of helping the Nazis plunder the Netherlands’ cultural heritage. He was charged with the procurement of valuable paintings by Dutch artists such as Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch for Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. Most notable was a previously unknown Vermeer, Christ With the Adulteress, that had been Goering’s pride and joy. The charges amounted to treason, and were punishable by death. He weighed his options, figured that imprisonment for forgery was better than death for treason, and came clean: each and every masterpiece he had sold to Goering was a fake. Van Meegeren exclaimed: “The painting in Goering’s hand is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!” To save his life, van Meegeren set out to prove that he was a forger.
Van Meegeren had graduated from art school in 1914, and worked as an assistant art professor. He supplemented his income with portraits, landscapes Christmas cards, and commercial paintings for advertisements. In the 1920s, he became relatively popular with paintings of a Dutch princess’s tame deer, that became popular with the masses. By the late 1920s, however, van Meegeren’s old school tastes had grown old. Critics, who had gravitated to modern art forms like Cubism and Surrealism, derided his work as derivative. To them, he was an unoriginal hack, who imitated the works of other artists. In response, he got into flame wars with his critics, and heatedly attacked them in art publications. By the time the dust settled in 1930, van Meegeren was an art world pariah.
Van Meegeren was wounded and angered by the criticism of his talents, so he set out to show his detractors. They said he merely imitated the old time Dutch Masters, so he decided to punk them, and produce a painting so good that it would rival the best works of the Dutch Golden Age. So good, in fact, that the critics couldn’t tell the difference. After years of experiments with forgery techniques, van Meegeren made his big move. In 1936, he painted The Supper at Emmaus in the style of Vermeer, handed it off to a lawyer friend, and claimed it was a hitherto “undiscovered” work by the famous Dutch Master. A renowned art historian examined it, accepted it as genuine, and praised it to the skies as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft“.
The Supper at Emmaus took the art world by storm. It was purchased for the equivalent of $6 million in 2022 dollars, and donated to a prominent Rotterdam museum. There, it featured prominently in a Dutch masterpieces exhibition. With the proceeds, van Meegeren bought himself a nice mansion in Nice, and began to pump it out more fake masterpieces. When WWII began, he moved back to the Netherlands, but the war caught up with him when Germany occupied the country in 1940. Nazi occupation did not cramp van Meegeren’s style, and he continued to produce forgeries and pass them off as originals. In 1942, one of his fake masterpieces, Christ With the Adulteress, by “Vermeer”, was sold to a Nazi art dealer, who in turn sold it to Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering for the equivalent of $8 million today.
This Master of Fake Masterpieces Had to Forge for His Life
Goering loved Christ With the Adulteress. It became his pride and joy, and was prominently showcased in his mansion. After the war, the Allies discovered Goering’s art collection – looted from all across Europe – stashed in a mine. Included was Christ With The Adulteress, along with receipts and documentation that linked it to van Meegeren. The sale of such a rare piece of Dutch cultural heritage to Hitler’s number two was collaboration with the Netherlands’ Nazi occupiers. Arrested and faced with charges punishable by death, van Meegeren had to fess up to save his life. He confessed that the “Vermeer” purchased by Goering was a fake that he had forged, along with many other paintings attributed to Dutch Masters. Understandably, the authorities were skeptical. So he offered to produce another forgery. He would literally forge for his life.
In the presence of reporters and court-appointed witnesses, van Meegeren forged another “Vermeer”. He used the same materials and techniques to produce Young Christ in the Temple, which experts acknowledged was produced by the same hand that had created the “masterpiece” bought by Goering. A witness described the then-imprisoned Goering’s discovery that his beloved Christ With The Adulteress had been a fake as that of a stunned innocent, who discovered for the first time that there is evil in the world. After van Meegeren demonstrated that he was merely a criminal and not a traitor, the prosecutors dropped the charges of treason and collaboration against him. He still went to jail for the art forgeries, but the revelation that he had conned the Nazis transformed him from a derided traitor into a national hero.
Excitement gripped America in the summer of 1835, as a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life on the Moon. In six articles, beginning on August 25th, the newspaper described how Sir John Herschel, the era’s greatest astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to glimpse the Moon’s surface. What he saw astonished him. “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Herschel had discovered planets in other solar systems, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“.
