In July of 1945, Han van Meegeren picked up his badger-hair brush and began to paint his last forgery.
Over a decade, the wiry Dutchman had surreptitiously become Europe’s premier conman — a disgruntled artist-turned-forger who’d sold his works for tens of millions of dollars. Fueled by rejection from the art world, he had duped leading critics, wealthy collectors, and even a high-ranking Nazi official into believing his works were real. What’s more, he had chosen to do so by emulating the works of Jan Vermeer, a technically-immaculate master of the Dutch Golden Age.
He even fooled Abraham Bredius, an art historian who had a reputation for authenticating new Vermeers.
Han van Meegeren was born on October 10, 1889 in a small Netherlands community just outside of Deventer. From an early age, van Meegeren’s father, a history teacher, strictly discouraged him from any creative pursuits: When the man caught his son drawing or exploring art, he’d force him to write "I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing" hundreds of times on a sheet of paper.
As a child, van Meegeren developed an enthusiasm for the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and later set out to become an artist himself. Art critics, however, decried his work as tired and derivative, and van Meegeren felt that they had destroyed his career. Thereupon, he decided to prove his talent to the critics by forging paintings of some of the world’s most famous artists, including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer.
He so well replicated the styles and colours of the artists that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his paintings as genuine and sometimes exquisite. His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France. This painting was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts such as Abraham Bredius. Bredius acclaimed it as "the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft" and wrote of the "wonderful moment" of being "confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master".
During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen wanted to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and they avidly bought van Meegeren’s forgeries, thinking them the work of the masters. Nevertheless, a falsified "Vermeer" ended up in the possession of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Following the war, the forgery was discovered in Göring’s possession, and van Meegeren was arrested on 29 May 1945 as a collaborator, as officials believed that he had sold Dutch cultural property to the Nazis.
This would have been an act of treason, the punishment for which was death, so van Meegeren confessed to the less serious charge of forgery instead. He was convicted on falsification and fraud charges on 12 November 1947, after a brief but highly publicized trial, and was sentenced to a modest punishment of one year in prison. He did not serve out his sentence, however; he died 30 December 1947, in the Valerius Clinic in Amsterdam, after two heart attacks.
It is estimated that van Meegeren duped buyers, including the government of the Netherlands, out of the equivalent of more than thirty million dollars in 1967’s money.
After his death, the court ruled that Van Meegeren’s estate be auctioned and the proceeds from his property and the sale of his counterfeits be used to refund the buyers of his works and to pay income taxes on the sale of his paintings.
Van Meegeren filed for bankruptcy in December 1945. On 5 and 6 September 1950, the furniture and other possessions in his Amsterdam house at Keizersgracht 321 were auctioned by order of the court, along with 738 other pieces of furniture and works of art, including numerous paintings by old and new masters from his private collection.
The house was auctioned separately on 4 September, estimated to be worth 65,000 guilders. The proceeds of the sale together with the house amounted to 123,000 guilders. Van Meegeren’s unsigned The Last Supper I was bought for 2,300 guilders, while Jesus among the Doctors (which van Meegeren had painted while in detention) sold for 3,000 guilders (about $800 or about $7,000 today.) Today the painting hangs in a Johannesburg church. The sale of the entire estate amounted to 242,000 guilders ($60,000, or about $500,000 today).
Until the end, he believed that—when he was gone—his name would soon be forgotten, and his paintings would eventually be remembered as true Vermeers.
Tagged: , one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century , Han van Meegeren , Dutch , Jan Vermeer , Deventer