Van Meegeren's Fake Vermeer's
Han van Meegeren’s Mansion Primavera in Roquebrune
Cap Martin. It was here, in 1936, that Van Meegeren painted his forgery Christ and the
Disciples at Emmaus , which later sold for about $300,000.
Forgers, by nature, prefer anonymity and therefore are rarely remembered. An exception
is Van Meegeren (1889-1947). Van Meegeren's story is absoltuely unique adn may be
justly considered the most dramatic art scam of the 20th c. In 1937, Abraham Bredius
(one of the most authoritative art historians who had dedicated a great part of his life to
the study of Vermeer) was approached by a lawyer who claimed to be the trustee of a
Dutch family estate in order to have him look at a rather large painting of a Christ and
the Disciples at Emmaus . Shortly after having viewed the painting, the 83 year old art
historian wrote the Burlington Magazine, the "art bible" of the times: "It is a wonderful
moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a
hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and
without any restoration, just as it left the painter's studio! And what a picture! Neither the
beautiful signature "I. V. M. in monogram) nor the pointillè on the bread of the Christ is
blessing, is necessary to that we have a - I am inclined to say the masterpiece of Johannes
Vermeer of Delft...." No doubts were advanced since Bredius' opinion was taken as
gospel in the art world so much that he had been nick-named "the Pope."
This work (right) that today seems so heavy handed and awkward was in reality a fake by
Hans van Meegeren, a mediocre Dutch artist who had lived and worked in almost
Han van Meegeren at his trial
In May 1945 Van Meegeren was arrested, charged with collaborating with the enemy and
imprisoned. His name had been traced to the sale made during the second world war of
what was then believed to be an authentic Vermeer to Nazi Field-Marshal Hermann
Goering. Shortly after, to general disbelief, Van Meegeren came up with a very original
defense against the accusation of collaboration, then punishable by death. He claimed that
the painting, The Woman Taken in Adultery, was not a Vermeer but rather a forgery by
his own hand. Moreover, since he had traded the false Vermeer for 200 original Dutch
paintings seized by Goering in the beginning of he war, Van Meegeren believed that he
was in fact a national hero rather than a Nazi collaborator. He also claimed to have
painted five other "Vermeer's," as well as two "Pieter de Hoogh's" all of which had
surfaced on the art market since 1937.
In 1947 the trial took place and in order to demonstrate his case it was arranged that,
before the court under police guard, he would paint another "Vermeer", Jesus Among the
Doctors, using the materials and techniques he had used for the other forgeries. During
the incredible two year trial Van Meegeren had confessed that "spurred by the
disappointment of receiving no acknowledgements from artists and critics....I determined
to prove my worth as a painter by making a perfect 17th century canvas." "During the
investigation, Van Meegeren revealed that having once fooled the art world with Christ
and the Disciples at Emmaus, probably his best forgery, he was encouraged to try new
forgeries. He painted a head of Christ, sold it through an intermediary and then "found"
the Last Supper for which it was a supposed study. The buyer of the Christ painting was
only too eager to snap-up the full scale painting."1
"Perhaps the greatest problem that faced Van Meegeren then was the secrecy in which he
had to work. He could hire no models, since they might talk. For the painting below he
was forced to rely mainly on his imagination and it is a wonder that he dared such a
accomplished composition, involving 13 figures in a variety of poses. At one point he
stole directly from Vermeer, using the head of the Girl with a Pearl Earring for his head
of St. John, as the paired photo at the right shows. "2
Van Meegeren spent four years working out techniques for making a new painting look
old. The biggest problem was getting his oil paint to harden thoroughly - process that
normally takes 50 years. He solved it by mixing his pigments with a synthetic resin
instead of oil, and baking the canvas. Now he was ready to begin. He took an actual 17th
c. painting and removed most of the picture with pumice and water, being most careful
not to obliterate the network of cracks, which had an important role to play."3
After having tried his hand at a few of the more typical Vermeer's, Van Meegeren had
what might be called his own stroke of genius. Instead of forging the more typical
interiors which could be compared to works hanging in museums, Van Meegeren chose
to forge an early Vermeer of a religious theme based on a composition of Caravaggio.
Scholars had long suspected that Vermeer had been to Italy and Van Meegeren's lost
painting confirmed that. The subject and early technique of the painting also helped to
mask his own technical and expressive inadequacies.
