Here’s How Hans van Meegeren Fooled The Nazis Into Handing Over Their Stolen Paintings
You may not be familiar with the name Hans van Meegeren, but were it not for his impressive forgeries made during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the names Vermeer, her Borch, de Hooch and others might have been lost to history, as well.
As a child, Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren developed a love of his country’s prized artists. In his own paintings, he mimicked the style of those painted from the Dutch Golden Age.
Perhaps a little too much.
van Meegeren’s work was criticized as being derivative, and lacking originality. The condemnation eventually brought his painting career to an end, but his life as a forger was just getting started.
“Spurred by the disappointment of receiving no acknowledgments from artists and critics….I determined to prove my worth as a painter by making a perfect seventeenth-century canvas,” he would later confess in court.
By the late 1930s, the critics were silenced, if not stunned, by the exact replicas van Meegeren would create based on the old Dutch artists, they would often confuse them for the real thing. According to Essential Vermeer, van Meegeren effected the style of Johannes Vermeer’s in his painting “Supper at Emmaus,” in 1937. Having never seen the work before, never knowing it even existed, art expert Abraham Bredius, nicknamed “the Pope,” in reference to the authority he held in the art world, praised van Meegeren’s painting as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”
The process of creating these forged masterpieces took no shortage of detail, or time. It took van Meegeren at least four years to learn how to make his works look just as old as those they were based on. Oil paint can take as much as 50 years to fully harden on canvas. Not having that much time, van Meegeren replaced the oil in his pigments with Bakelite, painted on canvased from the period, scrubbed clean, and baked the finished work in an oven, to reduce drying time.
He replicated Vermeer’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, painted a head of Christ and sold it to a buyer through an art broker, and then the Last Supper, which the same buyer purchased for much more.
As van Meegeren’s skill with the brush grew, so did political tensions in Europe. The Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler rolled over the lowlands, occupying the Netherlands. Perhaps lucky for van Meegeren, some of Hitler’s high command were also art collectors.
van Meegeren had found his new marks.
While wealthy Dutch preservationists were buying up van Meegeren’s forgeries, thinking they were protecting history, President of the Reichstag Hermann Göring traded 137 works from his collection to obtain just one of them, The Woman Taken in Adultery. He thought it was a Vermeer.
When the war ended, van Meegeren’s painting was discovered in Göring’s collection. He was subsequently arrested on May 29, 1945, as a Nazi collaborator for selling, what officials thought, was the work of a Dutch master.
Facing a charge of treason, and death, van Meegeren confessed. He told the authorities he traded the forged Vermeer to Göring in exchange for nearly 200 original Dutch works the Nazi high command had unjustly seized. If anything, van Meegeren posited, he should be considered a hero, not a criminal.
As Hans Kongsberg writes in his book, The World of Vermeer, “In order to demonstrate his case, it was arranged that, under police guard before the court, he would paint another Vermeer, Jesus Among the Doctors, using the materials and techniques he had employed for the other forgeries.”
The trial ended with van Meegeren being cleared of collaboration with the Nazis. He was, however, convicted of forgery, and sent to prison for two years.
“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.”
Just over a month later, van Meegeren died after suffering two heart attacks. He was 58 years old.
Learn more about van Meegeren’s work in the video below.