The Fake Vermeers

When the Allies started bombing Germany, Hermann Goering, the Nazi Reichsmarschall ( Marshal of the Reich), hid his fabulous collection of paintings in the salt mines of Austria.

The American soldiers soon found them and began an investigation: where had all those great paintings come from? Among them was a Vermeer.


Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Goering’s false Vermeer

The investigators traced it back to a Dutch art dealer and painter named Van Meegeren; and the Dutch authorities arrested him for collaborating with the Nazis.

After a few weeks in jail he announced that he had a confession to make: “I myself painted that Vermeer and a lot of others,” he said.

“What?” asked the stunned investigators. “How?” They didn’t ask why because they could guess the answer to that.

“I did it to get back at the critics who were such asses. They couldn’t see that I was a great painter. They would have had me starve. Well, one day I decided to fool them all. I bought some old seventeenth century paintings, erased the figures and painted my own—in the style of Vermeer. I was careful to leave much of the original paint on the canvas so that the analysts would be fooled. I used real lapislazuli for blue, not the modern cobalt, and marten hairs for a brush, just like Vermeer used. Of course when I took the canvas off its stretcher I was careful to save the original nails.”

The investigators conferred. “The guy’s a liar,” they said. “He can paint a Vermeer and you and I can paint a Michelangelo.
“Well, there’s a good way to find out if he’s telling the truth. Let’s ask him to paint another Vermeer for us.”

They took him from jail to his studio. “Show us how you did it, [big mouth]” they ordered. And they watched while he created a picture that he called, with a sniffle of offense, Jesus Among the Scholars. After a couple of months they were convinced. Though he never finished the painting, he showed everyone that he was capable of falsifying the Goering Vermeer.


Jesus Among the Doctors— the work Van Meegeren painted in 1945 for the Dutch police


Van Meegeren among the judges

Accordingly, the prosecutor dropped his charge of collaboration with the Nazis and indicted Van Meegeren for fraud.
At his trial he was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. Before he could start to serve his sentence, however, he died. He was a drinker and a pill-popper and prison was no good for him and his health gave out.

Before and during his trial the greatest experts of Holland, England, and America investigated six suspicious Vermeers that had been sold in recent years and two that were found in Van Meegeren’s studio. They agreed that the works had indeed been painted by Van Meegeren. That caused a great sensation and much worry in the art world. Goering had paid 1,650,000 florins for his. That had served him right. But the first false Vermeer had appeared already in 1937 and fooled one of the greatest experts of the time, who had solemnly declared it genuine and exhibited it in Paris, where the Rembrandt Vereniging of Amsterdam quickly bought it up for 550,000 florins.
Van Meegeren soon became rich—discreetly, of course.

One of the surprising things about his forgeries is that, to the average eye, they don’t look like Vermeers! In his studio the investigators found two that DID; but Van Meegeren never tried to sell those. Apparently he thought they looked a bit too typically Vermeerian and so would arouse more suspicion than a new kind of masterpiece.  Van Meegeren was actually bold enough to present to the world a work that was UNLIKE the other Vermeers—one that supposedly represented a new or unknown direction in the Master’s trajectory.

Here are two paintings by Vermeer , followed by Van Meegeren’s  The Meeting at Emmaus, “discovered” in 1937.

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer


The Meeting at Emmaus—the Van Meegeren Vermeer “discovered” in 1937

Another curious thing is that not everyone was convinced that Van Meegeren had painted all the false works he claimed he had. Some critics still believe a few of the “new direction” paintings are real Vermeers.


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24 Responses to The Fake Vermeers

  1. A minor point: there are no salt mines in Holland; coal mines, yes, salt mines, no. The Nazi loot was stored in salt mines near Salzburg, Austria, the Alt Aussee mines to be exact. The whole sordid story of the Nazi art loot can be found at Rape of Art in Europe

  2. 100swallows says:

    Judith: Thanks, I’ll correct that right away. Your link doesn’t work for me but I found plenty to read through Google.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    A fascinating story 100swallows. When I read it I was reminded of the book ‘Bred in the Bone’ by Robertson Davies. Part of the plot includes making fake paintings, using similar methods to those mentioned here, to sell to the Nazis. These fakes were of an earlier vintage than Vermeer though I’m pretty sure.
    Since I read this I’ve googled for some connection between the book and Van Meeregan but could find none. Still I do have to wonder. Maybe Davies just read about it and that was enough to give him a similar idea for his novel.
    And as you say, to a contemporary viewer, these paintings don’t look much like a real Vermeer, at least to the most popular Vermeers. It really is hard to understand how they fooled people. And yet we must be missing something because I’m sure that the people who were fooled did know what they were talking about. Fascinating!

