The Man Who Sold an Art Forgery to the Nazis… and Almost Got Away With It

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Seventy years ago,  Hitler’s Vice Chancellor, Hermann Goering, treasured a priceless painting by Vermeer. Two years after the war, he found out his favorite painting was a forgery.  

A Very Brief History of Vermeer

Before we get to that story, let’s get a little background on Johannes Vermeer himself.

The 17th-century painter is best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring. A popular work made more popular by the Tracy Chevalier book of the same title (which was very good) and film with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth (which was very mediocre).

Vermeer had a bit of a thing for painting ladies at work, specifically sexy females doing their sexy chores while being very dainty. At least 21 of his 36 paintings feature either women sewing, cooking, etc., with all sorts of sexy symbolism around them or women looking sensually into the camera. Our favorite is a milkmaid holding a very yonic vase and standing near a foot warmer, which was Dutch art code for feminine desire – the lady wants to heat everything under her skirts. A male artist sexualizing women who are just doing their damn jobs? Groundbreaking.

The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658

However, Vermeer is mainly celebrated for his skill with lighting and proportions.

There is a theory floating around that Vermeer might have used an early version of a camera, a camera obscura, to paint images that have geometrically perfect perspective. There is literally no evidence for this theory other than the fact that the camera obscura existed during Vermeer’s lifetime and his proportions were really stinkin’ good.

Honestly, the camera conspiracy theory is about as interesting as Vermeer gets; we don’t know much about his personal life or what influenced him. There are some significant gaps in his biography and only 36 of his paintings still exist from the original 45 or so.

So let’s get back to the meat of our topic – we aren’t here to talk about Vermeer, the 17th century painter; we’re here to talk about the other guy who painted Vermeers. His name was Hans van Meegeren.

Jump Forward

To talk about Meegeren we have to go to 1940s Europe when several “lost” Vermeer paintings were discovered.

Christ with the Adultress, Hans van Meegeren, 1937

One of these paintings, Christ with the Adultress, hung right behind the desk of Hermann Goering, a man whose favorite pastimes included being Hitler’s Vice Chancellor, a Nazi, a sociopath, and avid art collector.

In the aftermath of the Allied victory, the Allied Art Office began to track down those responsible for allowing precious art to fall into Nazi hands. They traced Goering’s Vermeer to the office of Hans Van Meegeren in Holland. When they arrived on Van Meegeren’s doorstep they asked him two questions:

  • where did he get that priceless Vermeer,
  • and why was he selling art to Nazis.
Goering receiving the Vermeer as a present from Hitler

At this point, our man Hans found himself between a rock and a hard place. He either had to say that he orchestrated the sale of a genuine Vermeer to a Nazi official, for which he could be sentenced to death for collaborating with the enemy, or he could admit that this Vermeer was his 17th forged painting.

The Perfect Forgery

We have a saying that we love here at Museum Hack:

People have been people as long as there’s been people.”

As we learn from this story, people have been petty as hell, for as long as there’s been people.

Before becoming a master forger, Hans van Meegeren started out as many of us do: a young man in a big city with a dream. In spite of his father’s wishes, van Meegeren attended the Royal Academy of Art in Hague to pursue a career as a painter. After graduation, he worked as a teacher at the academy and sold adorable sketches of local flora and fauna to support his young family.

The Fawn, Hans van Meegeren, 1921

He achieved some brief fame for the deer sketch above, however, with celebrity came attention from critics. Members of the Dutch artistic elite found van Meegeren to be technically skilled but uninspired. A particularly brutal critic reviewed the artist’s second solo exhibition as having “every virtue except originality.”

This was a devastating blow to the fragile ego of the young van Meegeren. He promptly quit painting his own works, published a tirade against the modern art world, and moved to the south of France to continue his temper tantrum in solitude.

He selected his hero, Vermeer, as his artist of choice, and devoted the next several years to becoming an expert at forging paintings.

Van Meegeren’s techniques for forging are pretty mind-blowing, and deserve a quick digression.

First off, it was pretty savvy of van Meegeren to choose Vermeer as the target of his forgeries. Vermeer paintings are so rare that they remain highly coveted by collectors to this day. The paintings were made more covetous by the tumultuous times; in the late 1930s the threat of expanding Nazi Germany caused many museums to attempt to hide their masterpieces or ship them to safer ports.

This made life easier for van Meegeren since there were now very few authentic Vermeers for experts to compare his fraudulent paintings to.

In case you were starting to like Van Meegeren, let’s be clear that it takes a special kind of scumbag to be an opportunist during a world war. He’s Walter White folks, not Danny Ocean.

However that scumbag might have been a genius; van Meegeren did his homework. There is a significant chunk missing in the teenage portion of Vermeer’s biography. Some experts think that whoever he studied with at the time was heavily influenced by Caravaggio. So van Meegeren didn’t just paint any old Vermeer, he painted Caravaggio-influenced Vermeers that could easily be attributed to the painter’s lost period.

Van Meegeren continued his excellence in duplicity through to the materials used to make his forgeries. He bought original 17th century canvases for cheap and scraped off the pre-existing paint. This would expose the craquelure, or the cracks you see in really old paintings that have been handled a lot. Van Meegeren would then use bakelite (an early plastic) mixed with oil paint, which would sink into the exposed cracks. If he had used normal oil paint, it would have taken years for the fakes to dry. However, that handy bakelite dries very quickly, especially if you place it in the oven for an hour or so.

