This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty

Larry Holzwarth - April 6, 2021

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren appeared in a Dutch court with his forgeries hanging on the walls surrounding him. Dutch National Archives

15. Van Meegeren painted his last forgery before experts and the press

Between July and December, 1945, using his own prepared materials and techniques, van Meegeren painted Jesus Among the Doctors. He depicted a young Christ, with an open book on his lap, surrounded by scribes and teachers in the temple. Van Meegeren somewhat cheekily used the face of one of the witnesses supervising the work as the model for one of the men in the painting. When examined by experts independently, at least one declared the painting a genuine Vermeer. Only after being presented with the fact of one of the witnesses appearing in the painting did he change his view, though reluctantly.

Van Meegeren remained in custody for several weeks following completion of Jesus Among the Doctors. Armed with the knowledge of his techniques, including his process for aging the painting, the Goering Vermeer came under further scrutiny. Though some experts continued to affirm it as a genuine Vermeer, the majority accepted it as a forgery. The military authorities released van Meeregen in early 1946. The Dutch public acclaimed him as a national hero, and he played up his version of his story. Though personally nearly destitute, his fortune remained accessible through the co-operation of his ex-wife, who claimed she had had no knowledge of his fraudulent activities. The Dutch government took possession of the Goering painting, as well as Jesus Among the Doctors.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Jesus Among the Doctors, in the style of Johannes Vermeer, the last forgery created by Han van Meegeren. Dutch National Archives

16. Dutch authorities prosecuted van Meegeren for fraud in 1947

In October, 1947, Dutch prosecutors brought van Meegeren to trial for fraud, based on his confession of creating several authorities. The Goering painting appeared among the collection of works alleged to have been forged. Van Meegeren faced a maximum sentence of two years if convicted. To aid their decision, the court commissioned a panel to examine the paintings van Meegeren claimed to have forged. The paintings displayed in the court room and examined by the experts included 8 alleged Vermeer and Frans Hals works. Commissioners, art experts from France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. A chemical expert from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium conducted tests which revealed the use of Bakelite in the paintings. Bakelite did not exist during the lifetime of Johannes Vermeer.

The commissioners found other evidence of the paintings being of modern vintage, rather than 17th century origin. Though some disagreed, and continued to argue that several of the paintings were genuine works of Vermeer, as recently as in the 1990s. The court sided with the commission’s findings, and convicted van Meegeren of fraud and forgery, on November 12, 1947. Rather than accept the prosecutor’s demand for a two-year sentence, the maximum under the law, it sentenced him to one year in prison. Van Meegeren remained free for two weeks, while preparing an appeal. He returned to his luxurious estate to consider his options. He enjoyed enormous popularity with the Dutch people, who regarded him as a war hero.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren”s The Last Supper, on display in Rotterdam in 1984. Wikimedia

17. Van Meegeren did not have long to revel in his popularity

Other than his period in the custody of the military authorities, Han van Meegeren enjoyed a profligate lifestyle for more than four decades. He drank heavily throughout his life, and also used both morphine and opium. He chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes from rising in the morning until retiring at night. During the war years his lifestyle began to erode his skills with brush and palette, but by then the majority of his forgeries were completed. His painting done before witnesses while in military custody revealed some of his deterioration, though some attributed it to his working before witnesses and under pressure.

Immensely popular, he spent the two weeks allowed for him to prepare his appeal or settle his affairs at home. He had the freedom of the neighborhood, and moved about without hindrance. On November 26, the last day of the time allowed for his freedom, he suffered a massive heart attack. Sent to an Amsterdam hospital, he remained there until December 29, when a second heart attack struck him. He died the following day. Following his death, the Dutch courts ruled his estate should be liquidated and his property auctioned. The money thus raised would be used to compensate the purchasers of his forged paintings, and to pay back taxes on the sale of the forgeries.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren’s estate raised relatively little money for the Dutch authorities, thanks to his financial maneuvering. Dutch National Archives

18. Most of van Meegeren’s ill-gotten gains remained outside the reach of the courts

Throughout his questioning and court appearances, van Meegeren adamantly insisted that his wife knew nothing of his forgeries, or the money which they brought. He claimed she never entered his studios when he worked, and had little interest in how he made his money. Neither the military investigators nor the Dutch civil authorities challenged his assertions, and no evidence of her involvement appeared. The vast majority of his fortune, including most if not all of the income from his forgeries, transferred to her in their divorce. In the absence of her being charged with collusion in his crimes, her money enjoyed protection from civil action against her ex-husband.

