Today 70 years ago one of the Netherlands’s most controversial artists passed away. He went from collaborator to hero in the same criminal trial.
Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren ( 10 October 1889 – 30 December 1947) was a Dutch painter and portraitist and is considered to be one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century.
Forgers, by nature, prefer anonymity and therefore are rarely remembered. An exception is Han van Meegeren . Van Meegeren’s story is absolutely unique and may be justly considered the most dramatic art scam of the 20th century.
As a child, van Meegeren developed an enthusiasm for the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and later set out to become an artist himself. Art critics, however, decried his work as tired and derivative, and van Meegeren felt that they had destroyed his career. He decided to prove his talent to the critics by forging paintings of some of the world’s most famous artists, including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer. He so well replicated the styles and colours of the artists that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his paintings as genuine and sometimes exquisite. His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France.
This painting was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts such as Abraham Bredius. Bredius acclaimed it as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft” and wrote of the “wonderful moment” of being “confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master”.
During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen wanted to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and they avidly bought van Meegeren’s forgeries, thinking them the work of the masters. Nevertheless, a falsified “Vermeer” ended up in the possession of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.
During World War II, Hermann Goerring traded 137 paintings for van Meegeren’s forgery “Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery.”
Unfortunately for van Meegeren, Goerring kept meticulous papers regarding his transactions. At the end of World War II, van Meegeren’s name was found next to the trade for the Vermeer, and he was arrested in May 1945 for “collaborating with the enemy.”
The allegations might have carried a death sentence, and so van Meegeren was forced to out himself as a forger. He claimed responsibility for the painting of the Vermeer that Goerring had bought, along with five other Vermeer paintings and two Pieter de Hooghs, all of which had been “discovered” after 1937. The astonished court room had him paint another forgery in front of them to prove it, and when he passed the test his charges were changed to forgery and he was sentenced to just one year in prison, which was the minimum prison sentence for such a crime.
The trial of Han van Meegeren began on 29 October 1947 in Room 4 of the Regional Court in Amsterdam. In order to demonstrate his case, it was arranged that, under police guard before the court, he would paint another “Vermeer,” Jesus Among the Doctors, using the materials and techniques he had employed for the other forgerie
Rather than be angry with van Meegeren, the Dutch public largely lauded him as a hero. During his trial, he presented himself as a patriot—he had, after all, secured 137 paintings that had been unlawfully seized by Goerring by duping the famous Nazi into thinking he’d purchased a real Vermeer. As van Meegeren said, “How could a person demonstrate his patriotism, his love of Holland more than I did by conning the great enemy of the Dutch people?
Van Meegeren suffered a heart attack on 26 November 1947, the last day to appeal the ruling, and was rushed to the Valeriuskliniek hospital in Amsterdam. While at the hospital, he suffered a second heart attack on 29 December, and was pronounced dead at 5:00 pm on 30 December 1947 at the age of 58. His family and several hundred of his friends attended his funeral at the Driehuis Westerveld Crematorium chapel. In 1948, his urn was buried in the general cemetery in the village of Diepenveen (municipality of Deventer).
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