  4. 100swallows says:

    Ken: It IS hard to understand. Actually, don’t you think this last Van Meegeren looks more like a Caravaggio?
    I don’t know that book by Davies. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got his ideas from the Van Meegeren case.

  5. ivdanu says:

    It is true what you say, swallows! They don’t look like Vermeer even to an unprofessional eye (I wouldn’t have been fooled, I think).

    But what it is REALLY hard to understand is not how they fooled “people” but how they fooled some of the most prestigious (some concieted too; and van Meegeren really did a trick to those… doubt arose for all their expertised paintings!) art historians and critics and “experts”… Which proves that experts are human, too, I suppose…

    Fake painting history is a very interesting history to read about (and to tell – you were, as always, very clever in writing it and
    also very simple and pleasant; my compliments!) and there are some really quirky and ironical stories. For instance, that of David Stein (a famous one! probably there still are Picasso’s and Van Dongen and Dufy’s by him in some museums…) and that of Real Lessard… A “Van dongen” made by Lessard was presented to the (then already old) master who SIGNED it! And many of the daughters or other specialists of masters authentified drawings and paintings by Lessard (a quebecois)…

    One small detail (more like a possible mmisinterpretation in text): the Dutch authorities – and not the Americans, the way one can understand your text – did the arrest, for “collaborationism” …

    And I read Austrian salt mine initially, so you were right…

  6. Peggi Habets says:

    I love these stories. Van Meegeren must have known the ego of the dealers well, how bold to present a “new” Vermeer. I would think that today, they can scan the paintings to see what is underneath, right? I’m also surprised that the varnish could be matched so well. Doesn’t it yellow some over time?

  7. rich says:

    Very interesting story!
    I cannot help myself finding those fakes quite respectable. Van Meegeren invented his own scenes “à la Vermeer” – it would probably be easier to fake some Miro like that.
    Were all those Biblical motives with multiple figures?

    One might also ask if these paintings were rated as early Vermeers or as some late work by the “expert”.

  8. 100swallows says:

    Rich: I suppose by “respectable” you mean skillful. True. They look like Van Meegerens–they are in the old-fashioned style of the paintings he did before he went into crookery and which found buyers. Probably he could not have forged a Miró, a Klee, or a Picasso.
    There’s a head of Christ around which is considered a study for the Meeting at Emmaus; but all the others I saw were group paintings.
    Yes, one might ask how the critics placed the works but one would have to do more research than I did to find out.

  9. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    Well I’ve held off on responding as to whether the last painting reminds me of Caravaggio because I just don’t know him all that well. I’m not really sure why but he’s never held as much interest to me as other artists have. Nonetheless I’ve taken this opportunity to refamiliarize myself with him a bit.

    I think that the position of the figures, almost a closeup view, is somewhat indicative of Caravaggio, and from what I recall from art history one of the many things that he’s famous for. But I think the use of light and dark is not similar to him. Now this is where I feel like I’m talking like a fake expert because I’ve really not studied him all that much. I’ll forge ahead as a fake expert nonetheless: it seems to me that often Caravaggio pulls light out of darkness so that if you squint your eyes at his paintings you often see indistinct edges as the bright areas come out of the very dark areas. Again in my role as fake expert I’ll say that this is part of what is meant by ‘chiaroscuro’ with which Caravaggio is often associated. Caravaggio’s tones also seem to ofter stark contrast.

    Vermeer on the other hand has a clearer separation of tones in most of his paintings. Mainly there are clear edges. In addition he uses many more tones in the light end of the spectrum. Maybe that’s why they remind me so much of the light along salt water, where it can often be washed out a bit.

    In the case of the last painting the closeup view reminds me of Caravaggio but the tones and clear edges don’t. The tonal range looks more like Vermeer, but still a bad Vermeer. There really are no very bright areas, which is part of what makes Vermeers so striking I think. Real Vermeers just seem imbued with light. And of course Caravaggio’s paintings do to, but more like a spotlight shining into a darkened room and focused on one area than like the gentle light often seen near water that softly lightens all it lands on.

