Old Masters Academy

Forgery. Dutchman who painted Vermeers.

Forgery. Dutchman who painted Vermeers.



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So called because of its resemblance to Garbo film posters, this painting is otherwise known as The Girl in Antique Costume or The Girl in the Blue Hat. The Paul Casirer Gallery of Berlin arranged the sale of the picture to Baron Heinrich Thyssen, who later became suspicious of the work and returned it to the gallery. Again, Jonathan Lopez suggests that the picture’s “Thirties” look was intended by van Meegeren to appeal subliminally to the tastes of the time.

Han van Meegeren (10 October 1889 in Deventer, Overijssel – 30 December 1947 in Amsterdam), born Henricus Antonius van Meegeren, was a Dutch painter and portraitist, and is considered to be one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century.

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Before his trial Han van Meegeren demonstrated his forgery techniques before an expert panel by painting his last forgery Jesus among the Doctors

As a child, van Meegeren developed an enthusiasm for the marvelous colours used by painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and later set out to become an artist himself. When art critics decried his work as tired and derivative, van Meegeren felt that they had destroyed his career. Thereupon, he decided to prove his talent to the critics by forging paintings of some of the world’s most famous artists, includingFrans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer. He so well replicated the styles and colours of the artists that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his paintings as genuine and sometimes exquisite. His most successful forgery wasSupper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France. This painting was hailed by some of the world’s foremost art experts as the finest Vermeer they had ever seen.

During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen, wanting to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, avidly bought van Meegeren’s forgeries. Nevertheless, a falsified “Vermeer” ended up in the possession of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. Following the war, the forgery was discovered in Göring’s possession, and van Meegeren was arrested 29 May 1945 as a collaborator, as officials believed that he had sold Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. This would have been an act of treason, the punishment for which was death, so van Meegeren fearfully confessed to the forgery. On 12 November 1947, after a brief but highly publicized trial, he was convicted of falsification and fraud charges, and was sentenced to a modest punishment of one year in prison. He never served his sentence, however; before he could be incarcerated, he suffered a heart attack and died on 30 December 1947. It is estimated that van Meegeren duped buyers, including the government of the Netherlands, out of the equivalent of more than thirty million dollars in today’s money.

Early years

Han (a diminutive version of Henri or Henricus) van Meegeren was born in 1889 as the third of five children of middle-class Roman Catholic parents in the provincial city town of Deventer. He was the son of Augusta Louisa Henrietta Camps and Hendrikus Johannes van Meegeren, a French and history teacher at the Kweekschool (training college for schoolmasters) in the city of Deventer.

Early on, Han felt neglected and misunderstood by his father, as the elder van Meegeren strictly forbade his artistic development, and constantly derided him. He was often forced by his father to write a hundred times the phrase “I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing.” While attending the Higher Burger School, he met teacher and painter Bartus Korteling (1853 – 1930), who would become his mentor. Korteling had been inspired by Johannes Vermeer and showed the young van Meegeren how Vermeer had manufactured and mixed his colours. Korteling had rejected the Impressionist movement and other modern trends, as decadent, degenerate art, and his strong personal influence probably later led van Meegeren to rebuff contemporary styles and paint exclusively in the style of the Dutch Golden Age.

img src=”http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ae/Meegeren%27s_Rowing_Club_in_Delft_-angle_B%27-.jpg/250px-Meegeren%27s_Rowing_Club_in_Delft_-angle_B%27-.jpg” alt=”” width=”250″ height=”150″/>
Han van Meegeren designed this boat-house for his Rowing Club D.D.S. while studying architecture in Delft from 1907 to 1913.

Van Meegeren’s father did not share his son’s love of art, and instead, encouraged Han to study architecture. In 1907, van Meegeren, compelled by his father’s demands, left home to study at the Technische Hogeschool (Delft Technical College), as it was called in those days, in Delft, the hometown of Johannes Vermeer. He received drawing and painting lessons as well. He easily passed his preliminary examinations, but because he did not wish to become an architect, he never took the Ingenieurs (final) examination. He nevertheless proved to be an apt architect, and in fact designed the clubhouse for his rowing club DDS in Delft (see image). This building still exists.

