One of the most notorious art forgers in history was the miscreant, Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947). He is sited as much as he is because he had the juevos to engineer a swindle of the degenerate, Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s number two. This event made Van Meegeren a popular figure in Holland after the war but it was also the reason he was caught. Had he not pulled a fast one on Iron Hermann, his Vermeer forgeries might still be part of the official canon.
His story is told several times, the best English language versions being “Van Meegeren, Master Forger” by an Irish Lord, Kilbracken, with the aid of Van Meegeren’s son; “The Forger’s Spell” by Edward Dolnick, and the superior “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez. If you only have time for one, get the Lopez book.
Also of interest is the filmmaker Errol Morris’ multi-part essay about these events and books at the New York Times website.
(Christ at Emmaus, Han Van Meegeren’s most successful Vermeer forgery)
In a nut shell, Van Meegeren fooled experts and Nazi thieves alike during the crest of the Vermeer cult when the hunger for more work and information about this mysterious, long dead and essentially mute artist was at a frenzy. The paintings look nothing like Vermeers and got as far as they did because of one painting, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. That painting was attributed to Vermeer by the fading eye of the pompous art historian, Abraham Bredius. Following that claim, Van Meegeren sold the theory that Vermeer apprenticed in his youth by copying and spinning on existing religious works he came in contact with as a member of the St. Luke’s artisans guild.
One has to accept Christ/Mary/Martha as a Vermeer to buy into Van Meegeren. Fortunately, truth intervened and Van Meegeren has been deposed, the unforeseen result being his case has inspired some very good writing on the value of attribution and the dangers of self-deception.
But the toppling of Van Meegeren has not raided the game, in my humble opinion. Consider the following:
In 2004 a Vermeer came up for auction, the first in over eighty years. “Young Girl Seated at the Virginals” was long thought a forgery and after the Van Meegeren affair, the painting was considered just that. When the owner’s estate put it up, Sotheby’s commissioned experts to analyze the painting with every technique available. This included X rays, chemical analysis of the pigments and a study of the canvas weave. The conclusions were that the shawl had been applied over an earlier rendering of the sleeve. The pigments included lead tin yellow, which had fallen out of use around 1700; lazurite, derived from lapis lazuli, which had been replaced by synthetic ultramarine blue in the 1820’s; and it was agreed that the weave of the canvas was almost exact in its pattern with that of Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker“. To top it off, the unique dimensions were cited, without title or description, though with authorship as Vermeer, in an 1818 catalogue.
Armed with these conclusions, the painting went on the block and fetched 42 million, US. The buyer was Las Vegas entrepreneur, Steve Wynn- who, by the way, is legally blind. In 2008, he sold it for 30 million to a private collector in New York. Technically, minus Sotheby’s cut, Wynn got his money back- save for the four year interest on thirty million dollars and the absent earnings on any investment that he could have made with that pile. A bath any way you look at it-
(Young Woman Seated at the Virginals– Faux Vermeer fetched $42 large in 2004)
There are several problems with this narrative. First off, Sotheby’s would be the last place you would find objective analysis of an item they stood to make a huge commission from. If you think the august house is above reproach, review the Alfred Taubman price fixing affair from 2002. Their “experts” we’re going to find what they assumed would be found in any of the authentic Vermeers. Their “evidence” would be distilled in a series of press releases, repeated in the echo chamber of the print and online features sections of corporate news sources ad infinitum.
Secondly, since when does the most successful casino owner since Howard Hughes willingly take a loss that large on a private resale of an authenticated Vermeer?
As for pigment, one can find the recipes for lazurite, lead tin yellow and the rest of the Vermeer palette within minutes. Granted, the information we have at our fingertips was hard to come by in days of yore, but mixing paint the old fashioned way and applying it to old canvas stripped of its original image is the foundation of all forged paintings going back before the age of Vermeer. It was the starting point for Van Meegeren’s most successful fakes.
The canvas weave argument is new to me- until this painting was analyzed, I had never heard of a canvas fingerprint. I have a hard time believing something as simple and uniform as weaving canvas threads together, a practice that reaches back to antiquity, could be at such variance by all who practice the craft that unique patterns would be left in such variety as to be likened to fingerprints. Even so, let that go, along with the catalogue entry of 1818.
By these criteria, the painting is genuine.
So, again, why would an operator on the order of Steve Wynn dump the thing so unceremoniously?
