"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
September 30, 2013
The Fabulous Faker's False Fable, Part 3
by Lawrence Jeppson

Han van Meegeren’s great fake, Johannes Vermeer’s Supper at Emaus, hung in splendor and acclaim in Rotterdam’s Boijmans Museum, the centerpiece to a massive exhibition “Four Centuries of Dutch Art.”

The museum and its benefactors paid £58,000 (520,000 guilders, $286,500, equivalent of $4 million today) for the painting. Except for a 10% commission shared by politician Gerard Boon and art dealer D. A. Hoogendijk, the money was all Van Meegeren’s, making him one of the richest painters in the world.

On his way back to the Riviera, Han stopped off for a night in Paris to buy gifts for his wife and himself. He encountered a Swedish cabaret girl near the Champs-Elysées and stayed with her for nearly a week, during which he showered her and her friends with lavish gifts.

He and raven-haired Johanna moved from their rented villa in Roquebrune on the Riviera to a palatial home they bought in Nice.

Then war between France and Germany broke out, and Han and Jo figured they’d be safer back in neutral Holland. They went home.

As the war expanded, it became it impossible for the couple to salvage the wealth they left on the Riviera.

Using intermediaries, Van Meegeren went on painting and selling fake masterpieces, a bunch of them. He became wealthier but progressively less careful, skipping the pains he took when painting Emaus. “They sold anyway,” he later explained, “so why bother.”

He bought a big house at 321 Keizersgracht and lived high — free-spending, drinking, gambling, speculating — even after the Nazis overran and exploited the Netherlands. For much of the war they lived in a suburban house in Laren, which was so large Han staged bicycle races on the marble ground floor. They moved back to 321.

Jo’s patience with her moody husband led to a divorce in 1943, although she continued to share the same house with him. They had shared the most terrible winter in Dutch history, when there had been no gas, no electricity, no fuel, and no food except on the black market. People richer than the Van Meegerens left the city each day to scour the countryside for food, often for weeks on end.

He transferred much of his wealth to Jo, and despite Han’s later tribulations she would be able to keep it and live in style for the rest of her life.

Han was rich. He owned more than 50 houses and two nightclubs in Amsterdam and Laren, from which he received considerable income. When delightful things were so scarce, he gave lavish parties for his friends. He was eccentric and reputedly addicted to drugs, but people liked him.

During the war marauding agents for Reichsmarschall Herman Goering scoured Europe for art. Contrary to legend, corpulent Goering bought most of his collection or obtained it through heavy-handed extortion rather than outright theft. He managed to name his own prices, always a fraction of actual market value. Adhering to the Fuehrer’s hate for modern art, he specialized in paintings sanctified by years of veneration.

The looting of Dutch-owned art was fueled by a network of collaborating bankers, informants, art dealers, and peripheral figures, Van Meegeren among them.

As war approached, the Boijmans hid Emaus and its other great art in the vast sandstone quarries of Mt. Saint Pieters at Maastricht near the Belgian border. These labyrinthine vaults had been worked from Roman times until the end of the 19th Century; by then an area 15 by 9 miles had been undermined.

During hostilities they provided an ideal repository for hidden art. The caverns, in fact, were so extensive that different parts were used by the conquering Germans and the Dutch résistance. The Dutch patriots operated a large bakery in one tunnel, but not even the odor of fresh baking bread found its way through the maze to Nazi nostrils.

When I visited this underground web in 1950, thousands of subterranean laterals had been walled off to prevent casual explorers from getting lost. Even so, my future brother-in-law went off exploring on his own and was lost for a while. (He would deny it.)

Goering also had buried his collection in caves, where he hoped no one would discover them, although he kept part of it at Karin Hall, his house 40 miles from Berlin. As Allied armies came closer, he had it piled into boxcars, unprotected against transit damage, and hauled to Berchtesgaden to be lowered into the Austrian Alt Aussee salt mines.

As the Allies advanced, teams of experts — detectives, art historians, and curators assisted by tank drivers, armed guards, and muscle men — raced on the heels of the front-line troops to trace Nazi-plundered art and to prevent its loss or destruction.

Following clue upon clue, the armored detectives and the American 101st Airborne Division found the huge cache and parts scattered from the mine to the railhead. After consolidating the finds in a former Luftwaffe rest center, the experts methodically began checking through 6,750 pieces of art in an effort to determine rightful owners and make reparations appraisals for any art legally belonging to the Germans.

Their country now back in their hands, loyal Dutch citizens who had suffered so severely during the occupation were determined to root out and severely punish every collaborator who had helped the Nazis. There was no sympathy or mercy for collaborators.

