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Art Forgery is Big Business

The October 25, 2014 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald contained a report about a forgery case not only grabbing headlines, but also actually reaching the Australian Supreme Court, revealing corruption in the art market at the highest levels. In fact, in October 2014 Switzerland's Fine Arts Expert Institute issued a warning for collectors worldwide that as much as 50 percent of art circulating within the art market has been forged or attributed to the wrong artists.

Henricus Anthonius van Meegeren Han van Meegeren
Henricus Anthonius van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren

While there have been scores of forgers, the story of Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) may justly be considered the most dramatic art scam of the 20th century.

Although recognized as one of the most successful forgers of recent time, van Meegeren was not considered to be a great painter.  Despite having a wealthy client list, Dutch critics were not impressed with the portraits, landscapes, and copies of the masters that he produced.  Far more interested in the developing Cubists and Surrealists, critics saw van Meegeren's efforts as "tired and derivative."  It was said that his gift was "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." Van Meegeren, feeling that his talent had been misjudged and his career destroyed, set out to prove his critics wrong by making forgeries of former famous artists, including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard Ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer.

Van Meegeren's Scam
Han van Meegeren believed that creating a work close to an artist's style, but slightly off, gave him a better opportunity to deceive his critics and the buying public. Rather than producing an exact likeness of a painting, he would create a completely new painting, close to the style of the master he chose to imitate/forge. It was his hope that the expert authenticators would focus on the differences and the similarities between the forgery and the existing paintings by the master. Van Meegeren's decision to paint a completely new work rather than a copy would become one part of what proved to be a very successful strategy.

Van Meegeren made careful, well-considered decisions when selecting the artists he would forge.  One of the artists van Meegeren chose to forge was Johannes Vermeer, whose skills with clarity of color and tone had never been equaled. Through his earlier studies, van Meegeren was familiar with Vermeer's style and methods of painting.

Because at that time there were only 35 or 36 paintings known to be Vermeers, the buying public and critics knew little about him. That single fact played deeply into Van Meegeren’s hoax/scheme. Why did Vermeer paint so few? It was plausible that some of his paintings had been lost or misplaced over the years.  His works were highly prized and jealously sought after by rival collectors who would want the prestige of owning a newly discovered and authenticated Vermeer.

"Supper at Emmaus"
"Supper at Emmaus"
by Caravaggio
"Christ at Emmaus"
"Christ at Emmaus"
The painting “Christ at Emmaus” launched van Meegeren's career as a forger. "Christ at Emmaus" differed from any Jan Vermeer in that it was religious in subject matter and larger than anything by Vermeer.

For the subject of his new painting, van Meegeren's Vermeer chose the theme of an earlier Caravaggio painting, "Supper At Emmaus," (pictured above left). His completely new image to be titled "Christ at Emmaus," (pictured above right) would be his greatest achievement.

The painting would be dated somewhere between Vermeer's early large works and his later works, thus creating the missing link.  Van Meegeren would use all the right materials and develop an infallible, uncheckable story behind the painting to explain why it had not been discovered. He would then let the so-called experts/critics who had panned him declare the authenticity of a newly discovered major work of art by Johannes Vermeer, Christ At Emmaus. The experts, egotists eager to be the first thought of and most respected art authorities, would fill in any gaps behind and about the linking painting and sell the work for him.

It took six years for van Meegeren to develop the techniques necessary to make his "perfect forgery." In addition to defining the chemical and technical procedures, he had to gather his supplies, including 17th century canvas, stretchers, and nails, and raw pigment materials that would have been available to Vermeer.  Using old formulas, he practiced mixing colors and eventually was able to match Vermeer's color chemistries. He studied the biographies of Vermeer and catalogues of his art. Another challenge was inventing a technique to make his newly produced painting look 300 years old by adding "craquelure," the little cracks in the paint that appear with aging. After hearing about the innate properties of phenol formaldehyde (Bakelite), van Meegeren decided to experiment with it.  He discovered that paints mixed with Bakelite, baked at exacting, progressively higher temperatures for pinpoint times, would harden and then crack. At a later time, he would wash the entire painting with black India ink to add more age. He was armed with everything to make an authentic, new, 300 year old painting that he could release to the art world and sell. His untraceable story behind the painting would involve long lost family members having been given early Vermeers; all that then remained would be for the critics to sell his masterpiece.

It took van Meegeren six months to create "Christ at Emmaus." His next step was to find a critic to validate "Christ" as the bridge between Vermeer's earlier and later paintings. He chose Abraham Bredius, at one point considered the leading authority on Vermeer. Bredius had lost prestige when he had declared an earlier forgery to be an authentic Vermeer. Van Meegeren hoped Bredius would seize the opportunity to clear his name and re-feather his reputation with the discovery of such a painting.  Unknown to van Meegeren, Bredius had theorized that a link did in fact exist between Vermeer's early and later works, making him the perfect choice. That van Meegeren would be conning the man who had earlier panned his artistic skills added the sweetness of revenge to financial gain.

