Han van Meegeren is arguably the mastermind behind “the greatest art hoax of the 20th century”. Throughout his career, van Meegeren challenged the art world’s process of guaranteeing a work’s validity, as well as how an art forger is perceived in front of the law, especially during the turbulent times of the Second World War. While van Meegeren meticulously orchestrated elaborate methods of creating faux paintings, he also planned a shocking twist; once the works began to be admired by reputable art critics, he would expose them as frauds, duping the art world. Henceforth, fueled by raw resentment from his own failed works, van Meegeren created an elaborate deceit of the art world, exposing its own fragility and inconsistencies.
Born in the Netherlands in 1889, van Meegeren originally studied architecture, but soon turned to painting with a portraiture style scathingly similar to Rembrandt. Facing criticism in the art world as a result of his style, van Meegeren yearned to create “new’’ and “original” works by the well-known 17th-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer. He first noticed Vermeer’s unusually small collection of just 36 known paintings and saw an opportunity to exploit the rarity of his works. van Meegerem took aim at an early period of Vermeer’s life which consisted of a large gap in paintings. Calling this period Vermeer’s “early religious period”, he believed it would prevent anyone from considering the validity of Vermeer’s works, simply because there were no others available for comparison.
One such work by van Meegeren, “Supper at Emmaus”, was cast as Vermeer’s, but is now known to be the greatest of van Meegeren’s forgeries. By using several aging techniques, van Meegeren captured the essence of Vermeer, enough for it to be coined a “masterpiece” by authorities. He even showcased the piece in a prestigious exhibition in Rotterdam: “‘400 Years of European Art”. Despite earlier plans, van Meegeren avoided exposing the fraudulent nature of the painting and instead continued to produce six more Vermeer’s alongside other Dutch Old Masters.
This fraudulent behavior continued into the Second World War with the sale of a Vermeer to Hermann Göring, “the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany”. It was only after World War Two that this work, a 1942 creation of “Christ and the Adulteress”, was discovered and ultimately traced back to van Meegeren. As a result, the artist was arrested amid suspicions of Nazi collaboration and the sale of Dutch cultural heritage, two charges punishable by death. However, van Meegeren ruthlessly claimed that the work was a forgery and knowingly sold Göring a fraudulent piece of artwork, a confession which completely baffled and divided the art world.
During his trial, van Meegeren created “Jesus among the Doctors” as a way to validate and provide proof of the forgeries. In doing so, the artist explained step-by-step the intricate details in creating the fraudulent works. He ultimately faced charges of forgery and fraud, both of which involved lesser sentences than his previous crimes, and was sentenced to imprisonment for one year. However, after suffering two heart attacks, he died in 1947 before arriving at prison.
After van Meegeren’s death and confession, art historians still accredited and authenticated his paintings, unaware that they were frauds. According to Dutch citizens after the war, van Meegeren “died a hero”. During the trial, he portrayed himself as a Dutch patriot and highlighted the importance of selling his forged works to a Nazi, essentially making a fool of both Göring and Germany. As a result, he was applauded by the Netherlands, bringing notoriety to his other works in the process.
As he hoped in the beginning by producing the paintings “not for money but for art’s sake”, van Meegeren’s frauds have continued to baffle the art world long after his trial. Driven by his frustration with the art world's rejection of his own pieces, van Meegeren hid under the disguise of well-known artists, like Vermeer. By doing so, he sought to turn the art world on its head.
First, van Meegeren hinted at the questions surrounding just how artworks are assigned value, both monetarily and emotionally. Likewise, he brought to light how such works are given meaning, either by historical attachment or pure awe. He also exposed the basis on which the validity of works is reviewed, which is rather subjectively based on the roles of specialists. While some view van Meegeren’s art as art in its own right, others view it as mere forgeries. However, van Meegeren consciously sought to raise such questions, all of which were driven by pure revenge on the art world.
By the end of his life, he had duped museums, art experts, and Hitler’s right-hand man. He managed to achieve the fame he sought in the art world, both as a successful art forger and Dutch hero after the war.
This article is part of a collaborative series with publication Art Pot which aims to show how law and art have, and continue to be, interconnected. Read Art Pot's analysis of Han van Meegeren's forgeries here.