In 1913, van Meegeren gave up his architecture studies and concentrated on drawing and painting at the art school in The Hague. On 8 January 1913, he received the prestigious Gold Medal from the Technical University in Delft, for his Study of the Interior of the Church of Saint Lawrence (Laurenskerk) in Rotterdam. The award was given every five years to an art student who created the best work, and was accompanied by a gold medal.

On 18 April 1912, van Meegeren married a fellow art student, Anna de Voogt, who was expecting their first child. The couple went to live with Anna’s grandmother in Rijswijk. Their son Jacques Henri Emil was born on 26 August 1912 in Rijswijk, Jacques van Meegeren would also become a painter; he died on 26 October 1977 in Amsterdam.

Career as a legitimate painter

In the summer of 1914, van Meegeren moved his family to Scheveningen. That year, he completed the diploma examination at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. The diploma would allow him to teach, and soon he took a position as the assistant to Professor Gips, the Professor of Drawing and Art History, for the small monthly salary of 75 guldens. In March 1915, his daughter Pauline (later called Inez) was born. To supplement his income, Han would sketch posters and paint pictures (generally Christmas cards, still-life, landscapes, and portraits) for thecommercial art trade. Many of these paintings are quite valuable today.

Van Meegeren showed his first paintings publicly in The Hague, where they were exhibited from April to May 1917 at the Kunstzaal Pictura. In December 1919, he was accepted as a select member to the Haagse Kunstkring, an exclusive society of writers and painters, who met weekly on the premises of the Ridderzaal. In his studio at The Hague, opposite the Royal Palace Huis ten Bosch, van Meegeren would paint the tame Roe Deer belonging to Princess Juliana. He made many sketches and drawings of the deer and in 1921, painted Hertje (The fawn), which became quite popular in the Netherlands. He undertook numerous journeys to Belgium, France, Italy and England, and acquired a name for himself as a talented portraitist. He earned stately fees through commissions from English and American socialites who spent their winter vacations on theCôte d’Azur. His clients were impressed by his understanding of the 17th century techniques of the Dutch masters. Throughout his life, van Meegeren would paint pictures to which he would sign his own signature, which differed greatly from the marks he used on his forgeries.

By all accounts, infidelity was responsible for the break up of van Meegeren’s marriage to Anna de Voogt; they were divorced on 19 July 1923. Anna left with the children and moved to Paris, where from time to time, van Meegeren would visit his children. He now dedicated himself to portraiture and began producing forgeries to increase his income.

In 1928, he was remarried, in Woerden, to the raffish actress Johanna Theresia Oerlemans (also known under her stage name Jo van Walraven), with whom he had been living for the past three years. Jo had previously been married to art critic and journalist Dr. C H. de Boer (Karel de Boer), and she brought their daughter, Viola, into the van Meegeren household.

The forgeries

In the Netherlands, Han van Meegeren had become a well-known painter. Hertje (1921) and Straatzangers (1928) were particularly popular. His first legitimate copies were painted in 1923 – his Laughing Cavalier and Happy Smoker – both in the style of Frans Hals. By 1928, the similarity of van Meegeren’s paintings to those of the old masters began to draw the reproach of Dutch art critics, who were, at that time, more interested in the Cubist, Surrealist, and other movements. It was said that van Meegeren’s gift was in imitation and that, outside of copying other artists’ work, his talent was limited. One critic wrote that he was “A gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, he has every virtue except originality.” In response to these comments, van Meegeren published a series of aggressive articles in the monthly magazine De Kemphaan (“The Game Cock”). Between April 1928 and March 1930, and together with journalist Jan Ubink, he raged against the art community, and in the process, lost any sympathy with the critics.

