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

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

4.1 31
by Edward Dolnick
     
 

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As riveting as a World War II thriller, The Forger's Spell is the true story of three men and an extraordinary deception: the revered artist Johannes Vermeer; the small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate him years later; and the con man's mark, Hermann Goering, the fanatical art collector and one of Nazi Germany's most reviled leaders.

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Overview

As riveting as a World War II thriller, The Forger's Spell is the true story of three men and an extraordinary deception: the revered artist Johannes Vermeer; the small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate him years later; and the con man's mark, Hermann Goering, the fanatical art collector and one of Nazi Germany's most reviled leaders.

Editorial Reviews

Thomas Hoving
“This is the first book on art forgery that really gets to the bottom of the Han van Meegeren tale of chicanery and double dealing. A spirited and provocative read.”
Lynn Nicholas
“Edward Dolnick’s Forger’s Spell gives us a well-researched and highly readable account of the underworld of forgers, corrupt dealers, and collectors in Nazi occupied Europe. . . . Wonderful theater, full of fascinating stories, this is a great cautionary tale for all in the art world.”
New York Times Book Review
“Dolnick…tells his story engagingly and with a light touch. He has a novelist’s talent for characterization, and he raises fascinating questions.”
Boston Globe
“Dolnick brilliantly re-creates the circumstances that made possible one of the most audacious frauds of the 20th century. And in doing so Dolnick plumbs the nature of fraud itself . . . an incomparable page turner.”
Los Angeles Times
“When it comes to forgery and its ability to fascinate . . . Edward Dolnick has hit the mother lode. . . . Dolnick more than does it justice, drawing on his knowledge of a wide range of subjects.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Pacing and prose as gripping as those of the best mystery novelist. . . . The Forger’s Spell is simply spellbinding.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“The Forger’s Spell is an excellent read, a swift and astute narrative written from many complex perspectives to great effect.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An engaging and highly amusing account of a clever craftsman. . . . On all those levels this is a delightful foray into art history and psychology”
Booklist
Vividly portrays a staggeringly successful Dutch art forger. . . . Dolnick covers it all. . . . Dolnick’s zesty, incisive, and entertaining inquiry illuminates the hidden dimensionsand explicates the far-reaching implications of this fascinating and provocative collision of art and ambition, deception and war.
Newsday
“Dolnick weaves a lot of fascinating information into a highly readable narrative. . . . The Forger’s Spell is a terrific story.”
Washington Post Book World
“Gripping historical narrative. . . . Dolnick, a veteran science writer, knows his way around a canvas. . . . The Forger’s Spell has raised provocative questions about the nature of art and the psychology of deception.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Riveting new art thriller. . . . Likely to captivate not just readers moved by war, art, and the art of deception, but anyone interested in human vanity and our sometimes baffling ability to see only what we want to see.”
Daniel Stashower
…[a] gripping historical narrative…It is strangely mesmerizing to witness Van Meegeren bend to his labors, though in effect we are simply watching paint dry.
—The Washington Post
Anthony Julius
Dolnick…tells his story engagingly and with a light touch. He has a novelist's talent for characterization, and he raises fascinating questions. How, for instance, could the forgeries have fooled anyone? (Dolnick says that van Meegeren was "perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as fake.") How do forgers set about doing their work? One chapter is titled "Forgery 101"; it contains instructions from which any prospective forger would benefit. And why does our estimation of a work of art change when we discover it is a fake? Forgery is interesting in part because it demands great, if imitative, skill, and in part because copying itself has become a significant aspect of contemporary art-making. It is an art-crime that encourages reflections on the nature of art itself. This book is an aid to such reflections.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Edgar-winner Dolnick (The Rescue Artist) delves into the extraordinary story of Han van Meegeren (1889—1947), who made a fortune in German-occupied Holland by forging paintings of the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer. The discovery of a "new" Vermeer was just what the beleaguered Dutch needed to lift their spirits, and van Meegeren's Christ at Emmaus had already been bought by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam in 1937 for $2.6 million. Collectors, critics and the public were blind to the clumsiness of this work and five other "Vermeers" done by van Meegeren. Dolnick asks how everyone could have been fooled, and he answers with a fascinating analysis of the forger's technique and a perceptive discussion of van Meegeren's genius at manipulating people. Van Meegeren was unmasked in 1945 by one of his clients, Hermann Goering. Later accused of treason for collaboration, he saved himself from execution and even became a hero for having swindled Goering. Dolnick's compelling look at how a forger worked his magic leads to one sad conclusion: there will always be eager victims waiting to be duped. Illus. not seen by PW. (June 24)

