Monday, November 17, 2008

The Forger's Spell

I just finished The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick. It was a page turner. I got it from the library on Friday evening, and I finished it at 11:30 pm on Saturday. The book tells the story of Han van Meergeren, a Dutch artist who forged Vermeer paintings at the time of World War II. The book weaves together several threads:
  • The Nazi occupation of Denmark.
  • The Nazi obsession with acquiring (a.k.a. stealing) European art treasures.
  • The science and craft of forgery (e.g., purchase a mediocre, relatively inexpensive painting from the correct time period and paint over it, so scientific tests on the canvas will check out).
  • The psychology of forgery (e.g., Art historians really, really wanted to believe they had found a lost Vermeer. This enabled them to completely overlook the fact that the forged paintings were pretty bad.)
  • Art collectors' obsession with rarity over aesthetics (e.g., Wealthy art collectors sometimes want a painting so no one else can have it and for the prestige, not because the art speaks to them in some way.)

Rather than copying a known Vermeer or creating a "lost" Vermeer in the style of Vermeer's mature period, Van Meergeren created "lost" Vermeer paintings in a new style that could plausibly be between Vermeer's early and late periods. Because there are so few Vermeer paintings, there could be a whole period of lost paintings. The fact that so little is known about Vermeer made the forgery easier. Van Meergeren managed to sell a number of fake Vermeer paintings before he was caught. Interestedly, once Van Meergeren sold one bad Vermeer, it was easier for him to sell more, since they were all in the style of the first one. Van Meergeren essentially created a standard by which Vermeer paintings were thereafter judged for authenticity!

After the war, Dutch investigators investigated Van Meergeren because his name came up in conjunction with selling Vermeer paintings to Hermann Goering. He was charged with collaborating with the enemy, which was a serious charge. The Dutch investigators accused him of selling Dutch art treasures to the Nazis. Van Meergeren defended himself by saying they were forgeries, not real Vermeer paintings. Because his forgeries were so successful, no one believed him. He had to work very hard to get collectors and art historians to believe the paintings were fakes.

I found the discussions on the psychology aspects of forgery to be the most interesting part of the book. Overall, I recommend the book highly.


Rose Welty said...


I'm definitely going to be looking for that book! It sounds very good.

On another topic, could you email me at rose dot welty @ gmail dot com? I have something to ask you and can't find an email anywhere. (You probably don't know me, but you do know Jeanette Jobson and she sent me to you!)

caseytoussaint said...

I've been wanting to read that book ever since I read the review in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. It sounds wonderful.