Van Meegeren felt that his genius had been misjudged, and set out to prove to the art critics that he could not only copy the style of the Dutch masters in his paintings, but produce a work of art so magnificent that it would rival the works of master painters. He moved with Jo to the South of France and began preparations for this ultimate forgery, which took him six years, from 1932 to 1937. In a series of early exercises, he forged works by Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer. Finally he chose to forge a painting by Vermeer as his masterpiece. Vermeer had not been particularly well-known until the beginning of the twentieth century; his works were both scarce — only about 35 had survived — and extremely valuable.

Van Meegeren delved into the biographies of the old masters, studying their lives, occupations, trademark techniques and catalogues. In October 1932, Dr. Abraham Bredius published an article about a recently discovered Vermeer which he described as a painting of a Man and Woman at a Spinet. The painting was later sold to Amsterdam banker Dr. Fritz Mannheimer.

Inventing the “perfect forgery”

In 1932, van Meegeren moved to the village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin with his wife. There he rented a furnished mansion called “Primavera” and set out to define the chemical and technical procedures that would be necessary to create his perfect forgeries. He bought authentic 17th century canvas and mixed his own paints from raw materials (such as lapis lazuli,white lead, indigo, and cinnabar) using old formulas to ensure that they were authentic. In addition, he used badger-hair paintbrushes, similar to those Vermeer was known to have used. He came up with a scheme of using phenol formaldehyde to cause the paints to harden after application, making the paintings appear as if they were 300 years old. After completing a painting, van Meegeren would bake it at 100 °C (212.0 °F) to 120 °C (248.0 °F) to harden the paint, and then roll it over a cylinder to increase the cracks. Later, he would wash the painting in black India ink to fill in the cracks.

It took van Meegeren six years to work out his techniques, and when he was done, he was pleased with his work, on both artistic and deceptive levels. Two of these trial paintings were “Vermeers”: Lady Reading Music, after Vermeer’sWoman in Blue Reading a Letter at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and Lady Playing Music, after Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute near a Window hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Van Meegeren did not sell these paintings; both are now at the Rijksmuseum.

Following a journey to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, van Meegeren painted The Supper at Emmaus, using the ultramarine blues and yellows preferred by Johannes Vermeer and other Dutch Golden Age painters. After learning that the experts assumed Vermeer had studied in Italy, van Meegeren used The Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, located at Italy’s Pinacoteca di Brera, as a model for his next work. He had always wanted to walk in the steps of the masters, and he felt that his forgery was a fine work in its own right. He gave the work to his friend, the attorney C. A. Boon, telling him it was a genuine Vermeer, and asked him to show it to the famous art connoisseur and Vermeer expert, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who was living nearby in Monaco. Bredius examined the forgery in September 1937, and despite some initial doubts, he accepted it as a genuine Vermeer and praised it highly.

The painting was purchased by The Rembrandt Society for 520,000 guilders ($300,000 or about $4 million today.) with the aid of a wealthy shipowner Willem van der Vorm and donated to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen inRotterdam. In 1938, the piece was highlighted in a special exhibition at the Rotterdam museum along with 450 Dutch masterpieces dating from 1400-1800. In the “Magazine for [the] History of Art”, A. Feulner wrote that “In the rather isolated area, in which the Vermeer picture hung, it was as quiet as in a chapel. The feeling of the consecration overflows on the visitors, although the picture has no ties to ritual or church.”

In the summer of 1938, van Meegeren moved to Nice. Using the proceeds from the sale of The Supper at Emmaus, he bought a 12-bedroom estate at Les Arènes de Cimiez. On the walls of the estate hung several genuine Old Masters. Two of his better forgeries were made here, Interior with Cardplayers and Interior with Drinkers, both displaying the signature ofPieter de Hooch. During his time in Nice, he painted his Last Supper I in the style of Vermeer.