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Library Journal

In 1945, just after the end of World War II in Europe, a Dutch detective looking for artwork looted by the Nazis and for Nazi collaborators questioned a high-living Dutch artist named Han van Meegeren. Had van Meegeren, the detective inquired, been involved in the sale to Hermann Göring of a priceless Vermeer painting? Upon further questioning, van Meegeren confessed that he had painted this Vermeer himself, along with other Vermeers then in the collections of several major Dutch art museums, and so began the unraveling of "the greatest art hoax of the twentieth century." While other books-including Frank Wynne's I Was Vermeer and Lord Kilbracken's Van Meegeren: Master Forger-have covered this intriguing case of forgery, greed, and detection, this account by Dolnick, author of the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist, is especially strong in plot development and characterization. It also has a unique point of view: that van Meegeren was not a genius and master forger but rather his "true distinction was [that] he is perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as fake." Recommended for public and academic library art and true-crime collections. (Illustrations not seen.)
—Marcia Welsh

Kirkus Reviews
Mesmerizing account of an amateur artist who made millions selling forged paintings to art-obsessed Nazis and business tycoons. Veteran science journalist Dolnick (The Rescue Artist: The True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece, 2005, etc.) brings his expertise in art theft, criminal psychology and military history to a scintillating portrait of Dutch painter Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). Humiliated by critics who dismissed his work as lackluster, Van Meegeren turned to cunningly crafting paintings that he peddled during the 1930s and '40s as the work of revered 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer. The polished, fast-paced narrative captures the surreal mood in Nazi-occupied Holland. As German forces killed more than 70 percent of the Jewish population, the highest toll in Europe, Hitler and his leading aide, Hermann Goering, pillaged museums and private homes for paintings, sculpture and jewelry. In a rivalry Dolnick likens to a perverse schoolyard competition, the men also vied for treasures from art dealers enticed by the Nazis' looted cash. Enter Van Meegeren, a disaffected artist who watched with glee as the same critics who had ridiculed his original work swooned over the technically competent but off-kilter compositions he sold for princely sums as "lost Vermeers." In compelling prose, Dolnick details the doctored canvases, phony paint and fake bills of sale Van Meegeren painstakingly created to achieve his grand deceit. In addition to Nazis and wealthy Europeans, the author notes, he also duped affluent Americans such as Andrew Mellon. After a high-profile 1947 trial during which the con artist demonstrated his techniques, the Dutch government found VanMeegeren guilty of forgery and fraud. He died less than two months later, before serving his one-year prison sentence. Energetic and authoritative.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060825423
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
06/16/2009
Series:
P.S. Series
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
204,275
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

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

Chapter One

A Knock On The Door

Amsterdam
May 1945

Until almost the very end, Han van Meegeren thought he had committed the perfect crime. He had pocketed more than $3 million—the equivalent of about $30 million today—and scarcely a trace of scandal clung to his name. Why should it, when his dupes never even knew that someone had played them for fools and taken them for a fortune?

Even now, with two uniformed strangers at his door saying something about an investigation, he thought he might get away with it. The two men seemed polite, not belligerent. No doubt they had been impressed by the grandeur of 321 Keizersgracht. Maybe they really did have only a few routine questions to sort out. Van Meegeren decided to keep his secrets to himself.

