Han van Meegeren
The world’s greatest art swindler

Art experts use most of their time studying art. That’s what has made them experts. No one becomes an expert over night. By seeing and keeping on seeing, by deep studies, by kicking the doors of the museums, galleries and auctions, by constantly observing, by studying books and by drawing comparisons, a person can hope approximately to become an expert.

One of the great names within the world of experts was the Dutch Abraham Bredius. An expert in Dutch painting from the 16’th century, and because of that with an intensive knowledge about the painter Jan Vermeer van Delft, the master of one of the most famous paintings in the world “The Cook-Maid” from approximately 1660, showing a girl pouring milk into a can. This painting you can enjoy in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where Bredius was a junior director. Bredius had become known for his book about Rembrandt as stated otherwise in this paper. The book in question was a complete list over the master’s paintings. Since then it is heavily reduced in the number of paintings from the hand of Rembrandt as also stated otherwise.

Bodius had reached the age of more than 80 years in 1937, his sight was poor, and he had retired in order to enjoy his retirement in Monaco. But one day, in the beginning of September; he received a letter from a certain dr. G. A. Boon in Paris. Bodius’ interest was awakened in a tremendous manner, so much that he packed his suitcases and headed toward the city of the cities – Paris.

The result from his visit one could read in the English paper of art The Burlington Magazine, edition September under the headline: “A new Vermeer” and Bredius started right on, and softly he said: “It’s a wonderful moment in life to an art lover to suddenly be confronted with a so far unknown painting by a great master. Untouched, on original canvas and with no restorations, completely as had it just been given free from the master’s hand. Oh! What painting it was! Neither the beautiful signature I. V. Meer (in monogram I.V.M.)  nor the picking at the breed, which Christ is blessing is necessary to convince anybody, that what we have here, I’m forced to say, the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer and furthermore it’s one of his best paintings (117 by 129 cm), quite different from all his other pictures, but yet every inch is “a Vermeer”. The motive is Christ and his disciples in Emmaus, and the colours are magnificent – and characteristic – Christ wearing wonderful blue suit, the disciple at the left side whose face you can hardly see are in a fine green coulor; the other disciple at the right side wares a yellow clothing, Vermeer’s famous tone, but subdued in perfect harmony with the other colour. The servant is dressed in dark-brown and dark-grey, the look in her face is gorgeous. And precisely this sensitive way of painting is also the most wonderful quality about this art. In none of his other paintings, the great master from Delft, we will find so great sensitivity, so deep understanding for Bible history – a way of looking so fine and with so great humanitarian expression by means of the best world of art".

The painting Doctor Boon had in his hands for inspection by a friend, the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, who told him, that the painting came from an old Dutch family, who lived in Italy under the fascistic regime. The family, according to Meegeren, bared the name Mavroeke had asked him to sell some heirlooms, and he had now put himself into a great risk, smuggling the painting out of the country.

The most famous art forgery, Han van Meegeren’s The Supper at Emmaus, 1937,
117 by 129 cm. Sold for 520.000 guilders as a genuine painting from the great Dutch
 painter Vermeer, an incredible amount by 1937 standard and the 2005 equivalent
of 2,5 million dollars. When van Meegeren confessed, no one believed him, and he had to
 prove his guilt by painting in prison. Look further down!

The publication of Bredius’ article has of course given the picture “the blue mark”. It was to be considered a statement of genuineness, and Boon tried to sell it in Paris, but in vane. He brought it back to Holland, where he claimed it to be a national treasure, and therefore it had to stay in the country. His prayers were heard and a number of art specialists, amongst these the respected dealer Hoogendijk and the director for Boymans Museum Hannema, bought it together with the Rembrandt company for 520.000 Guilders, at that time represented a value of 1.3 Million. The sale left ¾ of the amount to van Meegeren. The painting was put in place at the new Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, where it for the next seven years was exposed to daily admiration as one of the world’s most magnificent piece of art. And had it not been for a pure coincidence, nobody would have ever heard about van Meegeren.

A sensational confession.

Destiny caught up Han van Meegeren. On march 1945, 29 he was arrested and accused for injurious to the state by having collaborated with the enemy and in 1943 through middleman for having sold a painting by Vermeer, namely The Adultres to Herman Göring, who during the war had plundered museums and private collections in Holland. If van Meegeren was found guilty, he had to face many years in prison. Toward this thread he therefore made a fantastic confession, which nobody believed, but which was going to shake not only Dutch experts but also the whole world of art.

Han van Meegeren admitted having done several forgeries of Dutch masters: Ter Borch, Pieter de Hoogh, Theodor van Baburen, Frans Hals – and Vermeer. Not the picture which was bought by Göring, even worse the Vermeer, who the best expert had proclaimed to be a masterpiece within the art of painting. The Nestor of art Abraham Bredius was in this connection the leading figure. The painting was admired through seven years by thousands of museum visitors. No one trusted the man’s confession but they certainly had to do so. In his cell van Meegeren was handed over some colours and canvas, and then he began to prove his guilt. And it did not last long before Dutch art experts hung their heads heavily.

This picture van Meegeren had to paint in prison before anyone believed him, believed
that he had done huge forgeries. The picture (157 by 202 cm) was sold at Christie’s
 in London in 1996 for about £ 20.000.

A commission of experts under the leadership of the director of the Belgium museum laboratories d. P.B. Coremans was asked to investigate the pictures. During the whole case van Meegeren had been very cooperative, and in March 1947, almost two years after his confession, the result was put forward to Coremans-commission. They showed in evidently the information given by van Meegeren. Before that van Meegeren had in detail told, how he had painted “his” Vermeer”, The Supper at Emmaus. How he had used the canvas from the 1600'th century material, painting and used materials, which could only be acquired on Vermeer’s time.

And after several weeks of careful work, signed it with Vermeer’s signature, where after he had kept it in an oven by 105 degree Celsius to obtain in this manner “the old look”. Thereafter he had given it another fine polish, rolled it on a stick and unrolled it so that it at lastly cracked. Finally he had damaged it several places, restored it, put it on an original dark frame with original sprig, framed it in an original frame, and the masterpiece of Vermeer was a reality.

On November 12, 1947, Han van Meegeren was adjudged guilty and sentenced one year's imprisonment. Unfortunately two weeks later he became ill and died on December 29.

Vermeer on the net

© Preben Juul Madsen www.artfakes.dk