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In the Hands of a Master

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The Forger’s Spell

By Edward Dolnick
HarperCollins, 2008

Writing so-called ‘popular’ history (as opposed, presumably, to un-popular history, the kind historians write only to read to each other, at academic conferences) is much harder than it looks. The term itself is vaguely incriminating, implying a slipshod, Wiki-approach to drab things as facts and dates, and certainly there have been landfills of such books that lived down to this reputation. But extensive documentation alone won’t save a book from the term – look at Edward Dolnick’s latest book, The Forger’s Spell (there’s the usual enormous subtitle, too long for reprinting on the Internet): it’s got eight pages of closely-packed bibliographical references, and each of its fifty-nine chapters has a dense accretion of endnotes. And yet, it’ll certainly be termed ‘popular’ history, for the simple reason that its author has kept always in the front of his efforts that he must tell a good story. Factual accuracy, yes; proper proportions, yes; but if you don’t tell a good story, you’ve no business writing history at all.

Fortunately, Dolnick has not only a good story but, as a John Mortimer character might put it, a rattling good yarn. The subject of The Forger’s Spell is Han Van Meegeren, a fourth-rate Dutch painter who in 1945 stunned a war-weary world by admitting that he had painted some of the most highly prized and revered Vermeers in the world, including the Christ at Emmaus which had sent the art world into such rhapsodies of admiration when it was ‘discovered’ in 1937 by eminent art connoisseur Abraham Bredius.

Bredius had been approached by an attorney representing Van Meegeren, who claimed to be retailing the painting for a Dutch family. Bredius was pretty much immediately convinced not only that it was a genuine Vermeer but that it was one of the greatest Vermeers (Bredius had, in his youth, discovered a couple of genuine Vermeers – out of the thirty-five extant in the world – so his endorsement weighed heavily with other experts). The general public heartily agreed, despite one fact that should have scuppered the whole process: the painting wasn’t any good. Dolnick opens his witty, incredibly fast-paced book, an urbane and entirely delightful example of ‘popular’ history, with this statement, delivered with an endearing tone of bafflement:

That badness [of Van Meegeren’s forgeries] is undeniable, but it is precisely Van Meegeren’s badness that gives his story its sting. Van Meegeren was a tireless experimenter, a savvy tactician and deal-maker, and a brilliant psychologist. What he was not especially good at was painting. He found a way to make that not matter.

Van Meegeren’s tale has been told often. Nearly always it is told wrong. Van Meegeren was a genius, we read, a master forger, the greatest forger who ever lived, and so on. This is to get the story almost entirely backward. Van Meegeren did fool the world and he did earn a fortune for it, but his true distinction was this: he is perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as fake.

The end results may have been so obvious (in retrospect, his fakes have a watery limpness about them that is worlds away from the ethereality of Vermeer, but then, so many things are clear in retrospect), but that isn’t to say Van Meegeren didn’t put a great deal of thought and effort into producing them. His own art, produced under his own name, had brought down the scorn of the critics, and as Dolnick writes, Van Meegeren cherished his grievances. As much as for the money it eventually brought him, he embarked on his secret career as a forger of masterpieces in equal measure to put a thumb in the eye of the connoisseurs. And for a time, he succeeded wildly at both of these aims, in large part because he took precise and exhaustive care about his technique.

Forging an old painting is about far more than capturing the original artist’s style (indeed, as Dolnick makes clear, it isn’t even mostly about doing that; Van Meegeren’s Vermeers really don’t look much like real Vermeers at all, to anyone paying even a little close attention); it’s about duplicating his workshop. Original period canvas and wood backing must be found, ideally; original pigments must be found. The 21st century’s advanced forensics make this almost unbelievably difficult, but even in the 1930s and ‘40s, they were significant hurdles.

And even once you’ve duplicated the workshop, you still have to duplicate the ravages of time. All old paintings develop a spider-work of tiny lines, called craquelure in the art world, and over time these lines fill with dust and dirt and other airborne particles and darken to black. Van Meegeren had to account for all of these things in his forging of Christ at Emmaus and all his other fake Vermeers, and reading The Forger’s Spell, you can easily perceive Dolnick’s sometimes grudging admiration for Van Meegeren’s audacity:

Van Meegeren was an ingenious man and a high-stakes gambler, and he must have gotten a kick out of a nervy little game he played to finish up his fake. The last step in creating a convincing craquelure was to darken the cracks so that they looked as if they had been accumulating dirt for centuries. But how could anyone tamp down dirt into a complex network formed of thousands of ditches each only a tiny fraction of an inch deep?

Van Meegeren’s solution was to use not dirt but India ink. If he could somehow spill ink into the cracks, and nowhere else, he would achieve exactly the spider’s web look he was after, and he would avoid all the shoveling-and-tamping heartache. This was a colossal gamble – if anyone tested the “dirt” with a microscope, the game would be up in an instant. Van Meegeren, so prudent in some steps of the forging process and so reckless in others, shrugged and pushed all his chips into the center of the table.

As noted, it worked: the connoisseurs fell for it completely (well, not all of them, or perhaps not completely – the great Dutch historian J.H. Huizinga, although not sniffing an outright fraud, did point out, before Van Meegeren’s discovery, that he thought Christ at Emmaus wasn’t a very good Vermeer), and Van Meegeren was able to revel not only in the fortune selling this and other forgeries brought him (at a time when most postwar Hollanders lived in austere poverty, his mansion and lifestyle were all the more conspicuous) but in the secret joy of deluding the very critics who’d condemned his own work as insipid and forgettable.

Han Van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgery, Christ at Emmaus

Who knows how long he’d have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for one particular connoisseur, an avid art collector who paid a great wopping sum for Christ at Emmaus. That art collector got Van Meegeren in a gigantic amount of trouble with the Dutch police, because that art collector was the second most evil man in the world, the Nazi leader Hermann Goering.