In September 1939, as the Second World War threatened, he returned to the Netherlands. He remained at a hotel in Amsterdam for several months and in 1940 moved to the village of Laren. Throughout 1941, van Meegeren issued his designs, which he published in 1942 as Han van Meegeren: Teekeningen I (Drawings nr I) a large and luxurious book. During this time, he created several forgeries, including The Head of ChristThe Last Supper IIThe Blessing of JacobThe Adulteress and The Washing of the Feet, all in the manner of Vermeer. On 18 December 1943, he divorced his wife, but this was only a formality; the couple remained together, but a large share of his capital was transferred to her accounts as a safeguard against the uncertainties of the war.

In December 1943, the van Meegerens moved to Amsterdam, where they took up residence in the exclusive Keizersgracht 321. His forgeries had earned him between 5.5 to 7.5 million guilders (or about $25–30 million today). He used this money to purchase a large amount of real estate, jewelry and works of art, and to further his luxurious lifestyle. In a 1946 interview, he told Marie Louise Doudart de la Grée that he owned 52 houses and 15 country houses around Laren, among them grachtenhuizen, beautiful mansions along the famous Amsterdam canals.

The forger fools Hermann Göring

During the German occupation of the Netherlands, one of van Meegeren’s agents sold a Vermeer forgery, Christ with the Adulteress, to Nazi banker and art dealer Alois Miedl in 1942. Experts could probably have identified it as a forgery; as van Meegeren’s health declined, so did the quality of work. He chain-smoked, drank heavily and became addicted to morphine-laced sleeping pills. Fortunately for van Meegeren, there were no genuine Vermeers available for comparison, since most museum collections were in protective storage as a prevention against war damage. Miedl later sold it to Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring for 1.65 million guilders ($625,000 or $7 million today.)

Göring showcased the Vermeer forgery at his residence in Carinhall (about 65 kilometers north of Berlin). On 25 August 1943, Göring hid his collection of looted artwork, including Christ with the Adulteress, in an Austrian salt mine, along with 6,750 other pieces of artwork looted by the Nazis. On 17 May 1945, Allied forces entered the salt mine, where Captain Harry Anderson discovered the previously unknown “Vermeer”.

In May 1945, the Allied forces questioned banker and art dealer Alois Miedl regarding the newly discovered Vermeer. Based on Miedl’s confession, the painting was traced back to van Meegeren. On 29 May 1945, he was arrested and charged with fraud and aiding and abetting the enemy. He was remanded to Weteringschans prison. As an alleged Nazi collaboratorand plunderer of Dutch cultural property the authorities threatened van Meegeren with extensive prison time. Faced with these bleak choices, and after spending three days in jail, he confessed to forging paintings attributed to Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. He exclaimed, “The painting in Göring’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!” It took some time to verify this and for several months he was detained in the Headquarters of the Military Command at Herengracht 468 in Amsterdam. Between July and about November/December 1945, and in the presence of reporters and court-appointed witnesses, he painted his last forgery, Jesus among the Doctors, also called Young Christ in the Temple. After the trial painting was finished, he was transferred to the fortress prison Blauwkapel. Van Meegeren was released from prison in January or February 1946.

Trial, sentence and death

The trial of Han van Meegeren began on 29 October 1947 in Room 4 of the Regional Court in Amsterdam. The collaboration charges had been dropped, since the expert panel had found that the “Vermeer” sold to Hermann Göring had been a forgery and was, therefore, not the cultural property of the Netherlands. The public prosecutor, H. A. Wassenbergh, brought charges of forgery and fraud and demanded a sentence of two years in prison.