    In wondering why the fakes fooled so many people I wonder if part of it could have been the lack of good reproductions that we take for granted today. The lighter tones are vaguely reminiscent of Vermeer. And if you believed the theory that maybe this was a secret subject matter, never shown to his contemporaries, then you might give Vermeer the benefit of the doubt and agree that he might have changed his style a bit for a religious theme. But this is giving all the people that were fooled by it a large benefit of the doubt.

    All in all I still don’t understand how they were fooled. Though there is one last thought I hesitate to add. Again this is a subject I’ve never pursued but I do think that in the early 20th century, and possibly earlier, there was some talk of deliberate fraud among the people who authenticated paintings. I have no idea as to whether that might have entered in here. But if there’s money to be made there are always some people who might decide to do so. So I guess there might be some possibility that some of the people who vouched for the authenticity might have been thinking that they could make a little money off a false authentication and hope that no one noticed. Let’s hope that the answer is more complicated and more noble than that!

    Again thanks for the opportunity to rattle on about art…………….

  10. 100swallows says:

    Ken: I’m sorry if I made you take my comparison with Caravaggio so seriously. Like you, I saw some similarities but I wouldn’t have called the work a Caravaggio any more than I would have called it a Vermeer. Evidently, the Emmaus painting lacks Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro.
    The observation which you made before about Vermeer’s clean separation of tones is good, as well as the number and scope of them. (I am just not familiar enough with the sea to corroborate your “gentle light often seen near water that softly lightens all it lands on”; but it is very evocative as you state it.)
    Van Meegeren’s work just doesn’t show those excellences. So I can’t guess any better than you why the critics were fooled. There is a chance that the critic who declared the Goering work a Vermeer, knowing who the buyer was, lied in order to see him cheated. But that seems far-fetched.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Peggi: That’s a good point about the varnish. I have no idea how Van Meegeren handled that “problem”. The first expert tested the work in many ways before declaring it an original Vermeer, including X-rays and a microscopic examination of the colors.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Danu: Thanks for the correction about Van Meegeren’s arrest by the Dutch authorities. (Actually, you showed me that I had misspelled Van Meegeren’s name too. How could I have done that?!) Thanks for your compliments too. I will look into those famous and entertaining stories of forgeries.

  13. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    No you didn’t make me take the Caravaggio comparison too seriously, maybe seriously though. But that’s fine. It gave me an excuse to look at an artist I haven’t looked at in awhile and then take one more look at Vermeer and Van Meegeren. It was enjoyable to be able to look again at these artists, especially Vermeer.

    I do like trying to put my reaction into words, especially when looking at works that have such excellences as you put it. Thus the ‘gentle light……..’ I’m not really sure I could prove any of that, and I might even be misremembering as I no longer live by the sea. But it seems right. Vermeer is very evocative and for me he evokes the light of the sea. I will be going to the ocean soon and will have to see if my theory proves true or if I’ve just been talking through my hat.:)

  14. wrjones says:

    Great story – I wish I had the skill to forge, the concept of skinning the critics and (some) deserving collectors is very appealing. Is this why mom said I was evil?

  15. rich says:

    I wonder what prices these would fetch nowadays at Sotheby’s…

  16. 100swallows says:

    Rich: You seem to like them. My source (Obra pictórica completa de Vermeer, Clásicos del Arte, Noguer-Rizzoli) says a private collector bought the unfinished work Van Meegeren had painted for the judges, and a few others, in 1950. Maybe you could find out who he is (or his heirs are) and make him/them an offer. I bet he’d settle for half the price of a Vermeer.

  17. I enjoyed the story of how he demonstrated his skill in prison. I guess he really showed them!!


  18. Marco says:

    Cold you tell me how was the reactione of critics when van meggeren says that his works were fake?

  19. 100swallows says:

    Marco: Not off-hand but I will try to find something about that for you. Give me some time.

  20. Fred says:

    Errol Morris (better known as a documentary filmmaker) wrote an extensive seven-part (!) investigation into the story of Van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers and how they fooled people in his New York Times blog. It’s a fascinating read, full of details, and may answer some of the questions people have.

    I still find it amazing that Van Meegeren had the chutzpah to present his very mediocre paintings as the work of one of the greatest realist masters of all time. The fact that many “experts” accepted them as real should make us very wary of “expert opinions” in general!

  21. Fred says:

    Here’s the link to the Errol Morris article I mentioned:

  22. wpm1955 says:

    What an interesting story!

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