Fool All of the People, All of the Time

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

They said it couldn't be done. "They" say a lot of things. And if the story of mediocre-painter turned master-art-forger Han van Meegeren teaches us anything, it's that the gate-keepers don't always know what they're talking about.

If there's one thing sure to make me latch onto a bit of history like dried Jet glue on the fingers of architecture students, it's real-life stories that come out seemingly tailor-made for Greek theater. Naturally, you'll find a longer version of this tale in Be Amazing.

Fool the Art World
Launching his career in the 1920s and 30s, Dutch painter Han van Meegeren utterly failed to take critics by storm. Apparently committed to toiling on realistic portraiture while everybody else was trying to be Picasso, van Meegeren seemed doomed to the fate of a "never was." But when a critic derided his work as "lacking originality," the frustrated artist hatched a plan that would prove his talent and make his foes look like idiots. Ironically, the plan involved abandoning any pretense at originality whatsoever. Instead, van Meegeren set out to become the greatest art forger who ever lived; not merely copying known works of his hero, Jan Vermeer, but producing new paintings that would combine Vermeer's literal and artistic signatures with van Meegeren's own critically panned style of painting. Van Meegeren originally planned to create just one of these paintings, make it an international sensation and then reveal the truth to a very small and sorry art world. But plans--as plans are wont to do--went awry.

Fool Yourself
To pull off the deception, van Meegeren learned how to mix Renaissance-era paints, prepare canvasses the way Vermeer would have and artificially age his paintings. The result: The Disciples at Emmaus, a never-before-seen, newly discovered Vermeer that was quickly a hit with art collectors across Europe. In fact, the whole thing was so successful that van Meegeren abandoned the "expose critics as frauds" step of his plan and, instead, sold Emmaus for the equivalent of $4 million, and began work on another "Vermeer". Over the next five years, he went on to sell another $60 million worth of forged art.

Fool the Nazis, Fool the Allies and Almost Get Yourself Killed
The long con came to a screeching end in 1945, when Allied forces found a previously unknown Vermeer hidden in a salt mine along with piles of other Nazi-pilfered works of art. Using the Third Reich's infamously well-organized record keeping, authorities tracked the piece to Field Marshall Herman Goering, who'd bought it from some Dutch art dealer named van Meegeren.

Brought in for questioning, van Meegeren refused to give up the name of the painting's rightful owners and was sent to prison on charges of treason, a crime punishable by death. Six weeks on death row and van Meegeren cracked, announcing somewhat histrionically that he'd painting the thing himself. Awkwardly, nobody believed him.

The painter was given one final chance. If he could forge another painting, charges would be dropped. Armed with his art supplies and court-appointed witnesses, van Meegeren turned out another "Vermeer" that shocked both jailers and art critics with its verisimilitude...and turned van Meegeren from a traitor into a public hero who'd outwitted the Nazis. Of course, authorities were not 100 percent forgiving. Although the charge of treason was dropped, van Meegeren did spend a year in jail for profiting off forgery.

Photo of Han van Meegeren, painting his final "Vermeer" for the Allies, taken by George Rodger for Time & Life Pictures -- Getty Images and used under fair use.


  1. I just finished reading “The Man Who Made Vermeers” about Van Meegren. Interesting read. He wasn’t really mixing “Renaissance-era paints”- real oil paints take forever to dry. The early ones were done with white glue as a binder, until someone figured out that these fakes could be found by the fact that alcohol would disolve them. So his later forgeries were done using Bakelite as a binder, which had to be put on thinly and carefully, then heated to harden. They were plastic!

    Also, the book pointed out that he had strong sympathies for the Nazis (but scammed them, since he liked money more), and died from syphilis. Quite a character.

  2. Oh man, now I wish I knew what clues to tell you to look for. Art history buffs! Any of you know how to pick out a van Meegeren?

  3. no fear, there’s no way he’s letting me anywhere near it. Besides, I’m pretty sure you’d need a microscope and other instruments as well as expertise. A Dutch family, which lends some credibility, but on the whole I think I get more mileage hugging the mystery.

  4. Whoa. I wonder if William Gaddis drew on van Meegeren’s story for the character of Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions.

  5. Is this the story that the movie “Incognito” is based on?
    Though dramatized it was pretty interesting in how to get the right pigments and brush hair.

    And how to age a painting.

  6. The Boingboing RSS feed has a serious flaw here. When a guest blogger writes a post, the feed shows the summary about the blogger first. Many feed readers only show a couple of words on mouseover, so i can’t figure out what the article is about because the same text about the guest blogger clogs it for all of his/her posts.

  7. I’m of the mindset that these works are legitimate in their own way. Not as Vermeers, but as van Meegerens–conceptual painting.

  8. In NYC a few years back, there was a ‘friend of a friend’ who had a successful scam forging Basquiat paintings…until he got caught and thrown in teh pokey.