That was just a tip of the iceberg: Herschel had discovered life on the Moon. As per The Sun, Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon teemed with life. From his observatory in the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. Various animals roamed the lunar surface, such as goats, buffalos, walking beavers, and unicorns. In the air above them, flew human-like creatures with bat wings who built houses and temples. All of that was fake, of course, but what a fake it was, and what a stir it made.
As detailed by The Sun in a 17,000-word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science, Herschel had travelled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First, were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came blue goats, that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment. The biggest shocker came in the fourth installment: the discovery of hominids, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings.
“We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when public excitement grew into a fever pitch. It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility. The articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. Instead, they were taken as gospel truth. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the astronomical discoveries attributed to him, nor had he made any such lunar observations. It was, literally, fake news.
In 1875, American missionary parents in Hawaii welcomed to the world a new son, Hiram Bingham. As a child, he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps. As he grew up, however, Bingham realized that a missionary’s life was not for him: he liked football and outdoors activities far more than he liked Bible studies. Eventually, he went to Yale, then studied for a PhD in Harvard. Bingham hit the jackpot when he met, wooed, and married, the heiress to the Tiffany Jewelry fortune – a marriage that dismayed her parents. His wife’s money allowed him to indulge his passion for travel and exploration, and he took full advantage of that.
The history of the Inca Empire fascinated Bingham, and in 1911, he led an archaeological expedition in Peru. He wanted to find the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of Inca Manco Capac, who resisted the Spaniards into the 1530s. As he explored some ruins near Cuzco, however, he ran into a local farmer who told him there were more ruins up a nearby mountain. Bingham and his team walked and rode mules to the mountain top, where they discovered Machu Picchu. It had remained largely untouched throughout Peru’s Spanish colonial period. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
A Fake “Donation” that Played an Oversized Role in the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages’ greatest fake was the so-called “Donation of Constantine“. It was a document that recorded a generous gift from the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. It supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. Such vast territories elevated the popes from mere priests and religious leaders, to independent princes and sovereign rulers in their own right. In reality, the Donation was fake, forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine the Great and Sylvester I were dead and buried.
The forged text describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine from leprosy. That convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. To demonstrate his gratitude, Constantine made the pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast estates were also granted for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire. The fake document had little impact when it was concocted. Centuries later, however, amidst a period of political upheavals, the Donation greatly influenced Europe.
For Centuries, Few Questioned the Legitimacy of This Obviously Fake Document
After the Donation of Constantine was forged, it was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then Pope Leo IX dusted it off in the mid-eleventh century, and cited it to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the fake document was widely accepted as authentic, and few questioned its legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation carried significant weight whenever a pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers. It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that its authenticity was finally challenged.
With the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. The document used language and terms that did not exist in the fourth century, but only came into use hundreds of years later. It also contained dating errors that a person who wrote at the time could not have made. The popes did not officially renounce the Donation. From the mid-fifteenth century, however, they ceased to reference it in their Bulls and pronouncements.
Sir Thomas Chapman was a nineteenth century married baronet who left his family for his daughters’ governess. The couple assumed her surname, lived together, raised a family sans marriage as “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence”, and had five illegitimate children. The second was Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888 – 1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia. They eventually settled in Oxford, were Thomas Edward, who preferred to go by his initials T.E., attended college. Lawrence was a history buff from early on, particularly interested in medieval and military architecture. He also loved to travel, and spent much of his youth exploring old churches and castles.
Lawrence travelled to France to study medieval fortifications, and to Syria and Palestine to study Crusader castles. A thesis on the subject earned him a history degree with honors from Oxford, in 1910. He then secured a fellowship, and joined an archaeological expedition that excavated Hittite settlements on the Euphrates, from 1911 to 1914. On his free time, he travelled around the Middle East, and became familiar with the region and its peoples. The lands in which he worked and travelled was part of the Ottoman Empire, of whose leanings in case of a general European war the British were unsure. So Lawrence, under the guise of scholarly pursuits, undertook reconnaissance missions in Ottoman territories. The results proved valuable in World War I.
