In the late 1930s, Vermeer’s Christ at Emmaus (above) stood as the most famous and admired work by the master. Crowds flocked to see it, swooning before it in religious rapture. Today, most people look at Christ at Emmaus and say to themselves, “That’s a Vermeer!?!” And they’re right. It’s not. Edward Dolnick’s The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century follows how a second-rate artist named Han van Meegeren tricked the experts, the dealers, museums, and eventually the Nazis plundering Europe’s finest treasures into believing such a work could be by the Master of Delft. “The central question is not whodunit but, instead, howdunit?” Dolnick writes, setting off on a journey through the history of Vermeer’s renaissance in modern times, the façade of art history expertise, and the art obsession of Hermann Goering, who fell for the fakes out his lust for the real thing.
van Meegeren lingered in relative obscurity in the Dutch art world for years. A few successful sentimental images shortly after World War I (particularly one of a doe that gained fame thanks to a rumor that it was Princess Juliana’s pet) hardly made up years of critical disdain. As the world began to embrace Picasso and Matisse and modern art movements, van Meegeren found himself a man of the discarded past, railing against the “slimy bunch” of “drunken madmen” in vogue and adored by the critics. Through forgery, van Meegeren would show them all. “van Meegeren was a tireless experimenter, a savvy tactician and deal-maker, and a brilliant psychologist,” Dolnick writes. “What he was not especially good at was painting. He found a way to make that not matter.” After selling Christ at Emmaus to a prestigious museum in 1937, van Meegeren found the path to future hoaxes paved with true believers. When the Nazis conquered Holland, both Goering and Adolf Hitler salivated at the prospect of owning Vermeers. Hitler claimed Vermeer’s The Art of Painting and The Astronomer for himself, Goering had to step aside. When Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery entered the market, Goering’s past disappointments inflamed him to purchase it, blinding him to the reality before his eyes as much as the critical praise of these “new” biblical Vermeers did.
Dolnick not only skillfully tells the breathless tale of intrigue and deception but also gives the why behind the deception. Reading Dolnick’s explanation of the psychology of van Meegeren’s hoax reminded me of Orson Welles’ 1973 film F for Fake about another art forger, Elmyr d'Hory, minus all the Wellesian magic and misdirection. Dolnick tells it straight and shows how forgeries such as The Last Supper (above), despite an obvious lack of quality, fulfilled the needs of so many on different levels. Vermeer’s star rose in the 1880s and continued to rise in the early twentieth century. The lack of works attributable to him frustrated connoisseurs. “New” Vermeers fed this hunger. By selecting biblical subjects not previously found in Vermeer’s oeuvre, van Meegeren capitalized on the desire to know “another side” to Vermeer as well as to protect himself from too close comparisons to actual Vermeers. van Meegeren also played Vermeer authorities such as Abraham Bredius by placing little Vermeer-ish touches in his paintings (specs of light on bread, ultramarine blue) that triggered gut reactions in defiance of cool, reasoned analysis. Finally, as the Nazi wolves howled at the door and threatened civilization itself, van Meegeren’s biblical Vermeers offered solace to an anxious public in their calm, austere piety. Dolnick ties together all these threads into the tapestry lowered over the eyes of the world that might never have been raised if not for the Nazis’ defeat.
When the allies liberated Holland and began to search for the plundered art treasures, the money trail of Goering’s Vermeer led them to van Meegeren. Facing a death sentence for treason for collaborating in selling cultural treasures to the enemy, van Meegeren confessed to the forgeries to win the lesser charge of fraud. “He Paints for His Life” one headline roared over a photo of van Meegeren painting a “Vermeer” in front of military guards to prove that he could do it. At van Meegeren’s 1947 trial, the prosecutor accepted the fraud claim and added, “Hopefully this history will teach the experts modesty.” Before taking his own life and cheating the gallows, Goering learned of the deception. van Meegeren’s fakes, such as The Washing of Christ’s Feet (above), included “authentic” tears in the canvas (the white spots above) that the general and so many others saw as just more proof. Even the restorers Goering hired to fix the paintings saw nothing amiss (or did, and never said anything). Dolnick recreates some of the frustration of van Meegeren’s endless experimentation in baking his paintings to recreate the effects of aging, almost making you join in the forger’s tears of joy at finally finding the right recipe.
Dolnick finds the perfect recipe for a popular art history book that also addresses serious issues in art appreciation. Like the prosecutor at van Meegeren’s trial, we can hope for humility in art expertise, but don’t hold your breath. “It is a striking feature of the art world that experts have little choice but to put enormous faith in their own opinions,” Dolnick asserts. “Inevitably, that opens the way to error, sometimes to spectacular error.” van Meegeren died before serving a single day of his one-year prison service, eventually becoming a national hero of sorts as “the man who swindled Goering.” Today, van Meegeren stands as a hero to those who place little faith in the experts. At the heart of Dolnick’s book is the simple advice to look with your eyes first, and then with your head and heart. “The amateur is unlikely to go wrong because he’s unlikely to go anywhere,” Dolnick says of the difference between experts following clues and know-nothings who can say that the emperor has no clothes. It’s easy to look at van Meegeren’s art today and laugh, but Dolnick ably recreates the spell he once cast on the world while providing a talisman to protect us from future illusions.