How to fool the art world

Marian Cousijn, our Contemporary Art correspondent, takes us on a journey into the world of art forger Han van Meegeren. 

From failed artist via con artist to national hero: this is the strange story of master forger Han van Meegeren. Although his print The Dear (1921) decorated the walls of thousands of Dutch households (including my grandmother’s), established art critics didn’t take Van Meegeren’s work seriously.

Han van Meegeren, The Deer, 1921.

Insulted at not receiving the recognition he thought he deserved, Van Meegeren decided to make fools of the connoisseurs. And he succeeded, in style! In 1937 Museum Boymans in Rotterdam purchased the painting The Supper at Emmaus for an astronomical sum. The experts were convinced that it was a sensational early work by Johannes Vermeer, but in fact it was by Van Meegeren.

Han van Meegeren, The Supper at Emmaus, 1937.

This video shows how Van Meegeren was eventually exposed after being suspected of collaboration with the Nazis.

It is not easy to make a good forgery: paintings are subjected to thorough tests of their authenticity. For example, you can’t use a kind of paint that did not exist when the painting was supposed to have been painted. And the artwork’s paper trail also has to be convincing. Despite being frauds, art forgers can sometimes rely on the sympathy of the public. After all, their crime has no victim as long as it remains unnoticed. And once the forger is unmasked, it becomes clear that the elitist art world has been worshipping the emperor’s new clothes.

Han van Meegeren makes a new forgery to prove that he has indeed sold a fake Vermeer to the Nazis, 1945.

In the film about forger Wolfgang Beltracchi we have little sympathy for his victims: filthy rich collectors who no longer find their painting beautiful once it is revealed to be a fake. They are less concerned with the beauty of the artwork than with its financial value and the status it bestows on them.

Although art forgers may be a pain in the neck for the art world, their work remains fascinating because it exposes hypocrisy about the value of art.

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