The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

For all its psychological twists and historical turns, this nonfictional thriller poses a simple question: How could a painting that one day is worth millions of dollars, the next day be worth almost nothing? The easy answer: the painting is revealed to be a forgery. Of course, in this complex case, layers of deception and intrigue underlie what appeared to be a straightforward scam, one of the most notorious hoaxes in the history of art. In the early 20th century, Han van Meegeren, a mediocre Dutch painter, succeeded in convincing an astonishing group of connoisseurs and buyers that a roomful of his forgeries were in fact undiscovered Vermeers. Edward Dolnick, who previously wrote about the heist of Munch?s Scream in The Rescue Artist, here explores the full dimensions of this amazing tale by delving into all sorts of byways: the limits of connoisseurship, the craft of forgery, the mystique of Vermeer, and the Nazi plundering of European art. It?s a narrative balancing act that Dolnick handles with great skill and insight.

Three days after V-E Day in 1945, the Dutch resistance fighter Joop Piller knocked on the door of one of the fanciest houses in all of Amsterdam. A captain in the provisional postwar government, Piller was determined to figure out how the occupant of this house managed to live in such apparent splendor during the harsh years of Nazi occupation. The suspected collaborator, Han van Meegeren, still dapper at 55, indulged his taste for fine champagne and expensive prostitutes throughout the war years, throwing lavish parties with little concern for appearances. He was, after all, a great artist. Or so he thought. In any case, his name appeared in records of an art sale made to none other than Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Hitler?s second-in-command and, like the Fuehrer himself, voracious in his acquisition of Europe?s great art works. Coercing reluctant dealers and museums throughout the continent, and relying on government funds, the two ranking Nazis competed for the Italian and Dutch masters most of all.

Art owned by Jews was, of course, easily looted by the Germans. The vain and flamboyant Goering, for one, grabbed the entire inventory of Jacques Goudstikker, a famous dealer, who left behind over 1,000 quality works when he fled to England. (Goudstikker did not survive the journey, but his memory prevails. The Bruce Museum in Connecticut currently has on display much of the collection, now rightfully restored to his survivors.) In their passion for accumulation — one can hardly call it appreciation, since most of the Nazi acquisitions languished uncrated — Hitler and Goering bought up every Breughel, Rubens, and Rembrandt within their reach. But what they coveted most was work by Vermeer, the enigmatic genius whose mystique is only enhanced by his meager production — to this day, only 30-plus paintings are accepted as genuine.

Into this void stepped van Meegeren. Like Hitler himself, van Meegeren loathed the modern art that was garnering critical acclaim throughout Europe in the early decades of the century. But unlike Hitler, van Meegeren managed a decent career painting society portraits, biblical scenes, and local landscapes. The critics, though, were brutal, mocking his wide-eyed Madonnas and kitschy farm animals. Determined to get his revenge on an unappreciative cognoscenti, van Meegeren started off his career as a forger with some simple De Hooch and Hals imitations that quickly found buyers in prewar Holland, with its nouveau-riche industrialists eager to invest in fine art. Van Meegeren surveyed the art scene — from museum curators to the distinguished scholars and critics — and saw a ripe opportunity: The frenzy for acquiring art was matched by a mania for uncovering hidden masterpieces.

Which brings us to the next major player in this sordid drama: Abraham Bredius, a distinguished, if arrogant, Dutch connoisseur who had chalked up a number of discoveries — a few Rembrandts and a couple of Vermeers (since disputed). In his dotage, Bredius was still sought out by dealers, buyers, and curators for his pronouncements on given paintings. And his opinions relied on little more than his “eye,” that learned but fallible device cited by so many connoisseurs, whose authority was what we would call taste, supplemented by impressionistic gushes. We?ve seen these kinds of highbrow shenanigans before in the shadier dealings of Duveen and Berenson, a relationship that enriched both dealer and the scholar who declared a work authentic.

Sensing the frenzy for Vermeers, van Meegeren got to work, experimenting with materials in his effort to manufacture 17th-century paintings that could pass as real. Dolnick explores this technical side with a detective?s interest in detail, and it?s fascinating. But the most important problem was solved by a very contemporary product: Leo Baekeland?s invention of plastic. Having mastered the scientific side of forgery, van Meegeren had to decide on his subjects, and in this he was quite shrewd, not simply imitating the known Vermeers but exploiting a crucial gap in the painter’s career. Though little is certain about Vermeer?s creative chronology, his work falls into two distinct stylistic periods, with an apparent gap in between. Van Meegeren saw his opening: paintings that would reflect a turn toward religious subjects by Vermeer.

With a reputable intermediary, the devious van Meegeren reached out to the pompous Bredius, who declared in art journals these newly discovered Vermeers and explained how they fit perfectly into the course of his career. Between 1937 and 1943, van Meegeren produced six “Vermeers” that sold for increasingly higher amounts, the equivalent of millions in current values. Not only that, each fake was measured against a previous fake, creating a small universe of forgeries that fooled many of the smartest critics, scholars, and curators.

In retrospect, what?s really astounding is how little the paintings in question look like Vermeers. In fact, as Dolnick demonstrates, they resemble the sentimental figurative art of their time. With their New Testament themes, these sickly looking Christs resemble Vermeer by way of shlock artist Walter Keane, not Caravaggio, as van Meegeren?s willing dupes argued. It was only a matter of time before the “amiable psychopath” Goering managed to buy one of the new Vermeers, Christ at Emmaus, the painting that would lead to the unraveling of Van Meegeren?s grand deception.

Few believed van Meegeren when he revealed his handiwork — his forgeries were already appearing in scholarly books on Vermeer. But he had a selfish motive. It was a worse crime to have sold a genuine Vermeer to the Nazis than to have committed fraud, and van Meegeren painted his way to the truth, creating yet another forgery under the postwar court?s scrutiny. In an irony hard to appreciate, he was celebrated by his countrymen for having deceived the evil occupiers and was sentenced to a single year, though he died before serving it out.

Dolnick interviews modern forgers and samples the literature of magic and con artists to help explain a story that?s not a whodunit but a howdunit. How did a greedy third-rate painter, bent on revenge against his critics, deceive the best eyes in Europe (not to mention a few evil Nazis)? Dolnick resorts to the simplest bromide: we see what we look for. And in this wild and revealing case, he?s clearly right.