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 created some of his early forgeries in this residence, a villa called Primavera, in the South of France. Wikimedia

6. Van Meegeren developed a new technique to “age” his forgeries

When a forger “ages’ a painting he really does nothing more than deceive the experts to accept the work as older than it really is. Aging a 19th century painting meant making it appear to have existed for two centuries by simulating the passage of time. Van Meegeren started the process by purchasing 17th century paintings of little comparative value and washing the paint from the canvas. His forgeries always appeared on canvas of the proper age, and thus of the proper material. When mixing his paints he added phenol formaldehyde, a component of the recently discovered early plastic, Bakelite. The Bakelite hardened the paints to the condition of the perceived age over the expended period of time. Tests to detect its presence did not exist in the early 20th century.

The finished paintings were baked at low temperatures, over several hours, further hardening the paint. Van Meegeren then rolled the paintings over drums, creating the cracks which emerge in paintings as they endure the ravages of time. Finally, he washed the paintings with India Ink, filling in the cracks. The aging process created an image of a painting which appeared to have been from the 17th century. Still, it remained Van Meegeren’s skill as an artist and student of the master who’s works he forged as the most critical factor in deceiving the experts. His process only helped to succeed in convincing the experts his forgeries were genuine. In this manner, he created forgeries attributed to Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, and several others, fooling experts and collectors alike.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Portrait painted by Han van Meegeren in 1942. His signature appears in the lower right corner. Wikimedia

7. Van Meegeren created enough paintings in his own name to conceal the source of his wealth

Despite the lack of critical success, Van Meegeren remained in high regard as a painter of portraits and landscapes, as well as still life paintings, in prewar Europe. He remained a prolific artist, signing his original works with his own name. The steady work helped conceal the source of his income from the forgeries as Europe lurched towards World War II. It also helped him isolate himself as the source of the growing number of “new” paintings from the Dutch Masters were “found” in Europe. Using the network of agents and appraisers he built across Europe, he routed the forgeries to art experts and museum curators through third parties. He payed them hefty percentages to keep him anonymous. Few, if any, of the forgeries could be traced back directly to him, even had anyone become suspicious.

In 1938, van Meegeren purchased a mansion in Nice, in the south of France. There he created additional forgeries, in the styles of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. After France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, van Meegeren returned to his native Holland, settling in Laren, near Amsterdam. He began to invest heavily in real estate, often purchasing properties from Jews fleeing the Netherlands in fear of an impending German invasion. He also invested in fine art, including paintings and statuary, and continued to paint himself. During the war he remained in the Netherlands, acquiring a large estate near Amsterdam, and created several further forgeries in the style of Johannes Vermeer, At least one emulated the famed Girl With a Pearl Earring. Another he titled, Christ With the Adultress, and signed it as by Vermeer.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
The Supper at Emmaus, painted by van Meegeren as a forged Vermeer in 1937. Wikimedia

8. Van Meegeren enjoyed a decadent and opulent lifestyle during the war years

Van Meegeren enjoyed his celebrity as a painter, and the wealth his hidden life as a forger brought him, before and during World War II. He hosted lavish parties in France and later in Amsterdam. His second wife was a noted actress, Johanna van Walraven. His parties included political notables, wealthy bankers and art collectors, musicians and other celebrities, and during the war, German administrators and military leaders. He drank heavily, beginning in the morning every day, and in order to sleep took sleeping pills containing morphine. He eventually became addicted to the morphine, and required other drugs to counter its effects, allowing him to work. Van Meegeren also smoked heavily, cigarettes, cigars, and according to some, opium.

His fame was such that he had no qualms about sending an inscribed copy of his own book of drawings and other artworks to Adolf Hitler in 1942. Hitler, himself a failed painter, kept the book at his home in Berchtesgaden, discovered there by American troops in 1945. Van Meegeren’s health failed noticeably during the war years, as his lifestyle began to take its toll. Nonetheless, he continued in the same vein throughout the war, and continued to produce both legitimate work in his own name, and forgeries in the name of the masters. By 1945 he owned, according to his own records, 67 properties including over a dozen mansions on the canals of Amsterdam, as well as the homes earlier purchased in France.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
A landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael, one of many Dutch paintings acquired by Alois Miedl for German leaders during World War II. Wikimedia

