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.