Mesmerizing account of an amateur artist who made millions selling forged paintings to art-obsessed Nazis and business tycoons.
Veteran science journalist Dolnick (The Rescue Artist: The True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece, 2005, etc.) brings his expertise in art theft, criminal psychology and military history to a scintillating portrait of Dutch painter Han van Meegeren (1889–1947). Humiliated by critics who dismissed his work as lackluster, Van Meegeren turned to cunningly crafting paintings that he peddled during the 1930s and ’40s as the work of revered 17th-century master Johannes Vermeer. The polished, fast-paced narrative captures the surreal mood in Nazi-occupied Holland. As German forces killed more than 70 percent of the Jewish population, the highest toll in Europe, Hitler and his leading aide, Hermann Goering, pillaged museums and private homes for paintings, sculpture and jewelry. In a rivalry Dolnick likens to a perverse schoolyard competition, the men also vied for treasures from art dealers enticed by the Nazis’ looted cash. Enter Van Meegeren, a disaffected artist who watched with glee as the same critics who had ridiculed his original work swooned over the technically competent but off-kilter compositions he sold for princely sums as “lost Vermeers.” In compelling prose, Dolnick details the doctored canvases, phony paint and fake bills of sale Van Meegeren painstakingly created to achieve his grand deceit. In addition to Nazis and wealthy Europeans, the author notes, he also duped affluent Americans such as Andrew Mellon. After a high-profile 1947 trial during which the con artist demonstrated his techniques, the Dutch government found Van Meegeren guilty of forgery and fraud. He died less than two months later, before serving his one-year prison sentence.
Energetic and authoritative.