Two Dutch plainclothes detectives knocked quietly on the door of the big house at 321 Keizersgracht in the fashionable heart of Amsterdam. They proceeded to question Han civilly, in a low key. The police had carefully prepared their questions, and Han had ready answers. He admitted that he derived considerable income from his properties and from buying and selling pictures.

The questions became progressively more specific. The detectives were trying to find out how a Dutch-owned Vermeer had fallen into the hands of Hermann Goering. Van Meegeren answered with apparent candor.

He had sold Woman Taken in Adultery to a reputable dealer, Reinstra van Strijvesande. Then the house of Goudstrikkers had obtained it. There was no law against that. He had not known that Goudstrikkers was partly owned by Alois Miedl, a German who had taken up Dutch residence because of his Jewish wife, or that Meidl would sell the painting through Walther Hofer, Goering’s agent.

These things were so complicated.

Han van Meegeren at his trial for art forgery

The next day, July 12, 1945, just two months after the Nazi surrender, Han van Meegeren was arrested by the Dutch Field Security, the political police, as a collaborator with the enemy. The severity of charges against him might not have been so severe if investigators had not found among Hitler’s possession an early book of Van Meegeren’s legitimate, if undistinguished art personally dedicated to Hitler by the artist.

The interrogators were relentless. They found a bounty of other, unsold fakes in Han’s big house in Laren. Two fake Vermeers, one fake Hals, and one fake Ter Borch were found in the villa at Nice, all painted before Emaus.

The police established that, among other wartime sales, collectors had paid as much as $665,775 for one of his fakes. Eight pictures had fetched $3,041,593. Van Meegeren is believed to have received $2,800,00 of this.

Han found himself deprived of all the things he needed to satiate his appetites: food, drink, comfort, conviviality, cronies, women, and perhaps drugs. For his collaborations with the enemy he faced a possible death sentence. He capitulated.

“Fools!” he shouted. He had not sold Goering a real Vermeer. Being a loyal Dutchman, he had duped Goering, selling a fake Vermeer. Not only that, he had painted Woman Taken in Adultery himself!

He felt exhilarated. It was his greatest triumph!

Eventually he confessed to faking 14 masterpieces — including Supper at Emaus.

The art world rose up in disbelief. Han van Meegeren was a pathological liar. He was desperate to save his own skin. “To prove your wild tale, we suggest you paint Emaus all over again.”

Van Meegeren replied, “I’ll do better. I won’t copy anything. I’ll paint you a brand new Vermeer.”

The Dutch police prepared a large studio in Van Meegeren’s own house, putting bars on the windows and their own locks on the doors. Han began work on his last picture, Young Christ Teaching in the Temple, watched by six official witnesses representing the police, the public prosecutor, and the Ministry of Education.

Van Meegeren pigment samples used at trial.

They watched into October as a new Vermeer grew before their eyes. He painted without intensive sketches or models. “If you have painted two to three thousand heads in all lights, you don’t need them,” he said.

He also had the pieces of the original stretcher and canvas he had adapted to paint Emaus.

Still not everyone was convinced. Goering was still alive, though in custody, and when he was informed he has purchased a fake Vermeer, he raged, “That’s impossible. The picture was so old I had to have it restored!”

Controversy would rage for years, with a moneyed fight fueled by wealthy collector Daniel George van Beuningen, who maintained that Emaus and The Last Supper were genuine Vermeers. The dispute, which takes up many pages in my The Fabulous Frauds, is too extensive for this column.

Van Meegeren became a folk hero, topped in popularity only by the prime minister. He had duped the Nazis!

The charges against Han van Meegeren were changed from collaborating with the enemy to forgery. He lived in virtual house arrest for two years while the matter was decided. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but he died of a heart attack before the sentence could be implemented.

The villa at Roquebrune, where Van Meegeren spent six years working on Emaus.

By Dutch law, fake art works must be destroyed to prevent their reentry into commerce. If his “Vermeers” and other fakes were burned, the only art that gave Han van Meegeren any lasting importance would be gone, and no tangible evidence of his best work would survive for posterity. All his brilliance would have been in vain. To his immense relief, no burning order was handed down. In fact, ultimately at least 15 museums on two continents would stage exhibitions of Van Meegeren fakes.

The Rotterdam museum became the Boijmans Van Beuningen after the stubborn collector gave his illustrious collection to the museum in 1958.

When I visited the museum searching for Emaus, I finally found it hanging in an isolated place. It was labeled as a 20th Century painting done in the style of the 17th Century by Han van Meegeren.

Han had always wanted to be hung in an important museum. He was, but not gloriously.

Are there undetected fake Van Meegerens hanging in other distinguished places? It is possible. His Lace Maker once hung in the National Gallery in Washington as a genuine Vermeer. But today, there are much better ways for unmasking fakes.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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