Thursday, 8 September 2016

old dutch master

There is a curious museum in Vienna dedicated to counterfeit works of art right across the street from the very genuine Hundertwasser Haus, that I regret we missed, but will be sure to visit next time—if for nothing else by the even stranger case of one of the museum’s contributors, Dutch painter and forger Henricus Antonius van Meegeren. A skilled but perhaps uninspired painter in his own right, van Meegeren’s contemporaries dismissed his work as too derivative and unoriginal, and so the artist turned to making copies of masterpieces. While Europe was embroiled in World War II, the Nazi command was acquiring enormous amounts of treasure and art work from all over Europe, and reportedly there was somewhat of a rivalry between Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring to amass the finest collection.
Göring was surely pleased as punch to have acquired a Vermeer from an art dealer in Amsterdam before his boss. After the war, this painting of Christ and the Adulteress was traced back to van Meegeren, who was summarily thrown into prison for collaboration and for selling a priceless piece of the Netherlands cultural heritage to the Nazis. This crime carried the death-sentence, but in his defense, van Meegeren proclaimed, “I didn’t sell that dirty Nazi a Vermeer, since I painted it myself.” The authorities were doubtful because art experts had vouched for the painting’s authenticity, but van Meegeren was allowed demonstrate his talents with an easel, canvas and palette brought to his jail cell. Experts reexamined more supposed Vermeers—including some hanging in the Rijksmuseum purchased dearly by the Dutch government to prevent them from falling into enemy hands—and found that van Meegeren had duped dozens of people out of millions of guilders. The charges for forgery and fraud didn’t carry as severe penalties and his sentence was commuted to a year in prison. Opinion polls conducted in 1947 after van Meegeren’s release placed him among the most popular war-time heroes of the Netherlands, one cunning enough to fool the entire art world establishment plus the commander of the Nazi armed forces, Göring—who on learning that he had bought a counterfeit acted as if he realised for the first time that there was evil and dishonesty in the world.