The court commissioned an international group of experts to address the authenticity of van Meegeren’s paintings. The commission included curators, professors and doctors from the Netherlands, Belgium, and England and was led by the director of the chemical laboratory at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Dr. Paul Coremans. The commission examined the eight Vermeer and Frans Hals paintings which van Meegeren had identified as forgeries. With the help of the commission, Dr. Coremans was able to determine the chemical composition of van Meegeren’s paints. He found that van Meegeren had prepared the paints by mixing them with the plastic bonding agent Albertol, a phenolformaldehyde resin. A bottle with exactly that ingredient had been found in van Meegeren’s studio. This chemical component was introduced and manufactured in the 20th century, proving that the “Vermeers” and “Frans Halses” examined by the commission were in fact made by van Meegeren. The commission’s other findings suggested that the dust in the craquelure was too homogeneous to be of natural origin. The matter found in the craquelure appeared to come from India ink, which had accumulated even in areas that natural dirt or dust would never have reached. The paint had become so hard that not only alcohol but also strong acids and bases did not attack the surface, a clear indication that the surface had not been formed in a natural manner. The craquelure on the surface did not always match that in the ground layer, which with a natural craquelure would certainly have been the case. Thus, the test results obtained by the commission appeared to confirm that the works were forgeries created by van Meegeren, but their authenticity would continue to be debated by some of the experts until 1967 and 1977, when new investigative techniques were used to analyze the paintings (see below).

On 12 November 1947, the Fourth Chamber of the Amsterdam Regional Court found Han van Meegeren guilty of forgery and fraud, and sentenced him to a minimal one year in prison.

On 26 November 1947, the last day to appeal the ruling, van Meegeren suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the Valeriuskliniek hospital in Amsterdam. While at the hospital, he suffered a second heart attack on 29 December. He was pronounced dead at 5:00 pm on 30 December 1947, at the age of 58. His family and several hundred of his friends attended his funeral at the Driehuis Westerveld Crematorium chapel. In 1948, his urn was buried in the general cemetery in the village of Diepenveen (municipality of Deventer).

Aftermath

After his death, the court ruled that van Meegeren’s estate be auctioned and the proceeds from his property and the sale of his counterfeits be used to refund the buyers of his works and to pay income taxes on the sale of his paintings. In December 1945, van Meegeren had filed forbankruptcy. On 5 and 6 September 1950, the furniture and other possessions in his Amsterdam house at Keizersgracht 321 were auctioned by order of the court, along with 738 other pieces of furniture and works of art, including numerous paintings by old and new masters from his private collection. The house was auctioned separately on 4 September. Together with the house, estimated to be worth 65,000 guilders, the proceeds of the sale amounted to 123,000 guilders. Van Meegeren’s unsigned The Last Supper I was bought for 2,300 guilders, while Jesus among the Doctors (which van Meegeren had painted while in detention) sold for 3,000 guilders (about $800 or about $7,000 today.) Today the painting hangs in a Johannesburg church. The sale of the entire estate amounted to 242,000 guilders ($60,000, or about $500,000 today).

Throughout his trial and bankruptcy, van Meegeren maintained that his second wife, Jo, had nothing to do with the creation and sale of his forgeries. A large part of his considerable wealth had been transferred to her when they were divorced during the war, and the money would have been confiscated, if she had been ruled to be an accomplice. To all authors, journalists and biographers, van Meegeren told the same story: “Jo didn’t know”, and apparently most believed him. Some biographers believe, however, that Jo must have known the truth. Her involvement was never proven, and she was able to keep her substantial capital. Jo outlived her husband by many years, always in great luxury, until her death at the age of 91.

M. Jean Decoen’s objection

M. Jean Decoen, a Brussels art expert and restorer, stated in his 1951 book that he believed The Supper at Emmaus and The Last Supper II to be genuine Vermeers. Decoen went on to state that conclusions of Dr. Paul Coreman’s panel of experts were wrong and that the paintings should again be examined. The buyer of The Last Supper IIInterior with Drinkers, and The Head of Christ, Daniel George van Beuningen, demanded that Dr. Paul Coremans publicly admit that he had erred in his analysis. When Coremans refused, van Beuningen sued him, alleging that Coremans’ wrongful branding of The Last Supper II diminished the value of his “Vermeer” and asking for compensation of £500,000 (about $1.3 million or about $10 million today). The trial was set for 2 June 1955, but was delayed owing to van Beuningen’s death on 29 May 1955. Approximately seven months later, the court heard the case on behalf of van Beuningen’s heirs. The court found in favour of Coremans, and the findings of his commission were upheld.

