Book 20; Continent: Europe

The Forger’s Spell (P.S.) by Edward Dolnick

  • 384 pages (258 pages excluding Notes, etc.)
  • You might take in this little gem after your next trip to an art museum or gallery…especially if going wasn’t your idea.

It’s not The Thomas Crown Affair, so don’t expect some slickly handsome protagonist in a sequence of clever, hair-raising action scenes. This story is much weirder. This one has Nazis, and not just any Nazis. It has a famous Nazi, head of the Luftwaffe, a man who fancied himself a connoisseur of fine art, Hermann Goering. The forger who gives the book its title is Han van Meegeren, the man who conned Goering into trading 137 paintings from his own ill-gotten collection for a fake Vermeer.

The kicker is that Van Meegeren wasn’t even an especially good painter. In fact, having mediocre-at-best artistic talent provided some of the motivation for selling forgeries of old masters in the first place—it allowed him to make the art world that wrote him off look foolish. His real talent lay in recognizing criminal opportunities and how to capitalize on them. He knew the likelihood of scientific testing for authenticity in those days (next to nothing, short of a test of paint hardness) and devised a workable means to get around it. He also knew that provenance (the history of who owned a work of art) was easy to fictionalize for an eager buyer. Finally, he had a practical understanding of the psychology of his marks, the art experts of Holland.

Author Edward Dolnick uses much of the book not to simply retell a narrative, but to explain how Van Meegeren could have achieved such a spectacular hoax in the first place. These insights give the book its interest. Dolnick covers how Van Meegeren tackled his technical problems in creating a convincing “Vermeer” masterpiece, but there is more to the job. Dolnick discusses why Van Meegeren picked Vermeer in the first place. Why not Rembrandt, a contemporary of Vermeer? The short answer: Rembrandt was much, much more prolific, so the body of genuine work available for comparison is too large to be attractive to a forger. Only some 35 or 36 authentic Vermeers are known to exist, and the artist’s personal history is not well-known. Consequently, as Van Meegeren recognized, the art community has an appetite for newly discovered work by less-prolific masters, particularly if it seems to fill a gap in an artist’s career.

For this true story to seem plausible, we must understand the practiced eye of the art critic. Expertise on a particular painter typically leads to absolute certainty about the authorship of a painting—years of training create a bias that works in the forger’s favor. An expert on Vermeer, then, is expecting to see a few specific hallmarks of the painter’s work, not some skilled knockoff. A critic is also trained to disregard whether or not he or she personally finds the painting aesthetically pleasing (search Google Images on “Van Meegeren paintings” sometime to see why this is important).

Dolnick also makes sure we take a good look into the art world of 1930s and 1940s Europe, especially Holland. The Dutch were desperate to keep their national treasures—legitimate Vermeers among them—and sought Dutch buyers to own any art piece created by a Dutch master. American industrialists of the previous few decades had become wealthy enough to buy many important European works with a certain brand-name cache—Monet, Chagall, etc. To the European art community, letting Americans have their art treasures, regardless of the price, was tantamount to watching the lottery-winning neighbors bedazzle their trailer.

Once World War II began, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering plundered the art collections of Europe for their personal prizes. Trains full of paintings and sculptures arrived Goering’s Carin Hall. Many simply disappeared into vaults or warehouses after their “purchase” with state funds. Others were simply taken from prisoners of the state. Disregarding the morality of the thing for a moment, as a practical matter, one cannot have a discriminating eye for art if one is assuming possession of hundreds of paintings at a swoop. Even hired art experts can’t keep up with that kind of increase in personal inventory, and this fact made Goering a particularly attractive (if dangerous!) mark.

Luckily for Van Meegeren, he wasn’t discovered until after Goering had been arrested and imprisoned. The investigator who finally caught the forger was no great favorite of the Nazi party. In the chaos of post-war Holland’s legal system, no one minded that he essentially kept the charming Van Meegeren under house arrest as kind of pet before turning him over for trial. By that time, Van Meegeren was famous for his hoax, and his trial was a national sensation. In 1947 Holland, the man who swindled the Nazis was ripe to become a sort of folk hero. He was sentenced only to one year’s imprisonment (the minimum sentence for forgery was two years), and he died of heart disease before he could begin serving his sentence.

What made this book interesting for me was the psychology of the art community at this time and place. Don’t worry, it doesn’t sink so deeply into the specifics of the subject matter as to bore the lay public (I’m looking at you, The Billionaire’s Vinegar). Dolnick gives us just enough of a taste to show how any person who considers him- or herself a connoisseur of some kind can have that identity work against them when presented with a fake.

“Portrait of a Lady Blogging, after Vermeer”…obviously not a Van Meegeren, as he died in 1947. This one is just for fun. Photo credit: Mike Licht, / Foter / CC BY

4 thoughts on “Book 20; Continent: Europe

  1. Neat image: “To the European art community, letting Americans have their art treasures, regardless of the price, was tantamount to watching the lottery-winning neighbors bedazzle their trailer.”

  2. Pingback: Book 1; Continent: Europe | History Reading Challenge

  3. Pingback: Art, True Crime; Continent: North America, Europe | History Reading Challenge

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