As the great French painter Theodore Rousseau of the Barbizon School pointed out “We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls”.
“Supper at Emmaus” is perhaps the best example of how even the most renowned art experts can be fooled. In 1937 Dr. Abraham Bredius, was asked to examine the “recently discovered” Vermeer. Bredius had dedicated a great part of his life to the study of Johannes Vermeer and was one of the world’s most authoritative art historians. After examining the painting, Bredius presented his findings in The Burlington Magazine, the “art bible” of the day. He wrote “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio. And what a picture -I am inclined to say – the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft… quite different from all his other paintings yet every inch a Vermeer. In no other picture by the great master of Delft do we find such sentiment… so nobly human expressed through the medium of highest art”.
The art world might never have known how wrong Bredius was if it were not for a knock on Hans van Meegeren’s door in 1945 Amsterdam. Fueled by rejection from the art world, van Meegeren would become the force behind the greatest art hoax of the 20th century.
In the mid 1920’s van Meegeren established himself as a young artist in the Netherlands art scene. The highly sensitive artist took offense as critics soon noted his limitations. The artist, determined to prove himself, set out on a mission to “not only copy the style of the Dutch masters but produce a work of art so magnificent that it would rival the works of master painters”. He settled on Johannes Vermeer- an artist many considered among the most difficult to emulate as the master he would copy. That Vermeer produced only about 35 or 36 paintings was helpful to van Meegeren. Other major artist of the time, such as Rembrandt, typically created hundreds of paintings. Many critics at the time agreed that there were at least 15 Vermeer’s that had been lost with time. All this provided van Meegeren’s fakes with a plausible backstory.
Recreating Vermeer’s style proved incredibly difficult. Van Meegeren spent years conducting extensive research and experimentation with canvasses, paints and aging techniques. He purchased original 17th century canvas, crafted his own paints from raw materials and meticulously constructed his own paint brushes from badger hair – all of which the 17th century masters had done.
Another dilemma faced by van Meegeren was emulating the age of the paint. Oil paints take decades to fully dry and harden; he had to find a way to make two-month-old paint seem as if it were three centuries old. So he bought a pizza oven and tried time and again to mix a paint that could withstand the heat of the oven and harden, but not lose its brilliance. Time and again, his experimental paints burned up or melted. Then he hit on dissolving a small amount of plastic into the paint and rolling it with a baking pin to crackle it, and washing it through a cycle of India ink to emulate patina. It was an ingenious system — perhaps the best ever devised by a forger — and it produced incredibly convincing paintings.
During his studies, van Meegeren had learned that Vermeer greatly appreciated the work of Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Van Meegeren analyzed the Italian’s best known work, “Supper at Emmaus,” then went about replicating it in the style of Vermeer He titled the work with the same name — “Supper at Emmaus” — and went about peddling it to the art world.
With Bredius’s “expert” stamp of approval, the painting sparked a fierce bidding and was ultimately purchased for the unbelievable sum of 550,000 Dutch guldens -roughly $4.5 million dollars today! Supper at Emmaus” was so well received that van Meegeren began churning out one Vermeer forgery after the other, each selling for millions of dollars.
At this time Hermann Goring was the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, behind only Adolf Hitler himself. Goring was also an avid and greedy art collector. His collection was enormous and much of it had been plundered and stolen during the war. In 1942 he took 137 looted paintings and traded them for one of van Meegeren’s forgeries, “Christ with the Adulteress. It would be this painting that would become van Meegeren’s undoing.
A few years later, as Allied forces pushed into Nazi territory, 6,700 looted pieces of art were discovered in an obscure Austrian salt mine. Among them was van Meergeren’s “Christ with the Adulteress”. The Nazis were known for meticulous record-keeping and Goring’s Vermeer was eventually traced back van Meegeren.
When the police rapped on van Meegeren’s door in 1945 to question him about what they thought was a routine matter van Meegeren was unable to explain himself and unwilling to admit to his life as a forger. It was only when he was accused of being a “Nazi plunderer” that van Meegeren revealed the truth.
Van Meegeren’s story was immediately met with skepticism – no one could forge a Vermeer with such authenticity. Van Meergeren was soon facing charges of not only fraud but of aiding and abetting the enemy. After being confined to the headquarters of an Amsterdam military command for a few months, van Meegeren offered a proposition to prove his innocence — he’d forge one last Vermeer before a panel of reporters and court-appointed witnesses. The court agreed, and the man was brought his paints and brushes. Over the course of six weeks, he crafted his last Vermeer, “Jesus Among the Doctors.” Forgery experts subsequently determined that it was of such a high quality that van Meegeren couldn’t possibly be lying, and his abetting the enemy charge was dropped.
But van Meegeren still faced a less serious fraud charge, and on October 29, 1947, his second trial began. In interviews with the press, he’d won over the public. He’d taken the original declaration that he was a traitor and Nazi conspirator, and flipped it on its head: Instead, he claimed, he had planned to dupe the Nazis with his forgeries in a scheme to reclaim 200 plundered Dutch paintings. In a matter of months, he went from being a detested figure to a patriotic hero. The Dutch had been taken by van Meegeren’s rhetoric — that he’d conned a Nazi official to prove his patriotism — and the fact that he’d cheated people and walked away with millions of dollars seemed to be of little importance.
Van Meegeren was eventually convicted of fraud and sentenced to a year in prison in 1947. Nearly two months later, he died of a heart attack without serving even a day. Ironically, the forger died a hero.
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