Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Book Review: "The Forger's Spell"

It takes only one glance at Han van Meegeren's Vermeer forgeries for even a rank amateur like me to tell say they're not very good (and don't even come close to holding a candle to Vermeer's own works). And yet for several years van Meegeren's paintings were hailed as Vermeer's "masterpieces." Why and how this came to be is the story told in Edward Dolnick's excellent new book, The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (Harper).

van Meegeren, a mediocre Dutch artist whose own work failed to gain any critical traction, turned to forgery in the late 1930s as a way to get back at the experts and make a little money. He managed to do both, in spades. After expending significant effort in figuring out how to make 20th century forgeries look and feel like 17th century paintings (he discovered that if he blended his oils with bakelite they exhibited the correct hardness, then bent them over his knee to obtain craquelure, and sprinkled the surface with India ink to dirty them up a bit), van Meegeren and various unwitting intermediaries began putting his paintings in front of expert eyes.

Dolnick's book alternates between several interconnecting storylines: that of van Meegeren himself as he creates and markets his paintings, that of the experts who fell right into his carefully-set trap and raved (and I mean raved) about the faux Vermeers (as well as those few who saw through them), and the collectors who wanted the paintings for their walls. Once war broke out, these included Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and even Der Fuehrer himself - imagine, Germany's top Nazis squabbling over paintings (needless to say, Hitler won those feuds).

The narrative portions of the book are quite good, but Dolnick's analysis of forgery in general and van Meegeren's forgeries in particular are also an important contribution to forgery literature. He examines the bizarre way in which forgers hook their victims, making them see what they want to see and getting them to buy into it with enough vehemence to provide a full-throated defense (and giving subsequent forgeries a chance to succeed). It's not just art, of course: we've seen this happen in a wide range of cases, from William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare relics to Denis Vrain-Lucas' implausible autographs to Hardy Rodenstock's bottles of "Thomas Jefferson's wine." Dolnick argues that the tendency of experts to believe more in their own capabilities than in the answers provided by scientific tests (and in the occasional inability of scientific tests to provide clear-cut answers in any case) make forgeries possible even today.

Forgers can still do their thing, Dolnick argues, but "the problem for van Meegeren and most forgers is that, even as they try to travel into the past, they bring the trappings of their own world with them. Their peers don't see anything awry because they share the same blind spots, but sooner or later a new generation will come along and giggle" (p. 221). One scholar has determined that if forgeries make it through their initial debut, they have, on average, a forty-year lifespan before the giggles start. But then there's those which survive even the generations - it is often said, rightly, that the best forgers are completely unknown, since their works are still hanging on the walls.

The forgeries of van Meegeren didn't make it long enough to hear the giggles: the forger confessed to police after they discovered links between his financial records and those of Mr. Goering. Collaboration with the Nazis was viewed as a pretty serious offense in post-war Holland, and van Meegeren was staring down the barrel of treason charges when he suddenly announced to his investigators that those Vermeers discovered in various Nazi vaults and hanging in reputable museums across the country were less than a decade old, and all the product not of the famous Vermeer, but of a modern-day "nobody." At first the police didn't even believe van Meegeren, but he showed them, by painting another "Vermeer" right in front of their eyes. Tried for fraud, the forger received a one-year sentence, but died before entering prison. He was seen at the end not as the huckster he was, but as a hero of Holland for making fools of Goering and Hitler (Goering, when he learned in prison that his prized Vermeer was a fake, is said to have shouted "No! No! No!").

A fascinating study of one of the most important art forgeries of modern times. Highly recommended.