At the end of the trial collaboration charges were changed to forgery and Van Meegeren
was condemned to one year in confinement. Van Meegeren was actually tickled to get
only one year in jail. "Two years," he told a reporter, "is the maximum punishment for
such a thing. I know because I looked it up in our laws twelve years ago, before I started
all this. But sir, I'm sure about one thing: if I die in jail they will just forget all about it.
My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money
but for art's sake."
Click here to view a number of Van Meegeren's forgeries.
The deep doubts regarding international art establishment spurred by the Van Meegeren
case resulted in years of a much needed self-examination. Art historians, connoisseurs,
museum directors and unscrupulous dealers had all been involved. Above all,
contemporary methods of evaluating the work master painters required a profound
reconsideration. "The dénouement of the Van Meegeren affair brought about a kind of a
catharsis. The clearest example of this is found in Arie Bob de Vreis' Vermeer
monograph. The first edition in 1939 sketched a picture of the artist that had been shaped
by Hannema's exhibition.4 The second edition was published in 1948. Not only was the
text completely revised, but the catalogue of the works had been reduced from forty-three
to the now familiar thirty-five. De Vries explained: 'It was only after the war that this
bewildering forgery business had come to light. It opened my eyes completely. I now feel
that I have to remove every doubtful work from the artist's oeuvre. '"5 "The post-Van
Meegeren period saw the publications of monographs by Pieter T. A. Swillens, Sir
Lawrence Gowing, Vitale Block, and Ludwig Goldscheider, but it was above all Albert
Blankert's sober study of 1975 that acted as a kind of medicinal purge. In an addition to
the critical catalogue, the book contained an important chapter on 'Vermeer and his
public.' For the first time it drew attention to a group of collectors and connoisseurs of the
late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries who had view Vermeer not as
a "sphinx" but a first-class painter."6
In the later half of the 20th c. Vermeer's painting has been reexamined in a more
objective light. As as result, the personal intuition of a few trusted "experts" is no longer
considered a reliable basis for evaluating the work of such a complex painter as Vermeer.
His entire oeuvre is now studied in strict relation to his contemporary social and artistic
milieu and through the understanding of the contemporary iconography which is
generally believed to have played a fundamental role in Dutch painting. Laboratory
analysis has also become an integral part of understanding Vermeer's and Dutch 17th c.
painting as well.
Who was Hans Van Meegeren?
Hans van Meegeren (58 years old), two months
before his death
Henricus Anthonius van Meegeren was born in Deventer in1899 as the third child of
Roman Catholic parents. His father sent him to the Delft Institute of Technology in order
to be trained as an architect. However, Van Meegeren soon discovered a love for art and
made such significant progress that he quickly became the teaching assistant in the
departments of Drawing and History of Art. He won a gold medal for a drawing of a
church interior done in the seventeenth-century style already demonstrating his talent for
imitation. After having married Anna de Voogt (who later bore him two children -
Jacques and Pauline) he began to show his first paintings with some success in an
exhibition in Kunstzaal Pictura, Den Haag.
Then his problems began, Van Meegeren began drinking. In 1921 he spent three months
traveling in Italy presumable to study the Italian masters and in 1922 he held an
exhibition of paintings, which were all sold, of Biblical themes in Kunstzaal Biesing, The
Hague. In 1923 he officially divorced from Anna van Voogt.
1927 Van Meegeren's The Deer was the most valued painting at a lottery of the Haagsche
Kunstkring. Shortly after he married the actress Jo Oerlemans, who was formerly married
to the art critic C.H. de Boer.
Van Meegeren regularly contributed articles for De Kemphaan, a monthly art magazine
founded in 1928 which opposed progressive art movements. He also designed the
magazine's cover. However, the magazine was closed only two years later. When Van
Meegeren moved to moved to Roquebrune, in the south of France, he was probably
thoroughly convinced that there was no longer any possibility that his talent would ever
be recognized by the art establishment. In order to vindicate himself on the art world,
Van Meegeren began working in a series forgeries. As a kind of warm-up exercise, he
first produced four unsold paintings in 17th century style : A Guitar Player and A Woman
Reading Music in Vermeer's style, A Woman Drinking, in Frans Hals' style and A
Portrait of Man in Ter Borch's style. Once Van Meegeren had gained sufficient
confidence by means of his initial technical and stylistic experiments, he then painted
Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, probably the best of all his forgeries. Click here to
view a gallery Van Meegeren's own work.