Jesus Among the Doctors sold at the court-ordered auction of van Meegeren’s estate. It brought the equivalent of about $7,000 in today’s value. The entire auction raised only about $500,000 in today’s funds, while his former wife retained most of the money his forgeries and other work had raised. Estimates are that van Meegeren earned, if that is the word, about $50 million during his lifetime, most of it through his forgeries. Despite the revelation that van Meegeren sent an inscribed copy of his book of art to Adolph Hitler, he remained immensely popular among the Dutch for decades. The inscription to Hitler read, “To my beloved Fuhrer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942”. Van Meegeren claimed he merely signed the book, and someone added the inscription later. Handwriting experts established both are from the same hand.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
The Washing of the Feet, long believed to have been a Vermeer, was another van Meegeren forgery. Wikimedia

19. Van Meegeren retained near mythic status among the Dutch for decades

As happens with many artists, van Meegeren’s death ushered in a period when the prices commanded by his paintings rose sharply. Both those signed with his name, and the forgeries he created in the styles of masters increased in value. Van Meegeren created hundreds of paintings which bore his signature during his lifetime, normally a deterrent to higher prices, based on supply and demand. The man whose work once drew the derision of critics became a highly desired source for art collectors. Inevitably, shortly after his death, forgeries bearing his signature began to appear in the international art markets. The forger became a target for other forgers, one of whom was van Meegeren’s own son.

Jacques van Meegeren trained with his father, and possibly assisted him in his work as a forger. Following the death of Han, Jacques created several forgeries in his father’s style. He signed them with his father’s name, rather than attempting to create other works by the old masters. By doing so, he eliminated the requirement to age the paintings. Jacques was far from the only painter to create works in his father’s style, many of which remained unidentified. However, he failed to attain the level of success realized by Han van Meegeren, and died in 1977, leaving behind a small estate. As a result of his work and that of other forgers, an unknown number of fake van Meegeren’s continue to hang in galleries today.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren’s inscription to Adolf Hitler, sent in a copy of his own book of drawings and art during World War II. Wikimedia

20. Van Meegeren remains a controversial figure in both art and Dutch history

To some Dutch van Meegeren is a national hero for his defiant defrauding of the Nazi occupiers of their homeland during the Second World War. If he did deliberately scam Hermann Goering it certainly placed him at considerable risk. One can imagine the wrath, and the reprisals, had Goering learned of the fraud while still in power. Others argue that van Meegeren defrauded the Dutch courts by creating the myth of his defiance of the Germans. They point out the painter’s manipulation of the legal system to retain the wealth he obtained through his forgeries in sales to collectors of several nationalities. They also point out that many of the properties purchased by van Meegeren came from those fleeing the Germans before the occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.

His paintings, both his forgeries and original works, continued to be displayed in galleries, museums, churches, libraries, and private collections. Van Meegeren may have summed up his life in an interview, in which he described his relationship with his father. According to the painter, his father once told him, “You are a cheat and always will be”. His painting, Jesus Among the Doctors, painted to prove he was a fraud and a cheat, is today displayed in a church. Christ with the Adulteress once hung in Carinhall as the pride of Hermann Goering. Today it is displayed in the Museum de Fundatie, Zwolle, Netherlands. And the search for previously unknown paintings by Johannes Vermeer continues to be a Holy Grail of the world of fine art.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A New Vermeer: Life and Work of Han van Meegeren”. Frederik H. Kreuger. 2007

“I was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the 20th Century’s Greatest Forger”. Frank Wynne. 2006

“The Vermeer Forgeries: The story of Han van Meegeren”. Jan Baesjou. 1956

“Han van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers”. Article, Essential Online

“How Mediocre Dutch Artist Cast ‘The Forger’s Spell'”. Article, National Public Radio. July 12, 2008. Online

“Art Forger Han van Meegeren Fooled the World into Believing His Fake Vermeers”. Karen Chernick, Artnet News. November 10, 2020. Online

“Fake or Fortune: Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). Article, BBC One. Online

“Dutch Master: The art forger who became a national hero”. Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker. October 20, 2008

“The source of infamous forger Han van Meegeren’s secret supplies exposed”. Martin Bailey, The Art Newspaper. September 30, 2020

“A Brief History of a Master Forger: Han van Meegeren”. Tom Coggins, Culture Trip. September 26, 2016

“The Art Forger Who Became a National Hero”. Article, Priceonomics. September, 24, 2014.

“The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren”. Jonathan Lopez. 2009

“Art in Action: The Story of Han van Meegeren”. Darla, McCammon, Ink Free News. June 4, 2020. Online

“The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century”. Edward Dolnick. 2009

“The Artist and the Forger: Han van Meegeren and Mark Hofman”. Edward L. Kimball, Brigham Young University Studies. Online