From a purely aesthetic point of view, the picture just isn’t very good. Here, once again, Vermeer, or somebody else, has placed a young woman at the keyboards, had her turn to the viewer while she bangs out Greensleeves or some such with all the enthusiasm of a bored teenager who is listing in her mind a million other places she would rather be. Overwhelming the scene is the reconstituted shawl, prominently rendered in lead tin yellow as if to compensate for the very un-Vermeer like rendering with extra Vermeer- era pigment.
The fingers and knuckles of the left hand look as if they have been pounded flat with a mallet. Not helping is the stark barrenness of the wall, absent a slice of curtain or a discreet corner of a painting frame as seen in the majority of official Vermeers.
The lion head finials on the back of the chair are absent where they are a regular feature in many other works. This is not really a red flag as the chair in “Woman Standing at the Virginals” very definitely a Vermeer, does not have the lion’s heads either. Then again, if you were to fake something so close to a genuine Vermeer, this detail would be observed in the execution.
But beyond all of that I ask myself, why would Vermeer paint this picture? Some have argued it’s a preliminary study but there are no Vermeer preliminaries of any of his work- there are no surviving drawings, sketches, half finished works, oil sketches- nothing! In the context of where he was in his development and with this subject matter, it has an exhausted air of redundancy to it.
But to my mind, the most suspect element in this painting is the woman herself.
The face looks like a composite from a how-to-draw faces primer, Academie des Beaux-Arts edition. And that’s the real giveaway, in my sotted opinion- that is the face of a French girl, circa 1865. That is the idealized academic blasé gaze of David and Ingres inspired hacks who are pandering to conservative tastes; to those patrons who pine for the return of standards; of the exactitude of neo-classicism, and who demand a thorough purge of the decadent modernity of the romantics, the realists, and the neophytes that would unleash the impressionist contagion a half generation later.
(Two details from Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c.1850’s)
Specifically, look at the hair do, with highlighted ribbon reporting an unknown light source (something Vermeer never would have allowed) That mop is exactly the studied falsehood that replicators would fashion in what they thought was the style of late seventeenth century Delft; a misstep that, yet again, betrays the seepage of the present that is enabled by the vanity of the forgers and their marks. It’s a feature of forgery that is absolutely unavoidable. Removing all trace of your own time is simply not possible with the evocative forgery, which is what this is- it’s not a straight ahead copy of an existing work. It is a heretofore unknown work in the exact same style as the known Vermeers and yet the time and place of its execution is impossible to hide once time moves sufficiently away from the age in which the fake was executed. I believe this was made in France in the mid 1860’s in the aftermath of Thore- Burger’s popular monograph announcing the resurrection of a great, and to that point, unknown Dutch Master. Thore- Burger, who actually had little good to say of the academic traditions embodied by the likes of Ingres, had inadvertently created a market for Vermeers and enterprising thieves were out to exploit it-
I doubt they could have ever conceived just how much money would change hands over their deception, not that I grieve for a swindled casino magnate.
This series is a tight little conspiracy, yes, relieved of the demands of verifiable fact. But as time goes by and I waste more of it pondering Vermeer and his work, my need for some plausible alternative to the ethereal genius theory scholars have settled on (also in absence of fact) demands a more earth bound explication. For me, Vermeer’s life is closer to crime fiction than the romantic drama we’ve been sold since the Belle Époque.
Addendum 2017: In the intervening years since I first wrote this series, a lot has happened to enhance my perceptions. Today I would describe Vermeer as history’s greatest Sunday painter. His day job involved paint and canvas, but not his vision. What time he had for himself was short and the small output is the result.
His sanity probably rested on those few works as it was the only time he could exercise his free artistic will. I can certainly relate. I had both feet just inside the show biz door when I realized I would be spending my skills and energies on other people’s ideas (and agendas). I turned on heel and left, vowing only to pursue my personal artistic goals, damn the assured poverty. Given what I now know about the engineered culture of depravity I would have been abetting, I give thanks to my muse every day that I will die an honest artist- even if I have to gamble, like Vermeer, on waiting a couple of centuries to be rediscovered. I’ll take those odds every time.
PS: Did the Goering swindle actually happen? I have my doubts about the entire history of WWII so even a footnote like Van Meegeren will require reappraisal- But not right now…
Vermeer the Forger, Part One
Vermeer the Forger, Part Two
Vermeer the Forger, Part Three
Vermeer the Forger, Part Four
Vermeer the Forger, Part Five