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The Art Forger Who Conned the Nazis

In 1947, Han van Meegeren stood in a Dutch courtroom answering to the death penalty charge of treason for selling paintings to a Nazi leader. To avoid the gallows, he needed to prove the artwork was fake.

This was difficult to do—because the forgeries were so amazingly good.

The Precarious Life of the Painter

Trained first as an architect, as per his father's wishes, Han van Meegeren always wanted to be a painter. He studied the architecture trade for a while, but the oils, brushes, and canvases kept calling to him. He quit architecture school and began taking classes at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague.

Armed with a diploma, he was able to earn some money as an art teacher while trying to sell his own work. By 1917, he was able to have his own moderately successful exhibition, but the art critics were unimpressed. One was moved to observe the painter “has every virtue except originality.”

Han van Meegeren was learning what so many painters before and since are familiar with—the word “artist” is usually preceded by the modifier “starving.” He had top quality technical skills; perhaps there was another way he could make a living as an artist. What if he created “original” works by dead masters?

The Supper at Emmaus

In 1932, van Meegeren began a five-year project of developing techniques that would make a forgery look authentic. These skills he used on what was to become his most famous painting, The Supper at Emmaus, which depicts the scene in which a resurrected Christ appears to two of his disciples, and he painted it in the style of Johannes Vermeer.

He chose to emulate Vermeer because the Dutch Golden Age painter was not very prolific, leaving lots of space to “discover” previously unknown works. But he didn't stop there; he produced huge volumes of forgeries of other Dutch masters.

He planned his forgeries meticulously, using only the pigments and oils available in the 17th century applied to canvasses of the same vintage. He even used badger-hair brushes similar to ones Vermeer would have employed. To age his paintings, he mixed Bakelite with his paints and then baked the finished work, which caused the surface to harden and crack, giving it the appearance of being 300 years old.

When The Supper at Emmaus was unearthed, it set the art world on fire. The Art Bible stated:

“At its so-called discovery experts were tripping over themselves in praise of the work, which was assumed to be a genuine Vermeer.”

Van Meegeren's plan was to reveal the painting as a forgery to make fools of the critics who had savaged his personal work. But the painting sold for the equivalent of $4 million in today's money. This caused van Meegeren to have a rethink; he had stumbled on a way of making himself very wealthy and decided there was no point in putting a stop to that.

The BBC reports that “Over the next few years he created six more ‘Vermeers’ as well as countless other paintings by Dutch Old Masters.” Van Meegeren was rolling in money and he spent a lot of it on drugs and alcohol to go along with his dawn-to-dusk chain-smoking habit.

The Supper at Emmaus, the painting that set van Meergeren on the path to riches.

The Supper at Emmaus, the painting that set van Meergeren on the path to riches.

Van Meegeren's Nazi Customer

Hitler's second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, was a voracious collector of art, most of it looted from Jews. So it was almost inevitable that a man with an uncanny skill at finding lost treasures would come into the reichsmarschall's orbit.

Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery was a Vermeer knock off that van Meegeren had produced and that Göring coveted so much he was happy to exchange 137 of his lesser possessions to get his hands on it. The 1943 trade was handled through an intermediary, and Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery became the crown jewel of Göring's collection.

As the war started to go badly for Germany, much of the Nazi plunder was hidden in a salt mine. The allies discovered the stash with Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery within the hoard. Because of thorough Nazi bookkeeping, it didn't take long for the painting to be traced back to van Meegeren.

Herman Göring's pride and joy.

Herman Göring's pride and joy.

Van Meegeren's Arrest and Trial

Dutch police arrived at van Meegeren's door to make inquiries about the artist's wartime dealings with vermin such as Göring. The result was a charge of collaboration with the enemy, based on his selling of a national treasure to occupiers of the Netherlands. Van Meegeren was jailed to await his trial.

Facing execution, he stunned his captors with an interesting defence: “The painting in Göring's hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft,” he explained, “but a Van Meegeren. I painted the picture.” To prove his bona fides as a master forger, he painted another “Vermeer” under the watchful eyes of court-appointed witnesses.

Van Meergeren is shown painting Jesus Among the Doctors in Vermeer's style to demonstrate his skill as a forger.

Van Meergeren is shown painting Jesus Among the Doctors in Vermeer's style to demonstrate his skill as a forger.

The charge of aiding and abetting the enemy was dropped because experts now verified that Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery was a fake and therefore not a culturally important possession of the Dutch people. But he still had to deal with the accusation that he was a forger.

A panel of experts determined that eight paintings that van Meegeren identified as his creations were forgeries of old masters.

There were red faces among all the art experts who had authenticated van Meegerens work as genuine Vermeers. None more so than Dr. Abraham Bredius who had gushed over The Supper at Emmaus, calling it “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” He added:

“In no other picture by the great master of Delft do we find such sentiment, such a profound understanding of the Bible story—a sentiment so nobly human expressed through the medium of highest art.”

The Dutch court wagged its finger of disapproval and gave van Meegeren a one-year prison sentence. However, van Meegeren's life-long adventures with alcohol, heroin, and tobacco caught up with him. In November 1947, while on parole prior to reporting to prison, he suffered a massive stroke and died. He was 58 years old.

Bonus Factoids

  • At the time of his death, van Meegeren didn't have much money; he had transferred the bulk of his wealth, estimated at about $50 million in today's value, to his second wife Jo at the time of their divorce during the war. He always claimed that Jo knew nothing of his fraudulent fabrications so she was able to keep the money and live in luxury for many years.
  • After his exposure as a forger, Han van Meegeren's art under his own name became more valuable so it was profitable for people to fake his work. One of the most prolific forgers of the forger's work was Jacques van Meegeren, the master forger's own son.
  • In 1945, a search of Hitler's Berlin Reich Chancellery turned up a copy of van Meegeren's own art book, Tekeningen 1. An inscription in German inside read “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren admitted the signature was his but said he did not write the rest of the inscription. Handwriting experts say the inscription and signature were penned by the same hand.
  • It's very likely that many van Meegeren forgeries of 17th century Dutch masters hang in private collections, museums, and art galleries.
  • You can read more about art forgers here.


© 2022 Rupert Taylor