9. Alois Miedl and Van Meegeren worked together in the sale of art in Europe

The Munich born banker Alois Miedl served as a director in numerous German banks, as well as other companies, before moving to Amsterdam in 1932. There he frequented the homes of prominent citizens, including van Meegeren’s. He became a prominent figure in the art world, as a collector and agent for other collectors. Miedl’s half-Jewish wife made them welcome in the homes of prominent Dutch Jews, especially among the wealthy. Back in Germany, Miedl’s wealth and knowledge of art made him a friend of several prominent Nazi Party members. Miedl thus straddled both sides of the fence when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, at least to appearances.

In reality he was a major figure in the looting of art in the Netherlands, as well as in other countries, for leading Nazis as well as for himself. Miedl obtained art through blackmail, coercion, or simple confiscation when dealing with Jewish collectors. His nefarious activities did not limit themselves to art. Miedl seized businesses, and operated others as fronts for German organizations such as the Abwehr. He sheltered some Jews who worked as his agents from the Gestapo. Others, including two of his assistants, he turned over to the German and Dutch authorities. Miedl also worked, through agents and directly, with van Meegeren, buying and selling works of art for other notable collectors.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Hermann Goering during an art viewing trip in Amsterdam in 1941. Wikimedia

10. Van Meegeren painted a fake Vermeer which attracted Hermann Goering

The exact machinations which led to a fake Vermeer ending up in the hands of Hermann Goering remain unclear. Sometime prior to mid-1942 van Meegeren created a painting in the style of Vermeer and signed it with Vermeer’s name. Alois Miedl acquired the painting, called Christ with the Adulteress, in 1942. Whether or not he did so at the request of Hermann Goering remains murky, but Goering exchanged over 150 pieces of art, most of it looted, to acquire the fake Vermeer. Goering, an avid collector, had long wanted a Vermeer to display at his estate at Carinhall, near Berlin. He displayed it prominently, eagerly conducting guests to view his latest acquisition, which in his eyes added to his brilliance as an appraiser and collector of art.

The number two Nazi never learned, according to most historians, that the painting he displayed so proudly was a fake. Some anecdotes relate that he learned of it just before he took his own life, though there is little evidence to support them. Whether van Meegeren knew the painting’s ultimate destination was with Goering is also uncertain, since he gave many conflicting accounts of the deal in later years. At any rate, as the flamboyant, garishly made-up Goering strutted about Carinhall boasting of his taste, he described a painting upon which Johannes Vermeer’s eyes had never rested. In 1943 Christ with the Adulteress joined other works of art acquired by Goering hidden in a salt mine, along with the records of what the purchase cost him. He paid the highest price ever recorded for a painting up to that time.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Generals Omar Bradley, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower, inspect recovered art looted by the Germans during World War II. National Archives

11. The Monuments Men discovered Christ With the Adulteress in 1945

In early 1945, as the Nazi regime in Germany began to collapse, the Allies established teams of experts to track down the vast collection of art looted by the Nazis. Known colloquially as the Monuments Men, the teams faced an enormous task. The Nazis had stolen art from throughout Europe. As it became evident they would lose the war many of the German thieves moved their plunder into underground facilities, including salt mines. Goering moved most of his collection from Carinhall to salt mines in Bavaria and Austria. With Teutonic efficiency a meticulously prepared inventory, which included the provenance of most of the works, accompanied his collection into storage.

The Monuments Men discovered Goering’s stash in 1945. Using his inventory, the teams were surprised to learn of the existence of a previously unknown Vermeer, Christ With the Adulteress. The Monuments Men, all of whom were experts in art, unanimously agreed the painting was an authentic Vermeer. Goering’s inventory allowed them to trace the painting from Goering to Miedl, and from Miedl to van Meegeren. The evidence indicated the latter had been assisting the Nazis in plundering art which legally was the property of the Dutch Republic. Authorities traveled to Amsterdam to question van Meegeren about the provenance of the painting, and whether he had illegally corroborated with the Nazi regime during the occupation of the Netherlands. They also traveled to Spain to question Miedl. Miedl immune from prosecution thanks to Ferdinand Franco’s protection, provided useful information implicating van Meegeren.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Han van Meegeren faced charges of collaboration with the enemy for looting Dutch national property in the 1940s. Dutch National Archives

