Van Meegeren’s Early Vermeers
Jonathan Lopez reveals that three 1920s fake Vermeers are by the notorious art forger Han van Meegeren, who, far from being an independent operator, was part of a slick operation of organised art fraud.
Jonathan Lopez, Sunday, 29th June 2008
Best remembered today for having fabricated a fictitious ‘biblical’ period in the oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer, the notorious art forger Han van Meegeren (Fig. 2) never admitted to creating any fakes dating from before 1937, but there have always been rumours suggesting that his career had, in fact, begun much earlier than that. As is fairly well known, the government of the Netherlands arrested Van Meegeren as a Nazi collaborator at the end of World War II, charging that he had sold a Vermeer to Hermann Goering during the German occupation. When Van Meegeren revealed that he himself had painted Goering’s prized masterpiece, he became extremely popular with the general public, and his case was thereafter handled with kid gloves. Van Meegeren acknowledged forging only the six biblically-themed Vermeers that the government already knew to be connected to him through the front men who had brought the works to market, two ‘Pieter de Hoochs’ sold in the same manner, and a few unfinished items that remained in his atelier.1 Although confidential sources informed the investigative team working on the case that Van Meegeren had sold forgeries to ‘Englishmen and Americans’ decades before the outbreak of hostilities, the matter seems not to have received any official attention.2
The rumours, however, appear to have had a strong foundation in reality. In a notable 1995 essay, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, linked three 1920s-vintage Vermeer forgeries to the workshop of a Dutch art-world intriguer named Theo van Wijngaarden, long known as a mentor and associate of Van Meegeren.3 New investigations, extending the line of enquiry first proposed by Wheelock, have now added a further twist to this revelation. Interviews with members of Van Wijngaarden’s family, archival research in the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain and the US, and comparisons of the fakes with Van Meegeren’s contemporaneous work in his own name, combine to suggest that Van Meegeren himself was the creator of the forgeries in question. Likewise, the evidence indicates that, during this early phase of his career, Van Meegeren worked not as an independent operator, as he is known to have done later, but as a forger to the trade, a cog in the international machinery of organised art fraud.
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