When IT comes to forgery and its ability to fascinate, the bigger the better, and the greater the audacity the more compelling. In the story of a two-bit Dutch painter, Han Van Meegeren, who had the nerve to take on that most rarefied of his artistic compatriots, Johannes Vermeer, author Edward Dolnick has hit the mother lode. And as if this tale of unparalleled chutzpah were not good enough, it takes place amid the tumult of the Nazi occupation of Holland and the competitive plunder of its -- and much of Europe's -- art treasures by Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. Dolnick more than does it justice, drawing on his knowledge of a wide range of subjects, including scientific process, politics and the gullibility and herd-instinct of the art market.
Van Meegeren not only had to simulate a Vermeer painting, he also had to make the actual picture that he painted on a genuinely old canvas look authentically antique and worn. This involved endless experiments with oven and knife, India ink and paint, all recounted here in detail and with considerable verve. He settled upon a process of making his colors from Bakelite, an early form of plastic invented in 1907, and, as Dolnick writes, with "brush and Bakelite paints, he retreated to the seventeenth-century."
You might think that in order to fool the art world into buying your efforts at a Vermeer they'd have to be good, but by all accounts Van Meegeren's were anything but. In October 1937, his first effort, "Christ at Emmaus," was shown to two leading art experts, Edward Fowles and Armand Lowengard, from the legendary firm of Duveen Brothers, which handled sales of the most celebrated paintings to the world's most active collectors. They pronounced it a "rotten fake:"
"The two men took one glance and gasped in astonishment. 'The moment we looked at it we knew it was a forgery,' Fowles recalled later. The supposed masterpiece looked like 'a poor piece of painted up linoleum.'
"For the rest of his life, Fowles looked back on the Van Meegeren affair with bafflement. 'The thing I never can understand,' he wrote in a letter more than a decade later, 'is how anybody who has seen a Vermeer can be taken in by the one that I saw. It was so dead, without any of the sparkle or life which is so prevalent in pictures by the master.' "
Yet despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that there are barely three dozen known Vermeers, this craftsman with no genius but plenty of ingenuity and unbridled cheek managed to foist six paintings, each one more slapdash in its creation, on a hungry art world willing to pay ever-increasing prices for them. "With 'Emmaus' as the new benchmark," Dolnick remarks, "Van Meegeren no longer had to compete with Vermeer. Now he could churn out forgeries that only had to measure up to his own far more forgiving standard. Even better, each new fake broadened the definition of what counted as a Vermeer, so Van Meegeren's task grew easier and easier as his 'Vermeers' grew worse and worse."
One of Van Meegeren's forgeries was acquired by none other than the obsessively acquisitive Nazi Reich Marshal Goering, sketched by Dolnick in all his flamboyant excess. Garbed in ridiculous, self-glorifying costumes of his own invention adorned with so many medals "that Germans joked (quietly) that the decoration nearest the edge read 'Continued on the Back,' " Goering could make a visitor to his grotesque mansion cum gallery Carin Hall feel "as if I were in the cell of a mental patient." In the insanity of Nazi Europe, this buffoon was a ruthless predator determined to acquire the continent's best artwork by confiscation if the owners were Jewish but otherwise through access to state funds. His boundless appetites were limited only by the covetousness of his equally art-mad boss, Hitler. As it happened, the Fuhrer got his hands on a genuine Vermeer while Goering ended up with one of Van Meegeren's fakes, something that would still have the power to amaze and infuriate him when it was revealed to him in his cell at Nuremberg in 1946.
It was that sale to Goering, though, that brought about the forger's downfall. Accused by Dutch authorities of treason because of his involvement in the sale of a priceless national treasure to the Reich marshal, Van Meegeren had no choice but to confess to the lesser crime of fraud in order to avoid execution for the capital charge. In order to convince his captors that he could have actually done such a thing, he had to paint yet another fake Vermeer, this time under their initially disbelieving eyes.
But doing business with Goering had sealed his fate: "Most forgers are finally caught, one scholar has written, because they fool one person too few," writes Dolnick. "Van Meegeren's misfortune was that he fooled one person too many."
Martin Rubin is a critic and author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."