When WWI began in 1914, T.E. Lawrence joined the British War Office as a civilian employee, tasked with preparing militarily useful maps of the Middle East. Sent to Cairo, his knowledge of the region and fluency in Arabic proved valuable. He interviewed Turkish POWs and agents who operated behind enemy lines, and gained considerable knowledge of Turkish military positions and strengths. In 1916, he was sent to Arabia, where Hussein ibn Ali, ruler of Mecca and its environs, rose in revolt against his Turkish overlords. Lawrence urged his superiors to back the Arabs, and use their aspirations for independence to further the British war effort.
His advice was heeded, and Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt as a political and liaison officer. That was when his legend took off, and he morphed from T.E. Lawrence into Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence helped organize the Arab tribesmen into an effective guerrilla force. It operated behind Turkish lines in hit and run attacks that blew up vital rail lines, destroyed bridges, and raided enemy supplies. Lawrence, the historian, archaeologist, and scholar, discovered a knack for guerrilla warfare. He set an example with his own courage when the tribesmen’s spirits flagged, bribed their cynical leaders with gold when they lost heart, and kept the rebellion alive.
In November, 1917, Lawrence of Arabia was captured by the Turks as he spied on them in Arab garb. His captors flogged, tortured, and sodomized him before he managed to escape. The experience left physical scars, as well as psychic wound that never healed. It did not stop him from getting back into the fight, however. With his assistance, the Arab forces discomfited the Turks. They tied down many of their soldiers behind the lines in security operations, and sped up the final Turkish defeat. After the war, the Allies betrayed the Arabs, reneged on their promises of independence, and carved up most of the Middle East amongst themselves.
Disillusioned, Lawrence returned to Britain, where he lobbied in vain for Arab independence. He also wrote his memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which flew off the bookshelves, became an international best seller, and transformed Lawrence into a bona fide legend. To escape the public glare, he enlisted under an assumed name as an ordinary airman in the RAF, and then as a private soldier in the British Army, from 1922 to 1935. He left the service in 1935, planning an early retirement to his dream home, only to die soon thereafter in a motorcycle accident.
The Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnasus (circa 484 – circa 425 BC) is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he is credited with writing the first great historical narrative of the ancient world. He travelled widely, or at least claimed to have done so – some significant errors in descriptions of placed he supposedly visited have given cause for doubt. Herodotus collected the stories he gathered from his own travels, or from the hearsay of other travelers, into The Histories.
That work records ancient politics, geography, and cultures, and is widely seen as Western literature’s first history book. However, Herodotus is also known to critics as “The Father of Lies”, because his writings included not only some wrong details, but some major whoppers, as well. Not only modern scholars, but even some of Herodotus’ contemporaries, scoffed at his claims. Today, many question whether Herodotus had ever traveled beyond Greece. He might have simply collected his stories from people he encountered at home.
The Writings of Herodotus Were Full of Fake Accounts
Some of more far-fetched fake tales recounted by Herodotus explain why many saw and see him as “The Father of Lies”. A typical whopper was his narrative about a protracted struggle between giant one-eyed Cyclopes and half-eagle, half-lion, griffins, who inhabited northern Europe. Per Herodotus, the griffins roosted over and guarded stockpiles of gold, which were frequently raided by the one-eyed giants. Herodotus did not narrate this story as a myth, but as something he believed to be gospel truth.
Another tall tale was about giant, gold-digging ants. As he told it, fox-sized ants lived in the Persian Empire’s eastern provinces, in deserts whose sands abounded with gold dust. As they dug their anthills, mounds, and tunnels, they unearthed the gold dust, and the locals grew wealthy sifting through their excavations. Few if any Greeks had ever been to the faraway lands described by Herodotus. So for centuries, they treated Herodotus’ fake tales of weirdness in distant lands as literal truths.
The Transformation of a Native American Myth Into a Widely-Accepted Fake Tale
The legend of El Dorado changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually altered with each retelling, until the final recipient hears something completely different. It began with the first Spaniards who came across the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard tales of chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, then rowed into Lake Guatavita, northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The first Spaniards to hear the tale named such chiefs El Hombre Dorado, Spanish for “the golden man”. Over the years and many retellings,El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold. Then it was a kingdom of gold. Finally, a legend grew of a fabulously wealthy empire, that had more gold than the rest of the world put together.