To approach Bredius, van Meegeren enlisted the aid of his friend, the respected ex-politician, Dr. Gerald Boon. He convinced Boon that a Dutch family living in Italy needed to sell the painting discretely to raise money. Van Meegeren suggested that Boon might want to consult an authority, and dropped Bredius' name. When Boon showed him "Emmaus," Bredius proclaimed it to be a genuine and newly discovered Vermeer.  Bredius went about convincing Dirk Hannema, director of Rotterdam's Boyman Museum to acquire it. The painting was bought and debuted as the centerpiece of the Boyman's 1938 exhibition, earning van Meegeren the lion's share of the $2.6 million purchase price. Van Meegeren went on to forge more Vermeers and other masters, cashing in on his buyers' egos and greed. It was the greed and ego of another man that finally got him caught.

Van Meegeren's Deal With The Devil
The Nazis stole hundreds of thousands of paintings, drawings, and sculptures. In dealing with "fellow Nordics," however, they used "legal" means to obtain what they wanted, and van Meegeren was one of the Dutch willing to seize this opportunity. Hitler and Goering, partners in war, were rival art collectors. Obviously, Hitler held the upper hand, leaving Goering to acquire works only if Hitler wasn't interested.  Goering had missed out on two Vermeers, so when his art scout found "Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery" (a supposed lost Vermeer) in Holland, he was ecstatic. True, it was unlike such masterpieces as "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," but it did bear a striking resemblance to another Vermeer with a religious subject that had just turned up in 1937; "Christ at Emmaus." Goering made a deal with Alois Miedl, a shadowy banker/art dealer, exchanging 137 paintings for the presumed Vermeer.

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery
"Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery"
96 x 88 cm, painted around 1941-42, now hangs in a small gallery in Greenwich, Connecticut
Members of the 101st Airborne with a forged Vermeer by Han van Meegeren titled:  Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery
Members of the 101st Airborne with a forged Vermeer
by Han van Meegeren titled:
Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery

By the winter of 1944/45, the Nazis were trying to hide their stolen art from the advancing allies. The U.S. Army drafted "Monuments Men", experts from a number of museums and universities, to track down these treasures.  Their efforts lead them to 53 locations crammed with art and gold. When Hitler committed suicide, Goering and his family attempted to escape after loading most of his treasure onto trains, planning to hide it in the Alps. When locals raided the train, Goering's curators were able to unload and hide some of it in a bunker.  After capturing Goering, the Americans were able to learn the whereabouts of the hidden art, but his prized Vermeer remained undiscovered. Investigating a rumor that the most valuable pieces of his collection were with Goering's wife, one of the Monuments Men called on Emmy Goering and found her in possession of several masterpieces. Questioned about a Vermeer, she claimed ignorance. As he was leaving, Goering's attendant and nurse brought him a package; her employer had told her if she kept it, she would never need to worry about money. It was "The Woman."

With the end of the war, a Dutch patriot turned investigator named Piller set out to seek vengeance on German collaborators. A connection was made between Miedl and van Meegeren when his name was found on the paperwork for Goering's trade, and van Meegren was arrested as a collaborator. By now van Meegeren was a wreck, dependent on morphine and sleeping pills. After weeks of investigation, he finally cracked, but surprised his interrogators when he yelled, "Idiots! You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it's not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!" Piller didn't believe him, but when van Meegeren told him to x-ray the work to reveal the old painting he'd painted over, he realized that it was true.

"Supper at Emmaus"
Van Meegeren went on to tell him about other forgeries. Still, authorities were in doubt about his claims. Piller decided to set up a studio and have van Meegeren create a painting under supervision. After seeing the painting, Piller turned the investigation over to the Dutch Ministry of Justice, and a team of five scientists and two art historians ultimately validated van Meegeren's story. Cleared of charges of collaboration, he appeared in a packed courtroom to be tried for the less serious crime of fraud. Sentenced to just a year in prison he died of a heart attack before being incarcerated. As "the man who swindled Goering," he died a hero. As for Goering, he learned the truth about his "Vermeer" before committing suicide.

In an earlier newsletter, I wrote about a theft at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston. One of the paintings stolen and still not recovered was an unsigned work attributed to Johannes Vermeer, "The Concert."  I pose these questions — Is this painting a forgery or real, and if recovered and returned will it be a copy or the original?

CLICK HERE to view a trailer of the movie Monuments Men

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Forgery Expert: Art Fraud Insights
Colette Loll is the founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, a consultancy dedicated to art fraud-related lectures, training, and specialized investigation of artworks. Engaged by museums, collectors and provides training for Federal agents in forgery investigations.




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