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The Forger’s Spell, by Edward Dolnick

April 10, 2009

I’m reading this book right now and it is the perfect mix of art/ world history and intrigue.  It tells the story of Han Van Meegeren, one of the greatest art forgers of all time who managed to convince the world that Vermeer had an earlier, more religiously inspired period of (ugly) paintings. The book covers several subjects including how Van Meegeren managed to create convincing forgeries, interviews with other successful forgers and the background on the Nazi-created chaos in the art market of the 1940s.

Van Meegeren was operating in an ideal time for forgers when two of the most powerful men in the world, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering (the commander of the Luftwaffe among other things), were art obsessed. Hitler envisioned creating the most comprehensive museum ever of European art in his home town (the delusions of an unsuccessful artist?) and Goering’s greed for shiny objects led him to fill train load after train load of precious art to bring to his mansions (often illegally obtained using “coercion” tactics). Capitalizing on the general chaos in Europe and the utter disregard for provenance at the time, Van Meegeren released 17 known forgeries on the market over about 20 years, reaping in millions of dollars of rewards. He had to claim he won the lottery several times to cover his real source of income! The tragic thing is, during the occupation, the Dutch were passionate about keeping Dutch art in Holland and out of German hands so many of his forgeries were bought by his fellow countrymen at exorbitant prices in their eagerness to be patriotic.

Van Meegeren’s forgeries were carefully crafted from hard to find 17th century paintings (which he took apart) and meticulously researched oil paint mixtures. His most ingenious forgery technique was to add plastic to his paints. One of the most common tests for oil paintings is to rub a cotton swab dipped in alcohol on the paint – some color will come off on new paintings since the oils haven’t hardened yet, but if you rub the swab on an old (100+ years) painting, nothing will come off. By mixing a new material (plastic, or Bakelite, as it was called in the 1940s) into his oils and then baking his canvases, he managed to harden the oil paint into convincing 300 year old consistency. Not only that, his painting was so authentic looking that it convinced one of the leading curators and art historians of the time, Abraham Bredius, that Disciples at Emmaus was Vermeer’s greatest work. Ironically, Van Meegeren had created a similar painting under his own name some years before and it was scorned and mocked by critics when it was presented at a gallery.

One of the more surprising things about this story is that when we look at Van Meegeren’s forgeries today, they seem so stilted and lifeless. One of the essential points of the book is to remind readers of the cultural and historical perspectives we bring to the table when viewing art. The exaggerated sentimentality of Van Meegeren’s work appealed to Dutch viewers of his time because, the author argues, they were caught up in dramatic historical events and had a heightened sense of patriotism and emotion. They wanted to see Vermeer in Van Meegeren’s paintings because the paintings appealed to them so much. It makes you question what we bring to the table when looking at art today.

vermmer-van-meegeren_1

The book is a page turner filled with eye opening historical facts (did you know that a greater percentage of Holland’s Jewish population was sent to concentration camps than any other European country? Sadly, Holland has a history of being the most liberal and accepting of the Jewish community there and they were the hardest hit under the occupation). My only criticism is that it isn’t well organized and can be confusing as the author jumps from explaining forging methods to Hermann Goering’s greedy habits and the chapters are sometimes only 2 pages long…

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