Eighty years ago, Han van Meegeren, a middle-class Dutch artist leading an increasingly luxurious lifestyle owing to his success as a forger, left his estate in France and returned to the Netherlands.
As the Second World War loomed, van Meegeren settled in the village of Laren, where he bought land and houses, having nowhere else to invest his proceeds from the sale of the Vermeers he’d made.
In 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands and principal Dutch forces surrendered. In 1942, Alois Miedl, a Nazi banker and art dealer in Amsterdam, bought one of van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers, “Christ with the Adulteress,” and sold it to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for about $7 million in today’s money.
Göring was over the moon. He also had plenty of money, including the looted riches of Jews, but very few people owned a Vermeer. Soon, however, he began to worry he would lose it, so he hid it in an Austrian salt mine along with thousands of other fine paintings, many of them genuine and most of them stolen. He would never see them again.
On May 9, 1945, Göring was captured by the U.S. Seventh Army in Bavaria and sent to rial in Nuremberg. Eight days later, Allied forces found the paintings in the mine. In Amsterdam, the Allies arrested Miedl on suspicion of selling looted art. Miedl led them to van Meegeren and was let go (he would die, placidly, in Spain in 1990, of old age).
On May 29, van Meegeren was arrested and handed over to Dutch military authorities, who imprisoned him. He was charged with aiding the enemy and plundering Dutch cultural property, specifically the Göring Vermeer. It was a capital offense. But, van Meegeren said, “I painted the picture!”
He was not believed. So before witnesses, van Meegeren painted a last Vermeer.
At Nuremburg, informed his Vermeer had been a fake, Göring, by one account, “looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.”
The most remarkable part of this story seems to improve with age. Today, van Meegeren’s forgeries, which once fooled experts, are atrocious. Never mind the fake aging and pigment-matching. The style of the paintings, particularly the faces – that is, the underlying artistry – is horrendous.
Authentic Vermeers are filled with a sumptuous stillness. Van Meegeren’s are ghoulish. How can a child see this today yet experts could not 60 years ago?
It cannot be because we have become collectively more perceptive or discerning; there is no other evidence for that. There may be one explanation left.
Van Meegeren resented contemporary art in his time. Like Hitler, he thought it was degraded. But many did not, and the aesthetic spirit of the Art Deco movement pervaded their times, not just in paintings and ornamentation but in advertisements and even typography. It was in the water. What made van Meegeren’s Vermeers foolproof then and so awful today could be the spoonful of modernism mixed with an old master.
If you leave your home for several weeks and return, you can smell it as though for the first time. Women did not really know how big their hair was in the 1980s. We can no more perceive our age than our aromas.
What is authentic today may be fake tomorrow. Wondering what the future will do with us is usually a harmless preoccupation, so long as we keep in mind that we cannot know and can only begin to guess. It could be even worse than we suppose and it could be much better – but in any case, we are destined to be posterity’s toys.