These techniques worked like magic.

Van Meegeren began selling the paintings on the market and they were celebrated as a new gift to the world: the lost Vermeers.

All of this was part of Van Meegeren’s petty, petty plan. He would take revenge against all those who insulted his art by gaining a hefty profit and critical acclaim for his forgeries. Once they were accepted by the art world, van Meegeren planned to claim responsibility for the masterpieces and go down in a blaze of glory. The plot worked like a charm; in less than a decade, Van Meegeren had earned the equivalent of $30 million from his sales. He might have gotten away with his master plan if those meddling kids at the Allied Art Office had not shown up at his door.

Oops! When you’re caught selling to Nazis

So the AAO is asking questions, and van Meegeren, the glorious slimy bastard, puts a truly admirable spin on things.

In exchange for the fake Vermeer, Goering had traded 137 authentic Dutch paintings. Van Meegeren claimed to be a national hero who saved important pieces of Dutch cultural heritage by duping Goering. The AAO had absolutely no tolerance for this theory. The idea that someone had successfully forged so many Vermeers seemed not only implausible but laughable. Van Meegeren found himself to be in the peculiar position of having to prove that he committed art fraud.

In 1945, he had his chance.

After several months of confinement at the Amsterdam military headquarters, van Meegeren proposed that he be given a chance to prove his innocence before he faced trial, by recreating a fake Vermeer in front of a court-appointed panel of experts.

However he had one caveat – he needed to work in the exact same conditions in which he forged the previous paintings. While amassing his extensive fortune, van Meegeren had also gained a heavy dependence on alcohol and opioids. He convinced the court to allow him to work on his new forgery and was given permission to be drunk and high while doing so.

The new painting was presented to Abraham Bredius, known at the time as the “Pope of Vermeers,” for verification. In one of the most embarrassing moments in art history, Bredius commented:

“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.”

After it was clear that the fakes were so good they could fool the “Pope,” van Meegeren was acquitted for selling art to Nazis. Then he immediately went to trial for forgery.

Meegeren looking slightly hungover, 1947

At this point, the story of the man who tricked Goering and the art world elites was immensely popular.

Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister. Van Meegeren had finally gained the notoriety and admiration that he had been working for decades to achieve. His original plan may have taken a hefty detour but ultimately was a success and he milked it for all it was worth.

When the judge asked van Meegeren why he sold the paintings for such high prices, he jauntily replied to the delight of the press: 

“I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.”

Van Meegeren’s popularity likely contributed to his relatively light sentence, as well as the lack of legal curiosity regarding his relationship with the Third Reich.

In November 1947, Hans van Meegeren was sentenced to one year of jail time for the crime of art forgery.

Van Meegeren’s plan to go out in a blaze of glory came to fruition shortly after his sentencing. Two months before he was supposed to begin serving his time, he had a massive heart attack and died, likely a result of being without alcohol and morphine for the first time in decades.

The Moral of our Story

Let’s not dwell too much on the rather abrupt death of our antihero.

The guy left two sets of wives and kids and made a career as a professional con artist.

What we could, and perhaps should, dwell on is this: Hans van Meegeren is the most famous art forger that we know of, but he is by no means the most prolific.

Cases of fakes and forgeries have fascinated us before and after van Meegeren’s time. In the last five years alone, scandals at venerable galleries like Christies and Knoedler rocked the art world, casting a shadow of doubt over every purchase of a masterpiece. Our best estimate of how many fakes and forgeries are floating around in the world comes to us from a tax haven in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Swiss-located Fine Arts Experts Institute is a favorite tax-free art storage location for the very wealthy. Along with the excellent storage amenities, the team of experts there will verify the legitimacy of your recently purchased painting for only $19,000 a pop. To do this, they use a wide breadth of technologies, ranging from radiocarbon dating to good old-fashioned x-rays. They likely have the world’s best ability to grasp the scale of forgeries on the market today.

The FAEI chief, Yann Walther, stated that 70-90% of the paintings examined by his organization are fakes and as many as 50% of pieces circulating the $60 billion art market are forgeries.

While controversies in the private art sector might give us non-millionaires some satisfying schadenfreude, they do lead to questions about the art we can access, the art in museums.

Art critic Michael Glover estimated in 2010 that as much as 20% of art in major museums in the western world will not be attributed to the same artist in 100 years. There are a lot of caveats in that statement (what counts a major museum, etc) so it may not be the most reliable source, although 20% is a rather common statistic used when discussing this issue.

In all fairness, it is very difficult to nail down a reliable statistic on the number of fake paintings in museums since that market is so static. Paintings accepted into museums decades or even centuries ago are rarely examined with the scrutiny of modern technology unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

So should we be admiring the Gauguins, Pollocks, and Vermeers on display at the Frick, MoMa, and Met with a grain of salt?

The answer is: Maybe?

BY: KYLIE HOLLOWAY, TOUR GUIDE AT MUSEUM HACK 

Did you love this story? Join Kylie on our tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or any of our guides in any of our cities!) for more incredible, unexpected stories about the collection.  

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