When the Allies started bombing Germany, Hermann Goering, the Nazi Reichsmarschall ( Marshal of the Reich), hid his fabulous collection of paintings in the salt mines of Austria.
The American soldiers soon found them and began an investigation: where had all those great paintings come from? Among them was a Vermeer.
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Goering’s false Vermeer
The investigators traced it back to a Dutch art dealer and painter named Van Meegeren; and the Dutch authorities arrested him for collaborating with the Nazis.
After a few weeks in jail he announced that he had a confession to make: “I myself painted that Vermeer and a lot of others,” he said.
“What?” asked the stunned investigators. “How?” They didn’t ask why because they could guess the answer to that.
“I did it to get back at the critics who were such asses. They couldn’t see that I was a great painter. They would have had me starve. Well, one day I decided to fool them all. I bought some old seventeenth century paintings, erased the figures and painted my own—in the style of Vermeer. I was careful to leave much of the original paint on the canvas so that the analysts would be fooled. I used real lapislazuli for blue, not the modern cobalt, and marten hairs for a brush, just like Vermeer used. Of course when I took the canvas off its stretcher I was careful to save the original nails.”
The investigators conferred. “The guy’s a liar,” they said. “He can paint a Vermeer and you and I can paint a Michelangelo.
“Well, there’s a good way to find out if he’s telling the truth. Let’s ask him to paint another Vermeer for us.”
They took him from jail to his studio. “Show us how you did it, [big mouth]” they ordered. And they watched while he created a picture that he called, with a sniffle of offense, Jesus Among the Scholars. After a couple of months they were convinced. Though he never finished the painting, he showed everyone that he was capable of falsifying the Goering Vermeer.
Jesus Among the Doctors— the work Van Meegeren painted in 1945 for the Dutch police
Van Meegeren among the judges
Accordingly, the prosecutor dropped his charge of collaboration with the Nazis and indicted Van Meegeren for fraud.
At his trial he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. Before he could start to serve his sentence, however, he died. He was a drinker and a pill-popper and prison was no good for him and his health gave out.
Before and during his trial the greatest experts of Holland, England, and America investigated six suspicious Vermeers that had been sold in recent years and two that were found in Van Meegeren’s studio. They agreed that the works had indeed been painted by Van Meegeren. That caused a great sensation and much worry in the art world. Goering had paid 1,650,000 florins for his. That had served him right. But the first false Vermeer had appeared already in 1937 and fooled one of the greatest experts of the time, who had solemnly declared it genuine and exhibited it in Paris, where the Rembrandt Vereniging of Amsterdam quickly bought it up for 550,000 florins.
Van Meegeren soon became rich—discreetly, of course.
One of the surprising things about his forgeries is that, to the average eye, they don’t look like Vermeers! In his studio the investigators found two that DID; but Van Meegeren never tried to sell those. Apparently he thought they looked a bit too typically Vermeerian and so would arouse more suspicion than a new kind of masterpiece. Van Meegeren was actually bold enough to present to the world a work that was UNLIKE the other Vermeers—one that supposedly represented a new or unknown direction in the Master’s trajectory.
Here are two paintings by Vermeer , followed by Van Meegeren’s The Meeting at Emmaus, “discovered” in 1937.
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
The Meeting at Emmaus—the Van Meegeren Vermeer “discovered” in 1937
Another curious thing is that not everyone was convinced that Van Meegeren had painted all the false works he claimed he had. Some critics still believe a few of the “new direction” paintings are real Vermeers.