In 1947, the Dutch court was in a state dilemma when it encountered a strange case of a forge artist. The defendant Han Van Meegeran had counterfeited millions of dollars worth of paintings. But he wasn’t arguing his innocence, in fact, he was fighting to prove that his works were actually forged. His life was dependent on proving the latter.
A Dutch artist of limited ability, Han Van Meegeran had counterfeited several paintings yet his prize possession remain Johannes Vermeer’s domestic paintings that weren’t discovered yet. One may argue that if he had possessed paintings worth millions of dollars, he wouldn’t have to commit a crime. But this itself provided the base of his crime as he didn’t hold any of these, in fact, had forged all of the Vermeer paintings.
Han Van Meegeran and his perfect forgery
Han Van Meegeran was born in 1889 in a middle-class Roman Catholic family in the provincial city of Deventer. Since childhood, his father strongly opposed Meegeran’s artistic skills and forced him to learn architecture instead. But Meegeran was reluctant and he left architecture and concentrated on drawing and painting. He was a small and dapper man and didn’t have much ability to make his name in painting.
As his art failed him to bring any fame, embittered towards the field he decided to make a fool out of his detractors. He learned about several renowned painters, their biographies, artworks, techniques, and way of interpretation. After mastering all of them, the artist he choose for deception was none other than the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
In The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick, he argues that there were multiple reasons why Meegeran chose Vermeer. The main reason was of course using the biggest name possible to extract a large amount of money from the buyers. Secondly, Vermeer’s biography in itself is completely blank thus using his artworks won’t spark faults or limitations. The absence of information left a huge room for him to imitate and fit. The last advance was that most of Vermeer’s work was undiscovered or lost thus nobody knew exactly how many paintings he produced.
Han Van Meegeran worked for six years in secret and perfected his art. He learned about every aspect of Vermeer’s work and mastered the art. He also mixed his paints after researching the materials Vermeer used in his works. He also created his own brushes, bought 17th-century canvases, and worked on aging the works. He applied synthetic resins on the paintings and baked them to dry and crack the paint. This method proved useful as there wasn’t any advanced technology available to determine whether the work was fake or authentic.
Meegeran’s biggest achievement could be in knowing the difference between real and forgery. He knew that if his works were just like Vermeer’s or even close to it, there will be many people who will study them and indefinitely find errors in the paintings. The art fanatics can’t convince that the undiscovered work of Vermeer resurfaced out of nowhere, thus they will apply as much time and technology to determine whether the piece is authentic or not. They will discover even the last little gap that keeps it from being real.
Thus Meegeran made paintings that had a hint of Vermeer and everything else was fresh. The paintings though would reflect Vermeer’s characteristics but it wouldn’t be anything like Vermeer’s discovered work. This way the experts fill in the gaps themselves and there is no room for speculation.
And so began Han Van Meegeran’s biggest gambling.
Meegeran knew that Vermeer was inspired by the Italian painter Caravaggio. The leading authority on Vermeer, Abraham Bredius, was a huge proponent of the above inspiration, though none of such works were ever discovered. To fill this gap, Meegran found his opportunity. He created one named “The Supper at Emmaus”. When he bought this fake painting to light, Bredius declared it true, authentic, and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces. From the approval from the art world, the painting was sold for four million dollars. A strikingly huge price referring to the time.
This early forgery inspired Meegeran to produce more fake pieces and he continues to sell them at high prices. And people continued to believe in the authenticity of the paintings. It wasn’t until the Nazis took control over Holland during the Second World War and Meegeran’s fake painting was bought by Hermann Goring, a high-ranking official who had an interest in collecting art pieces. He sold to him a painting called “Christ with the Adulteress”.
But following the Allied victory, Goring’s property was seized and so did his paintings. Meegeran was soon arrested for selling a valuable piece of Dutch history to the enemies. If proved guilty he would be charged with death. This changed the fate of Meegran completely and he stood at the edge of his own deception.
He insisted that the paintings were not Vermeer’s original but his own imitation. Meegeran explained step by step how he had forged all of his paintings. But Abraham Bredius was adamant about the authenticity of the paintings. He insisted that the paintings were original and Meegeran was lying. To prove his forgery, Meegeran forged another work and presented it to court, and they finally believed it. Though he escaped from death, Meegeran was sentenced to one year in prison for forgery. Nearly two months later, he died of a heart attack without serving even a day.
But much to everyone’s surprise, he died a hero. Why? In the last days of his life, Meegeran managed to convince the people that he had tricked Goring on purpose. He styled himself as a Dutch patriot at the trial and so the people believed him. This way he turned his image from a forger to a national hero. Thanks to the popularity, Meegran’s forgery soon transformed into a valuable collection of art.
Now, this is how a perfect crime sounds like!