Van Meegeren was a small, dapper man of fifty-five with a tidy mustache and gray hair swept back from his forehead. His house was one of the most luxurious in Amsterdam, on one of the city's poshest streets, a neighborhood of bankers and merchant kings. Imposing but not showy, in keeping with the Dutch style, the house rose four stories high and looked out on a postcard canal. Most impressive of all in space-starved Amsterdam, where every staircase rises as steeply as a ladder, the house was nearly as wide as it was tall. The front hall was tiled in marble, and envious rumors had it—falsely—that the hall was so big that guests at Van Meegeren's parties raced their bicycles around it. On the other hand, the rumors about indoor skating were true.Van Meegeren had found a way to convert his basement to an ice rink so that jaded partygoers could skate in style.

Joop Piller, the lead investigator on this spring day, would not have been a guest at those parties. A Jew in Holland—and Holland lost a greater proportion of Jews in World War II than any other Western European nation—Piller had fought in the Dutch resistance from 1940 to 1945. In years to come, many would embellish their wartime credentials, but Piller was the real thing. His last mission had been to set up a network to rescue Allied pilots after the Battle of Arnhem and smuggle them to safety.

Piller had only begun to learn about Van Meegeren. Holland in 1945 was short of everything but rumors, and Piller had picked up some of the gossip swirling around Amsterdam. Van Meegeren had friends in all the worst—which was to say, pro-German—circles; he was a painter and an art collector; he was a connoisseur of old masters and young women; he had lived in France and had won that country's national lottery.

Skeptical by nature, Piller was inclined to wave all the talk aside. Still, it was easy to see why the rumors flew. What kind of artist lived like this? Rembrandt, perhaps, but Van Meegeren was no Rembrandt. He was, according to all that Piller had heard, a middling painter of old-fashioned taste and no special distinction. He was apparently an art dealer as well, but he seemed to have made no more of a splash as a dealer than as a painter. He supposedly had a taste for hookers and high living and a reputation as a host who never let a glass stay unfilled. Other tales hinted at a kind of self-indulgent posturing. He had brought his guitar to a friend's funeral because "it might get boring."

The bare facts of the artist's biography, as Piller would begin to assemble them over the next few days, only deepened the mystery. Van Meegeren was a Dutchman born in the provincial town of Deventer. He had studied art and architecture in Delft, the hometown of the great Johannes Vermeer. He had won prizes for his art, but he was as out of tune with the current age as his favorite teacher, who had taught Van Meegeren to prepare his own paints like his predecessors of three centuries before. Despite the occasional triumph, Van Meegeren hardly seemed marked for greatness. In college he got his girlfriend pregnant, married her at twenty-two, and settled down uneasily near Delft. There he tried, without much success, to support his family with his art.

Van Meegeren spent the 1920s in The Hague, where life improved. He gained a reputation as a playboy and a portrait painter whose skill was perfectly adequate but whose client list was positively dazzling. In 1932 (by this time, with a new wife), he left Holland for the French Riviera. In the small town of Roquebrune, he moved into a spacious and isolated villa perched high on a cliff above the sun-dappled Mediterranean. As the Great Depression strengthened its grip, Van Meegeren somehow continued to thrive. In 1937, after five years in Roquebrune, he moved to even more imposing quarters, purchasing a mansion with a dozen bedrooms and a vineyard in Nice.

But at his first meeting with the little man in the big house, Piller knew only that Van Meegeren's name had turned up in the paperwork of a dodgy art dealer. And so, when Piller took out his notebook and posed the question that would set the whole complicated story in motion, he had suspicions but not much more. Tell me, Mr. Van Meegeren, he asked, how did you come to be involved in selling a Vermeer?

The Forger's Spell
A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
. Copyright © by Edward Dolnick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Lynn Nicholas
“Edward Dolnick’s Forger’s Spell gives us a well-researched and highly readable account of the underworld of forgers, corrupt dealers, and collectors in Nazi occupied Europe. . . . Wonderful theater, full of fascinating stories, this is a great cautionary tale for all in the art world.”
Thomas Hoving
“This is the first book on art forgery that really gets to the bottom of the Han van Meegeren tale of chicanery and double dealing. A spirited and provocative read.”

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