Art journalist Lopez shows a Dutch painter who enriched himself by faking Old Masters emerging as a folk hero at the end of World War II.
Not much of a hero, the author convincingly demonstrates in his closely argued and generously illustrated debut. Han Van Meegeren was a sorely sullied character at best, a perfidious crypto-fascist and Nazi collaborator at worst. A longtime art forger (he’d begun with fakes of Franz Hals), he married twice, dallied often, lived like a prince in occupied Amsterdam while his fellow citizens starved in the streets, sent felicitations to Hitler, painted pro-Aryan images, lied, manipulated old friends and betrayed both calling and country. Lopez meticulously reconstructs the edifice of Van Meegeren’s life. We learn about his parents, his education and training, his early leftist leanings and his eventual relationship with the right. Because his portrait paintings didn’t enable him to live in the style to which he hoped to become accustomed, he soon embraced forgery, inventing new techniques that fooled experts (chemists included) and employing to his advantage a lacuna in Johannes Vermeer’s biography. Van Meegeren knew that Vermeer had done some early paintings with religious themes, so he decided to plug the gap with more. For a few years he fooled the art establishment. Collectors and museums bought his Vermeers and displayed them proudly and prominently; rapacious art lover Hermann Goering ponied up mega-guilders for the bogus Christ and the Adulteress. Although Van Meegeren was quickly nabbed after the war, he convinced arresting officer Joseph Piller that he’d been duping the Nazis, not collaborating with them. Piller became a friend and advocate; the press loved the story. Van Meegeren eventually was convicted of forgery and sentenced to a year in prison, but he died before serving a day.
First-rate research and narrative skill propel this tale of greed, war and skillful manipulation of the popular imagination. For more, see also Edward Dolnick’s authoritative The Forger’s Spell (2008).