In Sept. 1937, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus was identified by Bredius as a
masterpiece by Vermeer of Delft. It was Bredius' contention that Vermeer had been
influenced by Italian painting and Van Meegeren's forgery was especially welcomed as it
supported this theory; exactly what van Meegeren had hoped for. At first Van Meegeren
wanted to reveal the fraud - especially because he despised in particular Bredius - but
when he sold the fake Vermeer for the equivalent of what would now be several million
dollars, he unsurprisingly had second thoughts. He had proven to his own satisfaction that
the Dutch art establishment was ignorant, and that would have to do as long as he could
make good money. Scarcely one year later the painting was officially delivered to
Museum Boijmans, purchased with financial donations of the Stichting Rembrandt, the
Rotterdam ship-owner W. van der Vorm, Bredius and a few Rotterdam private collectors.
Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus soon became the museum's top attraction.
In the summer of 1938 Van Meegeren, spurred by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic
reception of his work, moved to Nice and painted The Card Players and The Drinking
Party in the style of Pieter de Hooch. In 1939 this last painting is sold to D.G. van
Over a 17th century painting of Govert Flinck, Van Meegeren painted The Last Supper in
the style of Vermeer but due to the threat of war he returned to Holland leaving the
painting behind in Nice. From 1941 to 1943, the year in which he divorced his second
wife, Van Meegeren continued to produce a number of Vermeer forgeries. In 1943 he
sold the Christ and the Adulteress sold to Field-Marshal Hermann Goering in exchange
for two hundred Dutch paintings which the Nazis had plundered early in the war. One of
Van Meegeren's forgeries was sold in 1942 for the 1.6 million Dutch guilders, making it
one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
In 1945, May Captain Harry Anderson discovered Christ and The Adulteress in
Goering’s personal art collection and soon traced to painting to Van Meegeren.
Van Meegeren was arrested and charged with collaboration for having sold a "Vermeer"
to Goering. After two weeks of imprisonment Van Meegeren on June 12 revealed that he
could not accused as a collaborator since he had himself painted the painting in question.
After being detained in prison for six week, he was placed in a house rented by the Dutch
government, and there he began to paint, for the benefit of the court authorities, his last
"Vermeer," Jesus amongst the Doctors.
In November of 1947 Van Meegeren was convicted to one year in prison. One month
later, at the age of 58, he fell ill due to years of drug and alcohol abuse and died of a heart
attack in prison. In 1950 household effects were auctioned in his house at 321
Keizersgracht in Amsterdam.
In all he made more that seven million guilders, about $2 million then and roughly about
twenty times that amount today. In his last years Van Meegeren lived the high life and
had purchased a number of houses until he was caught.
Bredius, Abraham, “A New Vermeer,” Burlington Magazine 71 (November 1937), pp.
210-211; “An Unpublished Vermeer,” Burlington Magazine 61 (October 1932), p. 145.
Coremans, P.B., Van Meegeren’s Faked Vermeers and de Hooghs, trans. A Hardy and C.
Hutt (London: Cassel, 1949).
Godley, John, Van Meegeren, Master Forger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
Jones, Mark, ed., Fake? The Art of Detection (Berkeley: University of California Press,
Tietze, Hans, Genuine and False (London: Max Parrish & Co., 1948).
Werness, Hope B., “Han van Meegeren fecit,” in Denis Dutton, ed., The Forger’s Art:
Forgery and the Philosophy of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
1. Hans Kongsberg and the editors of Time.-Life Books, The World of Vermeer:
1632-1657, New York, 1967
4. In 1935 Bredius' pupil Dirk Hannema curated an exhibition in Rotterdam in
which six of the fifteen paintings attributed to Vermeer were not authentic.
5. Ben Broos, "Malice and Misconception," in Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan
Gascell and Michiel Jonker, New Haven and London, p. 27
6. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (with contributions by Albert Blankert, , Ben Broos , and
Jorgen Wadum), Johannes Vermeer, 1995
7. Hans Koongsberger and the editors of Time.-Life Books, The World of V ermeer:
1632-1657, New York, 1967