Han van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren (1889−1947) was the first art forger to be romanticized by the media in the 20th century for his ability to fool the “infallible” experts of the art world. After his own work was critically reviewed by the art establishment, he began to produce forgeries of 17th-century Dutch masters such as Johannes Vermeer (1632−1675), Pieter de Hooch (1629−1684), and Frans Hals (1580−1666), among others. By the mid-1930s, van Meegeren had developed a technique to simulate the look and feel of centuries-old dried oil paint. In the first half of the 20th century, the only forensic technique for testing the age of a painting was to swab a small amount of alcohol onto the painting and try to insert a heated needle; if any paint residue adhered to the cotton swab or if the needle easily penetrated the paint, it proved the work had been recently painted. Van Meegeren’s use of Bakelite (an early form of plastic) hardened the paint surface and effectively obstructed the tests. Today the presence of Bakelite can readily be identified through instrumental analysis.
When van Meegeren’s 1942 painting Christ and the Adulteress―purported to be an undiscovered early religious work by Johannes Vermeer―was found in the collection of Hitler associate Hermann Göring, van Meegeren was arrested and charged with treason on the grounds that he collaborated with the Nazis by having sold Dutch cultural heritage, which is a charge punishable by death. In a surprising defense, van Meegeren confessed he had forged the work himself. As proof, he painted another work in the style of Vermeer before a riveted courtroom in a highly sensational trial. Ultimately convicted on lesser charges of forgery and fraud, van Meegeren died before serving his one-year prison sentence. His work continued to fool the experts for many years. Although long suspected, his authorship of this version of Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress was only confirmed in 2011.
This painting is a copy of The Procuress by renowned Dutch painter Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595−1624). It was donated to the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1960 by Geoffrey Webb, one of the “Monuments Men” who investigated art looted by the Nazis during World War II. Webb believed that it had been painted by van Meegeren, but in 2009 scientific analysis did not identify any modern pigments, which was a surprise. More recent chemical analysis, however, has discovered the presence of Bakelite. Because van Meegeren is the only forger known to have used Bakelite, this painting has now been positively attributed to him.
Attributed to Han van Meegeren, after Dirck van Baburen; ca. 1940
Oil on canvas
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
The Procuress by Dirck van Baburen
At least three versions of The Procuress, by Dirck van Baburen, are known. This photograph shows the original version at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. An early copy of the painting is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. One of these two paintings was owned by the mother-in-law of artist Johannes Vermeer and appears in the background of two of his paintings. Van Meegeren was first identified as a forger in connection with his paintings in the style of Vermeer.
Dirck van Baburen; 1622
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund
Dolnick, Edward. The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harpers, 2008.
Kreuger, Frederik H. Han van Meegeren Revisited: His Art & a List of His Works. 4th ed. Rijswijk, Netherlands: Quantes Publishers, 2013.
Lopez, Jonathan. The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009.