    From a populist perspective, art forgeries are great, because they take aim at the shallow people who prefer to judge art by its pricetag. There are all kinds of forgeries floating around the world, from any period; the collectors and auction houses keep this very hush-hush, as it is obviously bad for their business…especially if they are selling one here and there.

  9. One important reason van Meergens paintings were able to fool so many was because of media– photographs of paintings were not as widely circulated as today, so people had to go on memory of what these works looked like.
    Check out Vermeer paintings and you’ll see the mugs on these subjects really don’t look like his.

  10. #12: I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve seen one or two real Vermeers, and I’ve grown to appreciate Baroque art over the years. I teach an art history survey course and had to brush up on the basics and I kind of like post-Renaissance art in general (instead of just modern and contemporary stuff). Somehow van Meergen’s fakes are in a class by themselves. But #14 may be right…

  11. Yes, the faces just don’t work, although I think he gets closest with Emmaus. Now on the other hand, his several versions of the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies by van Clomp are almost indistinguishable from the original.

  12. I always found it odd these paintings were accepted so readily. Besides the point about faces, I’ve always had the impression that Vermeer stuck to secular subjects, even if one may find religious undertones in them.

  13. #17 Not unless the RIAA is prosecuting people for stealing art from political prisoners and oppressed minorities and reselling it to war criminals.

  14. This must have been one of the inspiration for the 2nd book in Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, “What’s Bred in the Bone.”

    @2 thank you for mentioning that, I think I will check it out from the library!

  15. I’ve read 3 books on this subject; I was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne, The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick, and The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren by Jonathan Lopez. In that order. The last is definitely my fav.

    The way to spot a van Meegeren fake is with chemistry. Also the man was just not that good. All his figures have sullen eyes. His earlier fakes were better as he put more care into them. He did more forgery in his life than just the Vermeers, but I won’t spoil the story.

    If you know someone with a “lost Vermeer” you don’t have to get near it yourself. Just snitch to a museum curator, or one of the major art publications like Artforum. They will take it from there, as new Vermeers are a BIG deal.

  16. What do them ott crickets no anyhow
    what with their grand opinings and opieats?
    Oh ott, howse I loves it.

  17. yes, I’m aware its a “big deal”. I’m also aware of his hirsute colleagues that are fond of large displacement motorcycles.

  18. A few points about Vermeer off the top of my head:
    1) The 1930s Dutch art establishment was itching to be fooled – some critic had hypothesised on the basis of one or maybe two real Vermeers that he probably painted lots of pictures of Scriptural subjects that had been lost. When Van Meegeren started ‘discovering’ lost Vermeers of Jeebus he had a ready-made market.
    2) Anyone who can tell the difference between, umm, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and who has seen a real Vermeer (even in reproduction) will be amazed that these unbelievably crappy paintings were ever mistaken for proper Vermeers. They look like bad 1930s commercial art; presumably people actually living in the 1930s could mistake their contemporary style for realism. But now that pic illustrating the story, above, just looks revoltingly corny.
    3) Vermeer is (now) widely thought to have used camera-like optical devices to compose his paintings, which is why his perspective and anatomy was pretty much perfect. Van Meegeren didn’t know about the lens gadgets and such — another reason why his fakes are so bad.

  19. ETI @ 27

    I think the Gardner actually recieved some paint chips years ago that prooved to be fake w/ analysis. Also, thanks for the new book list on van Meergen- I never understood how these paintings ever fooled anyone either.

  20. I think I remember reading that some of van Meegeren’s Madonnas had the faces of that era’s movie stars.

    It’s easy to tell a genuine van Meegeren. They show up at flea markets or auctions every now and then. They’re signed and they’re crap.

    I suspect one reason he was a folk hero was that he ripped off the Nazi occupiers and still got jail time while better-established collaborators walked.

  21. If you liked van Meegren, you’ll love Tom Keating. That guy could actually paint, and did a marvellous series on painting technique for UK’s Channel 4. He also wrote a biography called “The Fake’s Progress’.

  22. anonymous @ #6, I just watched most of Incognito on youtube. A couple major plot points are taken from the van Meegeren’s story, and they even refer to him in the trial scene. Apart from that, the van Meegeren story is very different and far more compelling, let alone the fact that it actually happened.

    There is apparently a film about van Meegeren in the works, based on the book by Jonathan Lopez. I hope they do a good job and not a “paint by numbers” effort like Incognito.

  23. I read The Man Who Made Vermeers, too, and thought it was terrific. Lopez has a really interesting answer to the question of how anyone could have believed the fakes by Van Meegeren were real Vermeers. Turns out that Van Meegeren, who’s famous for selling a fake to Herman Goering, was actually a Nazi sympathizer himself, and his “Vermeers” looked a heck of a lot like Nazi paintings! Several pics in the book really make the case. Totally clinched it for me.

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