Master forger: A trick, performed by Han van Meegeren, is art in itself

75 years ago today, on December 30, 1947, Han van Meegeren, the absolute master of the ‘old masters’ who developed into the greatest art forger our country has ever known, died. Because yes, what do you do if your skills as a painter are not inferior to those of Rembrandt, Frans Hals or Vermeer, but you are not taken seriously? Then you start painting under someone else’s name, and a ‘real Van Meegeren’ suddenly turns into a newly discovered ‘Vermeer’.

(text: Wim Meijer)

Nothing with stones
If it had been up to Van Meegeren’s father, his son, Han, would have developed into a respected architect. A study in architecture at Delft University of Technology should form the ideal basis for such a career. However, Han van Meegeren did not prove to have much interest in stone, architecture and engineering. And after six years he abandoned the study that his father had chosen for him and threw himself into the world of art with full dedication.

Old masters obsolete
From the age of 24 he developed an almost unique skill in drawing, painting, etching and watercolor painting, especially in the style of the Dutch Old Masters. The problem, however, was that in the first half of the twentieth century there was apparently no longer interest in that style of painting. Good for the ‘real’ old masters, but no longer for new painters with this ‘outdated’ style. It therefore gave him sharp reactions from recognized art critics.

Retired at the castle
Han van Meegeren was so concerned with this criticism that he eventually retired from Holland and settled in a castle near Nice in the second half of the 1930s. There he barred any visitors while devoting himself even more emphatically to perfecting the painting of Old Masters.

Despite the fact that van Meegeren’s paintings under his own name did not enjoy great popularity, he apparently managed to live well, because when he suddenly made headlines in 1945, he was found to be living in great luxury in Roode Huys on the Keizersgracht.

One of Han van Meegeren’s masterpieces: The Supper at Emmaus (photo: Wikipedia)

Sold to Herman Göring
Han van Meegeren’s sudden fame in 1945 was not due to his own painting, but to a painting he had sold for NLG 1,650,000 to German Nazi leader Herman Göring. It was about the painting ‘Christ with the woman taken in adultery’ by (as it was still believed at the time) Johannes Vermeer. After the German capitulation, the painting was discovered by the Allies in a salt mine in Austria, where the Nazis had stored many of the art treasures they had ‘looted’.

From suspect of collaboration to folk hero
Van Meegeren could not explain the provenance of the painting and was suspected by the Dutch authorities of collaborating with the Germans. Because this could carry the death penalty, van Meegeren decided to admit that the painting was not Vermeer, but a forgery, painted by himself.

To prove that he was indeed capable of this, Van Meegeren was allowed to make another forgery under supervision. This became: Christ in the temple. With this he convinced everyone, after which he suddenly changed in the eyes of the Dutch people from a possible traitor to a national hero who had dared to cheat the Nazis for more than a million and a half with a forged painting.

12 forgeries, 10 million guilders
However, this euphoria would not last long. Because with his confession it also became clear that the forgery was not limited to the one ‘Vermeer’ from Herman Göring’s collection. In the subsequent trial, he admitted that the ‘Vermeer’ Supper at Emmaus, discovered in 1938 and bought by the Museum Boymans van Beuningen for 540,000 guilders, was also a work of art by his hand.

In total, he confessed to forging 12 works of art, with which he earned an estimated 10 million guilders.

Lifetime
In November 1947, Han van Meegeren was sentenced to one year in prison. However, that would mean ‘life imprisonment’ for him, because a month later, on 30 December 1947, he died suddenly as a result of a heart attack. He was then 58 years old.

This spelled the end for an artist who was never seen as he wanted to be seen: as a true artist who could compete with the ‘old masters’ with the only difference being a span of several centuries.

To silence critics
He never wanted to go down in history as the master forger. With his first forgery, ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, he really only wanted to silence all the art critics who were so negative towards his work. If they all fell for it, he would confess to the forgery. The art critics’ loss of face would be his triumph. It turned out differently. When Dirk Hannema, the then director of Museum Boymans van Beuningen, paid 540,000 guilders for ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, Van Meegeren realized that it could be very profitable to paint under someone else’s name. He made it his specialty.

The fact that his work, forgeries or not, attracted great interest even after his death became evident in 1950 at the auction of his estate:

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