Book Event

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When a Vermeer isn't a Vermeer, or I Bought What?

When is a painting considered a treasured masterpiece worth millions of dollars and then in a blink of an eye, it's an embarrassment viewed as poor quality art worth a few dollars at most? Read The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick and you'll find out the answer to that question as this book explores the true story of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch forger who fooled most of the art world.

Van Meegeren was a second rate artist who successfully painted several works which he passed off as having been done by Johannes Vermeer. The forgeries have many flaws in them, making one wonder how the art world was duped into believing that the works were authentic. While Van Meegeren wasn't gifted in artistic technique, he was skilled in the psychology of forgery. He knew that if he could get art critics to authenticate the artwork, there wouldn't be much problem in getting eager art collectors to purchase them. He developed a technique to age his paintings so that they would pass scientific tests done to verify the age of the materials. Abraham Bredius, who was considered to be the leading authority on Vermeer, judged one of Van Meegren's forgeries as being authentic, and the rest of the art world jumped on board and agreed that the painting was 100% genuine.

After that, it was smooth sailing for Van Meegeren until he was arrested after World War II had ended and he was charged with collaborating with the enemy. What happened was that he was connected with the sale of what was thought to be a genuine Vermeer, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, but it was really one of his forgeries. The painting ended up being sold to Nazi Hermann Goering, who was a fanatical collector of art masterpieces. The sale of a national treasure to an enemy was a crime that was punishable by death. Since forgery was a far less serious crime, Van Meegeren confessed that he had really painted the supposed Vermeer, unfortunately no one believed him. In court, to show that he really was the painter of the Vermeer in question, he demonstrated his technique and was able to convince the court that his story was true.

This book raises many issues regarding the art world, including the debate over what is art, egoistic art critics who authenticate artwork by instinct rather than through scientific investigation, and the plundering of art during wartime. Van Meegeren had been angry at the art world because his paintings were criticized for being trite and not innovative. He felt that the art critics were hypocritical and he certainly got his revenge when his forgeries were promoted as beautifully painted genuine masterpieces.

My one criticism regarding the book is that it had a lot of buildup and seemed to take awhile before it got to the climax of the court trial. There were many preliminary chapters about other forgers, forgery techniques, and other information that could have been edited down a bit. Other than that, I found the subject very intriguing.

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