The fake story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered plenty of real life gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior. Many Spanish Conquistadores and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado narrative of a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. The lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city fueled various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold.
Many Lost Their Lives in a Quest to Find This Fake City
Those who stuck with the original version of the Muisca story, about tribal chiefs who dropped golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than that partial success, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.
One jinxed search was carried out by the English courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, Raleigh was too enfeebled by age to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. It ended in disaster, and the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh. When he returned to England, King James I ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
A Philosopher’s Fake City, That Many Came to Believe is Real
Plato kicked off the legend of Atlantis circa 360 BC, when he wrote in his Critias and Timaeus dialogues about a utopian, advanced, and dramatically lost country that vanished beneath the waves. In popular culture nowadays, Atlantis is presented as a peaceful and wise country, an idealized model of what humanity could be. That was not Plato’s Atlantis, though. He wrote about a rich, technologically advanced, and militarily powerful country that was corrupted by its power. It tried to conquer the world, and the good guys in Plato’s narrative were not the Alanteans, but Athens and her allies, who fought back. If Plato’s Atlantis existed today, it would be Wakanda’s evil sibling: rather than help the world, it would try to conquer and enslave us all.
That Atlantis, eventually sunk by the gods as punishment for its people’s hubris and moral decline, was fake – a fictional plot device to advance some philosophical points. Centuries later, many began to believe that Atlantis was real, and tried to prove its existence. The legend’s modern era revival and its transformation into popular pseudoscience can be traced back to a nineteenth century amateur historian and Congressman, Ignatius Donnelly. He wrote an 1882 book, The Antedeluvian World, in which he added new “facts” that became part of the Atlantis myth. He also theorized that all major human advances can be traced back to Plato’s sunken island.
The Modern Era Quacks Who Popularized the Notion that Atlantis Was Real
Ignatius Donnelly’s claims were dismissed by serious scholars. However, some writers took his version of Atlantis, and ran with it. Most prominent among them were a mystic named Madame Blavatsky, and a famous psychic named Edgar Cayce. Cayce imparted a Christian spin to the story, and gave psychic readings in which he claimed that many of his clients had led past lives in Atlantis. He also predicted that Atlantis would be discovered in 1969. It was not, despite Plato’s specificity about its location. The philosopher wrote of an island bigger than Asia (what Greeks called Asia Minor back then) and Libya put together, situated in the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, just past the Straits of Gibraltar.
Those who advocated that Atlantis was real and not a fake fictional account, argued that he was mistaken, or that for his own reasons, he sought to mislead. Over the years, there have been great advances in submarine, deep sea probe, oceanography, and ocean floor mapping technologies. Despite such progress, no evidence has emerged that Plato’s fable described a real place. Although the ocean deep is still full of mysteries, it is difficult to miss a submerged landmass bigger than Asia Minor and Libya. Nonetheless, the notion of a lost advanced civilization titillates people’s imaginations, so it is unlikely that the legend of Atlantis will die off anytime soon.
Archaeological Proof of the Biblical Accounts of Giant Men?
On October 16th, 1869, as workers dug a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York, they struck stone about three feet down. As they cleared the soil around the obstruction, a huge foot was revealed. The workers continued to dig, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a ten-foot-tall man. As news spread, archaeologists, scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm. He charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity, but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While it seemed to many observant people to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.
Skeptics had the right of it, as the Cardiff giant was actually a fake. It was a statue created by an atheist named George Hull after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the giants had once inhabited the earth. Hull bought a ten-foot block of Gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago. There, he swore a stonecutter to secrecy, and commissioned him to shape it into the likeness of a man. Chemicals were applied to give it an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface to make it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.
Calling a Fake a Fake is Not Grounds for a Lawsuit
Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fake and a fraud. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity. In the meantime, crowds of the curious and faithful came in ever greater numbers. George Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $60,000 in 2022 dollars, sold his share to a syndicate for about $600,000 in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever larger crowds.
Eventually, huckster PT Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City. He declared that his was the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, and gave rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants were fake, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading