Henricus Antonius van Meegeren (1889-1947)

Like so many other art forgers, Dutch artist Hans van Meegeren was embittered by his lack of success as a painter. He was talented, and was briefly successful in the late 1910s and early 1920s, but he became an alcoholic and morphine addict after his rejection by the establishment.

After a fake Frans Hals was denounced by critic Abraham Bredius, van Meegeren set his sights on Jan Vermeer. In many ways, Vermeer was the perfect target: only 36 works by Vermeer are still extant, and there is much we still don’t know about his life. Van Meegeren mixed his pigments in the manner of the old masters, and he baked his canvases to age and crack the paintings.

He was more successful than he could have imagined. Van Meegeren’s Christ at Emmaus was embraced by the very critic who spotted one of his previous fakes: Bredius. Now a nearly blind man in his eighties, Bredius boldly declared that "We have the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft." The art establishment followed Bredius’ lead, and van Meegeren’s 14 Vermeers were accepted as genuine. Van Meegeren had cleverly composed his painting with Bredius in mind, and must have been savoring his revenge.

World War II soon ravaged Europe, and the Nazis, who fancied themselves a cultured race, systematically looted the art treasures of the continent. One van Meegeren canvas, Christ with the Adulteress, was the pride of the collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who had traded 200 paintings to acquire the "Vermeer". After the war, it was discovered in a horde of stolen art in a salt mine in Alt Aussee in northern Austria. By May 1945, authorities in the Netherlands had traced the canvas back to van Meegeren.

Everyone was convinced that the Vermeer was genuine, and van Meegeren could not explain how he had acquired the painting, so he was thrown in prison. The penalty for collaborating with the Nazis was death. To avoid the gallows, van Meegeren confessed to forgery and declared himself a patriot for hoodwinking Göring. His fakes were so good, and the art establihment so convinced as to the authenticity of the works, that no one believed him until he painted another Vermeer in his jail cell. Embraced by Americans as a hero, largely due to Irving Wallace’s book The Man Who Cheated Hermann Göring, the Dutch were not amused. The charges of collaboration were dropped and replaced with charges of forgery, and he was sentenced to one year in prison.

While in prison awaiting the Nuremberg trials, Göring learned that his precious Vermeer was a fake. According to one account, "he looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world." That must have been a nice kick in the balls for the man who would soon dodge the hangman’s noose by taking poison, and for that alone, van Meegeren should be praised.

Van Meegeren never went to prison. He died in a rehab clinic in December 1947.

Reportedly, Nicholas Hytner was going to direct a movie about van Meegeren’s life, but I can’t find any record of that film being made. Also see Derek Mahon’s poem "The Forger".

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