Further investigations

In 1967, the Artists Material Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh examined several of the “Vermeers” in their collection. Under the direction of Dr. Robert Feller and Dr. Bernard Keisch, the examination confirmed that several of their paintings were in fact created using materials invented in the 20th century. They concluded that the “Vermeers” in their possession were modern and could thus be van Meegeren forgeries. This confirmed the findings of the 1946 Coremans commission, and refuted the claims made by M. Jean Decoen. The test results, obtained by the Carnegie Mellon team are summarized below.

Han van Meegeren knew that white lead was used during Vermeer’s time, but of course he had to obtain his stocks through the modern colour trade, which had changed significantly since the 17th century. During Vermeer’s time, Dutch lead was mined from deposits located in the Low Countries; however, by the 19th century, most lead was imported from Australia and the Americas. Thus, modern white lead differs greatly from the white lead Vermeer would have used, both in the isotope composition of the lead and in the content of trace elements found in the ores. Dutch white lead was extracted from ores containing high levels of trace elements of silver and antimony. In contrast, the modern white lead used by van Meegeren contained neither silver nor antimony, as those elements are now separated from the lead during the modern smelting process.

Forgeries in which modern lead or white lead pigment has been used can be recognized by using a technique called Pb(Lead)-210-Dating. Pb-210 is a naturally occurring radioactive element that is part of the Uranium-238 Radioactive decay series, and has a half life of 22.3 years. To determine the amount of Pb-210, the alpha radiation emitted by another element,polonium-210 (Po-210), is measured. Thus it is possible to estimate the age of a painting, within a few years’ span, by extrapolating the Pb-210 content present in the paint used to create the painting.

The white lead in the painting The Supper at Emmaus had polonium-210 values of 8.5 +/- 1.4 and Radium-226 (part of the uranium-238 radioactive decay series) values of 0.8 +/- 0.3. In contrast, the white lead found in Dutch paintings from 1600-1660 had polonium-210 values of 0.23 +/- 0.27 and radium-226 values of 0.40+/- 0.47.

In 1977, another investigation was undertaken by the States forensic labs of the Netherlands, using up-to-date techniques including gas chromatography, to confirm formally the origin of six van Meegeren forgeries, including the Emmaus and the Last Supper that had been alleged to be genuine Vermeers. The conclusions of the 1946 commission were again reaffirmed and upheld by the Dutch judiciary system. No further investigations have been held.

Legacy

Van Meegeren played different roles, some of which were shrouded in fraudulent intentions, as he sought to fulfill his goal of besting his critics. Early on Han’s father may have foreseen his path, as his father once told him, “You are a cheat and always will be.” On the other hand, his brothers and sisters perceived him as loyal, generous and affectionate, and he was always loving and helpful to his own children. The question “what was his character” cannot be answered unequivocally. Indeed, recent works question many of the existing assumptions about van Meegeren and the motivations for his career in forgery. With Han van Meegeren, everything was double-edged and his character presents itself as fragments rather than unity.

After van Meegeren was released, he continued to paint, signing his works with his own name. His new-found popularity ensured quick sale of his new paintings, often selling at prices that were many times higher than before he had been unmasked as a forger. Van Meegeren also told the news media that “he had an offer from a Manhattan gallery to come to the U.S. and paint portraits “in the 17th century manner” at $6,000 a throw.”

A Dutch opinion poll conducted in October 1947 placed Han van Meegeren’s popularity second in the nation, behind only the Prime Minister’s. The Dutch people viewed van Meegeren as a cunning trickster, who had successfully fooled the Dutch art experts, and more importantly, Hermann Göring himself. In fact, according to a contemporary account, when Göring was informed that his “Vermeer” was actually a forgery, “[Göring] looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”. Han van Meegeren remains one of the most ingenious art counterfeiters of the 20th century. After his trial, however, he declared, “My triumph as a counterfeiter was my defeat as [a] creative artist.”

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