12. Van Meegeren anticipated being exposed as a forger

In 1943, van Meegeren and his wife divorced. As part of the divorce settlement, most of his properties and nearly all of his fortune transferred to her name. Prior to the divorce neither van Meegeren nor his wife considered their wedding vow of forsaking all others as being little more than a suggestion. Nonetheless, following the divorce they continued to live together, to all appearances remaining husband and wife. Following his eventual arrest, speculation arose the divorce had simply been a means of protecting the bulk of his fortune from seizure by the authorities. Whether his wife knew of his forgeries remains a subject of debate among historians. At any rate, the authorities never charged his wife, or rather his ex-wife, with being involved in his crimes.

Confronted with the painting and Goering’s inventory, van Meegeren at first denied knowledge of the sale by Miedl to the Nazi leader. Miedl had long before fled to Spain, where he enjoyed some protection from Franco’s government. Allied authorities dismissed van Meegeren’s claim, placing him in danger of being charged with collaboration with the Nazis, a crime which carried the possibility of the death penalty. Van Meegeren considered his options. He could deny the charge of collaboration and risk conviction at trial. Or he could reveal the painting to be a forgery, and thus his personal property, rather than Dutch property. Doing so exposed him to charges as a forger, which carried a short prison sentence, along with financial penalties.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren chose to present himself as a Dutch hero who deliberately defrauded Nazi leaders during the war. Wikimedia

13. Van Meegeren opted to make his crime a heroic act of defiance

On May 29, 1945, Dutch authorities arrested van Meegeren and charged him with selling Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. Labeled a collaborationist, he sat in Weteringschans Prison in Amsterdam, where the Nazis had held Jews and political prisoners prior to deportation. Finally he requested an interview with Allied authorities and the press, where he announced Christ With the Adulterous had been forged by his own hands. He presented himself as willfully defrauding Hermann Goering as an act of defiance against the Nazi leaders, which had placed him at considerable risk. He hinted that part of the proceeds had supported the Dutch Resistance. The authorities didn’t believe him.

Van Meegeren then went further, identifying several Vermeers and paintings allegedly by Pieter de Hooch he had forged. The art experts who had previously claimed the paintings as genuine argued that van Meegeren simply lied to save his own skin. Most continued to claim the forgeries were legitimate works by the Dutch masters whose name appeared upon them. Van Meegeren’s claims of deliberately defrauding Goering fell on deaf ears. He had to prove he was guilty of the crime of fraud through forgery, and thus innocent of collaboration with the enemy. In order to do so he suggested to the authorities that he create another forgery, in the style of Vermeer, while under their close supervision. The Dutch authorities transferred him to military custody while he created his final forgery.

This Art Forger Had to Prove His Work Was Fake To Escape the Death Penalty
Van Meegeren painting a “Vermeer” before witnesses in 1945. Dutch National Archives

14. Van Meegeren claimed to have recovered Dutch cultural property during the war

Much of the remuneration received by van Meegeren had been in the form of other pieces of art. The transfers appeared in Goering’s inventory, and when interviewed in Spain by Allied officers, Miedl confirmed them. Van Meegeren used the transfer of paintings to support his claims of defrauding Goering. In yet another version of his story, he announced he defrauded Goering, in part, to recover pieces of art looted from private collections and Dutch museums and churches. Van Meegeren appealed to the people, through the press, in effect painting an image of himself as a Dutch hero wrongfully persecuted for his actions. Although he lived in considerable luxury throughout the war, he tried to appear as one who sacrificed for the benefit of the people.

Van Meegeren’s claims of painting all of his forgeries as a means of defrauding the Nazis didn’t include those which surfaced as “found” Vermeer paintings before the war. He still faced the dilemma presented by experts who continued to opine his forgeries were in fact genuine Vermeer’s. None of the experts wished to admit they had been duped and they continued to protect their personal and professional reputations. According to some sources, around this time (Autumn, 1945) Hermann Goering received the information that his cherished Vermeer had been a forgery. Though there does not appear to be documented evidence to support the claim, Goering is often reported to have been enraged.

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 Vermeer.com. 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

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