Goering was an immensely vain dandy and a voracious hoarder of artwork, and he had all of captive Europe at his disposal. He hid his precious paintings deep in abandoned salt mines to preserve them from Allied bombings, and it was he who authorized the Nazi bombing of Holland, including the near-total destruction of the beautiful old city of Rotterdam. After the war, when the Dutch police learned of the various Vermeers in Goering’s macabre collection that may have been sold to him by the ‘broker’ Van Meegeren, their anger was aroused. Goering was a prized prisoner of the Allied Command, but Van Meegeren was right there in Holland, enjoying the good life while his countrymen starved. On suspicion of collaboration with the enemy, of selling priceless national treasures to the hated Nazis–in short, of treason–Van Meegeren was snatched from his mansion in the dead of night and thrown in jail, to face rigorous questioning that only became more severe when a copy of a book he’d written was discovered in which he’d written an affectionate dedication to Adolf Hitler.

Confronted with this and all the other evidence of his league with the Nazis, Van Meegeren had only one card to play, the most unbelievable card in the world:

The next day, in the midst of yet another cat-and-mouse interrogation, van Meegeren cracked. After one question too many from [Inspector] Piller and two colleagues, he burst out with an indignant cry. “Idiots!” he yelled. “You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it’s not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!”

His interrogators naturally didn’t believe him. As Dolnick points out, the penalty for forgery was a fine or at most a little jail time, whereas the penalty for treason was death. Van Meegeren, in their view, had every reason to lie.

But investigation quickly began to confirm his astonishing revelation, and the more evidence experts uncovered, the more impossible it seemed that anybody had been fooled in the first place. It wasn’t just that Van Meegeren had never had the sheer artistic ability to even approximate the sublimity of a true Vermeer – it was also that in many ways he’d been curiously and persistently careless with details. One of the key pieces of physical evidence that damned him was a piece of wood inspectors found in his workshop in Nice that precisely matched the wood backing of Christ at Emmaus. Dolnick has written about science and technology for many years; he wants this remarkable oversight on Van Meegeren’s part to make some kind of sense:

Why hadn’t Van Meegeren thrown away so incriminating a piece of evidence? He had kept it, he said, precisely so that he could prove beyond question that Emmaus was his work. And perhaps that had once been his intent. But if van Meegeren had really wanted to tell the world that he had painted Emmaus, he had missed chance after chance. Why wouldn’t he have announced his role in 1938, for instance, when the painting was the unrivalled star of the Boymans exhibition and the toast of the art world? (For that matter, why would he have chosen to prove himself with something so mundane as a piece of wood? It would have been perfectly easy to rig a camera to snap a picture of him painting Emmaus).

Van Meegeren had always had a choice – he could step out from the wings and onto center stage and win fame, or he could stay out of sight but rich. He had made his choice.

(An art scholar Dolnick consults on the question intriguingly suggests Van Meegeren didn’t so much keep the piece of wood as simply forget he still had it, whereupon it got lost in the typical jumble of an artist’s studio, and having seen more than one such studio-cum-junkshop, I’m inclined to think this might be right).

Of equal fascination for Dolnick – and no doubt for his readers – in addition to the question of how Van Meegeren achieved his forgeries (and how he was eventually caught), is how any of it was able to work in the first place. Art experts are art experts for a reason, after all; how could they all have been fooled? The best parts of Dolnick’s book deal with this most puzzling piece of the story:

Even if we concede, though, that the connoisseurs clung to their pet beliefs far, far too long, we have yet to take on one central question. How did the experts come to hold their false beliefs in the first place? How did Van Meegeren get away with it?

The flippant answer – by choosing foolish victims – misses the mark. (In matters of art, Goering was an ignoramus, and tricking him was no coup, but Bredius and the others were no fools). The modern-day magician Teller, writing about hoaxes generally, made a far more useful suggestion. “When you’re certain you cannot be fooled,” Teller observed, “you become easy to fool.”

A little knowledge is famously a dangerous thing, but a lot of knowledge can be dangerous too, if a fraudster knows how to exploit it. (“There are some mistakes it takes a Ph.D. to make,” Daniel Moynihan once observed.) The trick, as in jujitsu, is to find a way to turn a rival’s apparent advantage into a drawback.

In the end, Van Meegeren was sentenced to a year in jail for his forgeries, but he died of a heart attack before he could spend one day of his sentence (a sentence about which he was fairly calm, saying he should take it like a good sport). In all likelihood, Bredius, an old man, died before he could learn the full extent of how badly he’d been fooled. And perhaps the most satisfying little note of Dolnick’s tale is that Goering, before he managed to kill himself and thus avoid the hangman’s noose, was gleefully apprised of how he’d been played for a fool by a greedy unknown. “No, no, no!” Goering squealed, complaining about how much the paintings had cost him.

And the art world recovered. As Dolnick writes, most forgeries have a lifespan of roughly forty years, after which the inevitable forces of inquiry and re-appraisal uncover them. Van Meegeren’s reputation recovered as well; he went from reviled Nazi collaborator to roguish con man who tricked some of the worst people in the world. Van Meegeren’s fakes are now art school training exercises, and the whole thing is now merely one of those priceless stories – those rattling good yarns – that so-called ‘popular’ history loves so much. Readers in search of this particular story need look no further than The Forger’s Spell, which reads as fluidly and engagingly as if I’d written it myself.

Jan van Doop is an art history graduate of a prominent Delft university and is a lifelong student in the aesthetics of Vermeer. He finds himself especially embarrassed by the very idea of any kind of Dutch forgery. This is his first publication in English.