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26 January 2021

From the NS archive: The Van Meegeren affair

1 April 1950: The too-good-to-be-true “new” Vermeers.

By John Richardson

On 1 April 1950 – a propitious date for a book about fakery – the distinguished art historian John Richardson (later famous for his work on Picasso) reviewed Dr P Coremans’ “Van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers and De Hooghs”, a new study of the celebrated Dutch art forger Han Van Meegeren. It was only five years since the revelation that a number of “new” paintings by Vermeer were in fact the forgeries of an embittered and mediocre artist. Van Meegeren claimed they were made to foil the Nazis and save the national heritage from looting, but forgeries were in fact made to revenge himself on art experts who had failed to appreciate his worth. What mystified Richardson, however, was why no one had called out the paintings as fakes years earlier since, “with ‘their hair just washed and combed’, these androgynous Christ figures with the heavy-lidded eyes of a Dietrich and enormous heads could not have been painted earlier than 1860”.

***

All too seldom do we have the opportunity of enjoying one of the most pleasurable of all spectacles – the exposure of a specialist as a booby. When the news broke in 1945 that a number of accepted masterpieces by Vermeer were in fact the work of a drunken little charlatan called Van Meegeren, the public were overjoyed. They took the meanest delight in being revenged on the tribe of experts who had bamboozled them for so long with talk of technical niceties. Once again science, the hero of the hour, was triumphant; for when the mask fell finally from the faker’s face it was in a laboratory, far from the book-lined sanctum of any connoisseur.

In this book Dr Coremans exposes in detail, with many illustrations and diagrams, the technical nature of the forgeries; he also chronicles their conception and discovery. As Dr Coremans shows, Van Meegeren originally copied pictures out of hatred for the official world of art historians, aestheticians, critics and connoisseurs who disregarded his own indifferent work. They were right; it was abominably slick and vulgar. Later he certainly faked for profit and made some £600,000 out of it, but this was only after the success of his first big Vermeer, Disciples at Emmaus, bought for the equivalent of £52,000 by the Rembrandt Society, and given to the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam.

Although Van Meegeren took several years to perfect his plans for the fabrication of this picture, it was not until 1936 that he actually started painting it, using an old canvas from which he had carefully scraped most of a picture by Hondius. “For six or seven months he isolated himself in his villa at Roquebrune, where he worked with the fierce determination of proving that he was more than a third-rate painter.” Selling the finished work was more of a problem. Van Meegeren invented a pedigree for the picture which involved a castle in Holland, a Dutch family who emigrated to the South of France with a collection of pictures and a woman called Mavroeke, supposedly in love with the faker himself. He then employed an agent who extracted a certificate for the picture out of Dr Bredius. In due course, a sale ensued. Subsequent forgeries were easy to dispose of, even if none of them, as Van Meegeren himself admitted, came anywhere near the quality of Disciples at Emmaus.

[See also: From the NS archive: Conflict thoughts]

This fantastic series of frauds only came to light after the liberation of Holland. Field Security Police, in charge of hunting down collaborators, found that Van Meegeren was implicated in the sale to Goering of a so-called Vermeer, the Woman Taken in Adultery. They arrested him. But after six weeks of gaol he announced that the picture in question was his own work, as were five further Vermeers, two De Hooghs and various other paintings. No one believed this. However, as the result of controversial articles in the press, experts agreed to make tests on the pictures, while the Field Security asked Van Meegeren to demonstrate his methods to them. He did this in a new picture, Jesus among the Doctors – surely an ironical choice of subject. This work he never finished or “aged”. There was no point: in September, 1945, a charge of forgery was substituted for that of collaboration. Divorce from his actress wife, a legal enquiry, sentence of one year’s imprisonment and death from a heart-attack in December, 1947, completed the débâcle.

Not since the famous Flora affair in 1909 had there been such an uproar in the world of art. Then Albert Durer Lucas had proved that the Kaiser Friedrich Museum’s bust of Flora, attributed unquestionably by every expert to Leonardo, was in fact the handiwork of his father, Richard Cockle Lucas. This indifferent Victorian sculptor is said to have stuffed his creation with copies of the Times and a pair of tartan trews. To this day partisans maintain that the presence in the bust’s matière of archil, a lichenous dye unknown after the 16th century, proves the bust genuine. Van Meegeren’s case was just the opposite. Experts discovered in his paint the presence of an artificial resin of the phenolformaldehyde group, peculiar to this age of plastics. This gave the paint layers their authentic hardness and crackle, even if it produced the dullness and porosity (foreign to early painting), which helped to betray him. To age his pictures further, Van Meegeren rolled them up in various directions round a cylindrical object. This made large cracks, which he filled in with ink to simulate dirt – a notorious faker’s trick. Many of these pictures are now patently bogus, but it is easy to be wise after the event.

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[See also: From the NS archive: Cobwebs on Hardy]

Why, when Dr Bredius published his eulogistic article in the Burlington, did no expert disagree in print? In the first place, the fake, as fakes go, was a masterpiece. Then, Vermeer scholars in the 1930s were convinced that there existed a series of pictures painted by the master to adorn the meeting-place of a secret religious society. After they had a theory that Vermeer had travelled to Italy and there been influenced by Caravaggio. The Disciples fitted in with both these suppositions, and who does not grab at an opportunity to prove a pet theory? Furthermore, the late Dr Bredius was then an authority of unimpeachable reputation.

Why the later fakes, which were all blatant horrors, were accepted is more of a mystery. They display all the vulgarity of late 19th-century sacred art and none of Vermeer’s magnificent luminosity and brio. These mawkish disciples with “their hair just washed and combed”, these androgynous Christ figures with the heavy-lidded eyes of a Dietrich and enormous heads could not have been painted earlier than 1860. And nowhere in Van Meegeren’s pictures does one find the spirit of an original Vermeer. The drawing, colour, brushwork, mannerisms, may at times be identical. But no faker can reproduce this magic quality. An original picture by a master is one of a series, all of which have the prestige of a great mind behind them. The glory of a whole oeuvre reflects on each work.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)