Hermann Goering was very proud of his Vermeer. He fancied himself as a great art collector, and Christ with the Woman taken in Adultery, an early work by the Dutch master, had a place of honour in the grandest room of his grandest home. He had paid a high price for it, and it seems that even when the Reich was collapsing around him in 1945, he still spoke of how precious it was.
Only it wasn't a Vermeer at all, but the work of a Dutch forger called Han van Meegeren, who dashed it off in a few weeks in 1942 and pretended that it had been passed to him for sale by a noble family fallen on hard times. Deliciously, we know not only that the Reichsmarschall was royally conned, but that the con was revealed to him not long before his suicide in 1946. The news, it seems, came as a shock: "He looked as if for the first time he had discovered evil in the world."
You might at this stage want to set up a cheer for van Meegeren, all the more so when you learn that, instead of accepting money for his little fake - a fee equivalent to about £7m had been negotiated - he insisted that Goering return looted paintings to the Netherlands by way of payment. But the odd truth is that, though some did indeed regard him as a hero (helped by the fact that he also made fools of some very pompous art experts), it is hard to admire van Meegeren. As Frank Wynne's well-turned account of his life makes clear, he wasn't just a mischievous fraud, but combined all the worst traits of the professional deceiver: in particular, vanity and vengefulness.
It wasn't for nothing that the Dutch put him on trial after the war and convicted him of forgery and fraud (though his one-year sentence was the lightest possible). For van Meegeren had cheated them, too - his fakes hung in the country's great public galleries - and he also cheated the sublime Vermeer himself.
The best of the fakes was The Supper at Emmaus, sold before the war to the principal public gallery in Rotterdam, the Boymans, for roughly £3m in today's money. Shrewdly contrived to fill a gap in the painter's early oeuvre, and scientifically prepared to pass the basic tests of the day, it is still an unprepossessing work. No one who studies it, even in a larger reproduction than the tiny one in this book - or even in the flesh, for it is still in the Boymans collection - could ever fall in love with the artist in the way people do with the painter of The Milkmaid, The View of Delft and The Girl With a Pearl Earring. You can see how the fakes came to be accepted as immature Vermeers or bad Vermeers, and there are a few of those, but these works don't come within a mile of a good Vermeer. Van Meegeren couldn't paint eyes, for one thing.
Naturally that's easy for me to say now, knowing that van Meegeren confessed, and the strength of this book lies in the way it teases out the wrinkles of perception and understanding that the forger exploits. Do I dislike the Emmaus just because I know it's a fraud? Would The Lacemaker be a worse painting if it turned out to have been painted in 1940? Why should we trust experts who can get things so wrong?
Wynne plainly has a sneaking regard for forgers and their ability to subvert a self-important art world, but even he can't like van Meegeren, the failed painter who set out to avenge himself on the establishment and turned into a sort of artistic Harold Shipman - dissipated, destructive, hugely proud of his great secret and a bit of a Nazi to boot. Extraordinarily lucky in many ways, the forger had one last piece of good fortune, which was to drop dead on the day of his conviction in 1947. Some shreds of heroism still attach to the man who conned Goering, but even they would surely have been blown away if he had done his time in prison and then emerged into sustained public scrutiny.