During the Second World War, the Nazis looted art treasures from all over occupied Europe. But a clever forger in the Netherlands was able to put one over on Hermann Goering.
The master painter Johannes Vermeer was born in the city of Delft in the Netherlands. His father was a silk worker who was once arrested for counterfeiting, and ended up as an antiques and arts dealer. Almost nothing is known of Vermeer’s life. He apparently developed an interest in painting at a young age and joined the local artist’s guild in 1653, but there are no records showing who he apprenticed with or where. In his lifetime he was undistinguished as an artist and did not produce very many works (only 36 original Vermeers are known today). But Vermeer managed to marry the daughter of a wealthy local family and live comfortably, selling a few paintings here and there to the local merchant class in Delft.
His early paintings centered around Biblical stories and religious themes, but he later made a number of depictions of street scenes and daily life in Delft. At one point all records of him in Holland disappear, and it was believed by art historians that he had traveled to Italy during this time and produced a series of lost religious paintings there for several churches.
Although registered with the Guild as a Master and eventually becoming its head, Vermeer had no known students of his own. When he died in 1675, he was virtually unknown outside his local circle. It wasn’t until 200 years after his death that Vermeer was recognized as one of Europe’s great artists, renowned for his use of light and color. By the early 20th century, Vermeer’s works were highly sought-after and commanded astronomical prices.
Then, in 1937, the art world was rocked by the discovery of a hitherto unknown Vermeer painting, apparently done in Italy in the 1650s. Titled “Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus”, the work was examined and authenticated by the premier art historian of the time, Abraham Bredius, who gushed, “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 . . . nor the pointillés on the bread which Christ is blessing, are necessary to convince us that we have here—I am inclined to say—the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” It was purchased by a museum for half a million guilders (over $6 million in today’s dollars). During the next few years, several more formerly-unknown Vermeer paintings, all from his “Italian Period”, surfaced and sold for high prices.
One person who took notice was Hermann Goering, the Reichsmarschall of Nazi Germany and second in command only to Hitler himself. Goering loved the good life: his wine collection was extensive, and his grand Bavarian home in Oversalzburg was filled with luxurious furnishings. In particular, Goering had a passionate interest in art and considered himself a connoisseur.
As the Germans swept across Europe, they systematically looted every museum and art dealership they found, and many of these stolen works ended up in the personal collections of the Nazi leadership. Hitler, himself a failed artist, amassed a huge collection, as did Goering. And the one thing Goering wanted above all else was a Vermeer.
He got his chance in 1942. An art agent acting on behalf of an anonymous owner contacted Alois Miedl, a banker and art dealer with extensive ties to the Nazis, and offered to sell a newly-discovered Vermeer, titled “Christ With the Adulteress”. Like the others, it had been found in Italy. Miedl in turn approached Goering to work out a deal. In the end, Goering agreed to obtain the Vermeer in exchange for a total of 137 other works in the Reichsmarschall’s personal collection—most of them looted from museums in France and Holland.
By 1944, however, it was becoming apparent that Germany was not going to win the war, and Goering hid most of his stolen art treasures in a salt mine in Austria. The Allies had already formed a special military unit, known as the Monuments Men, to both protect European cultural and historical sites from destruction during the war, and to recover all of the Nazi regime’s pillaged art and return it to their rightful owners. In May 1945, the Monuments Men found the hidden art treasures in Austria, including Goering’s “Christ With the Adulteress”. After some detective work, they traced the painting back to its original owner, a man named Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was promptly arrested by Dutch police and charged with treason by collaborating with the Nazis to sell Holland’s cultural heritage. It carried the death penalty.
It was then that things took a bizarre turn.
When van Meegeren’s trial began in October 1947, he surprised the entire world by pleading “not guilty” and then offering a shocking defense: the painting sold to Goering, he declared, was not a Vermeer at all—“Christ with the Adulteress” was a forgery, as were all of the other “newly-found Vermeers”, and he was the one who had faked them all.
In his younger days, van Meergeren explained, he had been an aspiring painter himself, but his works had been met with scorn by Europe’s art critics, who had praised his technical ability but panned his paintings (one critic declared that van Meegeren “has every virtue except originality”), and he wanted revenge. “I determined to prove my worth as a painter,” the Dutchman told the court, “by making a perfect seventeenth-century canvas.”
It took van Meegeren four years to work out a way to make a perfect forgery. He carefully studied Vermeer’s techniques, materials, and pigments, and learned to duplicate them. His biggest difficulty was finding a way to make a recent forgery look like an old and weathered 200-year-old canvas, and found that if he mixed his paint with Bakelite, a newly-invented plastic, then cooked it in an oven for the proper amount of time, it made the paint crack and glaze in a convincing way. He heightened the effect by using an authentic 17th-century canvas for his forgery, from which he had rubbed off all the paint with a piece of pumice. Van Meegeren also found that if he worked while he was drunk and was high on morphine-based sleeping pills, it helped him to relax and do a better job of copying Vermeer’s style. He first forged a few minor Dutch and French artists and sold them through intermediaries, then produced the fake Vermeers. And to demonstrate how he had made them all, while under house arrest van Meegeren painted another Vermeer forgery for the court, which he called “Jesus Among the Doctors”.
His first big score, he told the court, had been with the forged “Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus”, and he had planned to confess right away that it was a fraud just so he could embarrass the European art world. But once that fake had been accepted by the art historian Bredius, it opened the door to sell more phony paintings from the “Italian Period”. (We now know that Vermeer was never in Italy—he had been confused with the similarly-named Johannes van der Meer from the city of Ultrecht.)
Selling the fake “Christ With the Adulteress” to Goering was, van Meegeren testified, not only his biggest financial success (the forgeries had brought him the equivalent of over $25 million), but was a way to get back at the Nazi invaders. After a two-year trial, van Meegeren was acquitted of the treason charges, but was convicted of forgery and sentenced to one year in prison. He died of a heart attack just a month after being sentenced, before he could be transferred from house arrest.
Today, over a dozen forgeries have been attributed to van Meegeren, including a number of Vermeers. It is not known how many of his other undetected fakes are still out there.
The final homage to Han van Meegeren, however, came after his death. His trial had made him famous as a national hero to many Dutch, and his own original paintings were now hotly desired by art collectors and were sold at exorbitant prices by van Meegeren’s son Jacques. After a while, Jacques ran out of original van Meegerens to sell, and he solved his dilemma in a way that likely would have made Daddy proud—he painted his own fake van Meegerens and sold these forgeries as the real thing.