Han van Meegeren began forging old masters in 1920. I feel his success was due to a ‘perfect storm' of events. I'll explain why.
Works by the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer were ‘rediscovered’ in the early 20th century: "The Woman With a Balance" in 1911 and "The Girl With the Red Hat" in 1925.
The art market and the public at large were hungry to find even more Vermeer paintings to add to the mere thirty that already existed.
Van Meegeren was an unappreciated artist in his day – one of his reasons to forge old masters such as Vermeer and Frans Hals. His thinking was that since Vermeer and his wife were Catholic, what were the chances of there being missing biblical paintings?
The master forger would begin a decade of deception with a scene from the Bible, first painted by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio, "The Supper at Emmaus."
As Rembrandt would paint the same subject in 1638, it would seem only natural (to Van Meegeren) that his fellow countryman Vermeer would have painted the same theme.
The forger’s "Supper at Emmaus" (1936-1937) sold for the equivalent at that time of $1.3 million; it was exhibited at the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for the next seven years.
Two of Van Meegeren’s forgeries were sold as authentic Vermeers to the Pittsburgh banker, Andrew Mellon: "The Lace Maker" (1927) and "The Smiling Girl" (1943), which he then donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The American financier Jules Bache purchased "Portrait of Young Boy" (misattributed to Vermeer) and "Young Girl Reading" (forgery); they now reside in a storage area of the Metropolitan Museum in N.Y.
Van Meegeren ingeniously reused canvases from the 17th century, after first removing the original painting with caustic soda. He later discovered how Bakelite would not be affected by the alcohol test and did not soften in water like gelatin glue which he previously used. This improved technique would defy suspicion when his paintings were subjected to scientific testing for authenticity.
It was advantageous to Van Meegeren to pay/reward art dealers, agents, and the director of the Rijksmuseum to confirm the Vermeers as originals and provide appropriate provenance.
In my opinion, the next contribution to the ‘perfect storm’ was the Nazi takeover and confiscation of art from the Jewish community. Van Meegeren was suspected of selling a Vermeer painting, "The Woman Taken in Adultery" to Herman Göring. The forger admitted that this painting was by his own hand, not Vermeer's.
Hitler had already 'owned' two paintings by Vermeer: "The Astronomer" (1668) which was looted from the Rothschilds and now resides in the Louvre, Paris and "The Allegory of Painting" (1665) which Vermeer never sold and was later confiscated by Hitler for his own residence.
I thought "The Supper at Emmaus" was too dark and the characters were too large for a Vermeer, but when the mood of a country is in search of more lost Vermeers, it is understandable how even art experts could be blindsided.
Van Meegeren's "Woman Reading Music" (1935-1936) seems to be the closest to an authentic Vermeer and yet it went unsold and remained in his studio until his arrest.
You can own a copy of Jonathan Lopez's book, "The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegeren" available here from Amazon.com.