Monday, July 20, 2009

Beach Reading for Provenance Researchers

Jonathan Lopez. The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 2008.

Investigations into the authenticity of paintings and digital documents begin in the same place – by establishing context. Provenance researchers and forensic archivists ask the same questions – where did the object come from, where has it been, and what authority has authenticated it. Jonathan Lopez’s account of the career of the art forger Han van Meegeren, perhaps best known for being the man who swindled Hermann Goering, is well-researched and draws on trial testimony, state and regional archives, and interviews with dealers and collectors who worked with Van Meegeren. Lopez replaces the false image of Van Meegeren as a misunderstood genius and popular hero of the Dutch Resistance, with a truer portrait of a successful society painter and war profiteer. The sensation over Van Meegeren’s admission of guilt that he had indeed painted the faux Vermeer, “Christ and the Adulteress,” which had been purchased by Reichmarshall Goering at a huge sum, diverted public attention from his collaboration with the Nazis. This skill at managing diversions was the key to his success as a forger.

What particularly struck me in this account was how well Van Meegeren understood the expectations of the art historians – in subject matter, technique, and materials - and then produced just what they were looking for. The forger added to the oeuvre of Vermeer, the recently rediscovered Dutch master, by producing the “biblical Vermeers,” filling the gap in a transition period in the artist’s career for which no previously authenticated paintings existed. His use of gelatin glue and Bakelite in the paints produced results that responded appropriately to the technical analysis of the time, and this further supported the claims of authenticity. However, as Lopez noted, then as now, sales of forgeries were more often made on the basis of connoisseurship, not science.

“Today’s high-tech machinery has made it considerably easier to prove a picture fake, but generally speaking, by the time a forgery has raised enough questions to prompt scientific analysis, it has already been bought and paid for. In order to make a living, a professional forger seldom has to fool the people with the spectrometers and the X-ray machines, just the starry-eyed optimist with the checkbook.” (p.242)

Adroit use of a succession of respectable middlemen, serving the interests of mythical distinguished, but now impoverished Dutch families, who introduced the forged paintings to the attention of dealers and connoisseurs, further distanced Van Meegeren from the forgeries.

Another of the reasons that Van Meegeren choose to fake Vermeers was that he knew that the Dutch art and museum community were anxious that the country’s art treasures, particularly the work of the Dutch Masters, not fall into the hands of the enemy, although Lopez presents evidence that there were certainly some Dutch dealers who were prepared to sell out Holland’s cultural heritage. However, this need for haste and secrecy led to improvident decisions on the part of dealers and museum acquisition committees.

Curiously, documentation was always required as part of the transfer of ownership to the Reichsmarshall and the payment for the painting, “Christ and the Adulteress” was delayed until he received a letter from Van Meegeren giving the name of the previous owner. “Goering had no qualms about buying or receiving property of dubious origins… but in proper Nazi fashion, he always demanded that there be some kind of documentation to give his acquisitions a veneer of legality.” (pp. 183-184) The letter that Van Meegeren wrote in February 1944, at the insistence of the dealer managing the transaction, made an agreement that he would reveal the name of the painting’s owner within two years of the purchase date. Lopez notes that everyone else except Van Meegeren suspected that the painting had been looted and that this letter would allow them to place the blame on someone else. Moreover, “while Goering remained focused on whitewashing his latest questionable acquisition, the fact that the picture was a fraud escaped notice entirely.” (p. 185).

Van Meegeren’s story remains an excellent case study for both provenance researchers and museum archivists, as it illustrates the way in which documentation can be used and misused to establish the authenticity of an art work. Provenance research into the transfer of works during the Nazi era is greatly assisted by access to records such as those maintained by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), captured by the Allies and now available at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The value of The Man Who Made Vermeers is that it supplies the data that allows us to look behind the fa├žade of the elaborate invention that was the life and works of that “genial forger” Han van Meegeren.


Richard J. Cox said...

I read Edward Dolnick, The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), adding to my growing collection of books on both forgeries and the marketplace for art, archives, and antiquities. What interested me the most was Dolnick's argument about how poor most of these forgeries were, but how this often was overlooked by both private collectors and museums.

Teach said...

This is the incredible, gripping story of British con man John Drewe and his partner in deception, art forger John Myatt. It is nonfiction, but its hair-raising investigative reporting reads like a thriller that just might knock you right out of your beach chair.

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