Han van Meegeren (1889 – 1947) was a Dutch painter and portraitist, considered one of the best art forgers of the last century. He is remembered by his faked Vermeers. Meegeren spent seven years on forging some of the world’s most famous artists including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Boch and, of course, Johannes Vermeer.
Nowadays, we may check the authenticity of a picture by applying forensic and even digital techniques. But Meegeren was able to fool the experts of his time. Why?
- Vermeer’s work was practically unknown to the general public at the beginning of the 20th century, so very few people knew how a Vermeer look like.
- Most art galleries kept their collections in protective storage shortly before and during the Second World War. Thus, experts could not compare a genuine Vermeer painting with one of Meegeren’s.
At the same time, Han van Meegeren was extremely meticulous in his art forgeries. He studied the biographies of the Dutch masters from the Golden Age along with their trademark techniques and catalogues. Godley (1951) provides a detailed description of the forgery process:
“Van Meegeren bought authentic 17th century canvas to paint on, and mixed his own paints from raw materials (such as lapis lazuli, white lead, indigo, and cinnabar) using old formulas to ensure that they were authentic. In addition, he used badger hair paintbrushes, similar to those Vermeer was known to have used. He came up with a scheme of using phenolformaldehyde to cause the paints to harden after application, making the paintings appear as if they were 300 years old. After completing a painting, Van Meegeren would bake it at 100 °C (212.0 °F) to 120 °C (248.0 °F) to harden the paint, and then roll it over a cylinder to increase the cracks. Later he would wash the painting in black (India) ink to fill in the cracks.”
These facts made the fraud more difficult to detect. By the time Meegeren was found, he owned out of the equivalent of several million of dollars!
More information on Han van Meegeren:
- The Meegeren Website
- Essential Vermeer.com
- The Art Forgeries of Han van Meegeren
- A Fraud’s Life.
- El hombre que estafó al Tercer Reich. “Historias con historia”, blog by Iñaki (in Spanish)