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If You Can’t Make It, Fake It -Vermeer’s Wannabe

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You can fake a lot of things. Orgasms, boobs, degrees. And paintings, of course. Welcome to Sartle’s weekly find in forged paintings! Made by overconfident artists with a God complex who aren’t afraid to plagiarize.

This week’s famed forger is Han van Meegeren, better known as Vermeer’s wannabe. But, before I get into the details of his nifty knock-offs, let’s take a second to delve into the muddled psyche of a forger. Because these guys are criminals, yo. And it takes a seriously addled mind to spend a lifetime trying to paint as well the masters, then passing off your work as theirs. 

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Crazy eyes, fosho. 

Han definitely had daddy issues. Pop van Meegeren wasn’t too loving a guy, and wasn’t the supportive type when it came to his son’s artistic interests. He was actually pretty abusive. He would make HVM write lines that went something like: “I know nothing, I am nothing, I am capable of nothing.” Well. This explains the need to prove oneself through one’s artistic prowess. Either that, or commit patricide.

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Clearly, van Meegeren’s paintbrush ended up being his weapon of choice. Instead of calling it quits, van Meegeren found a mentor named Bartus Korteling while he was at school. Bart was a big fan of Vermeer. You can even blame him partly for van Meegeren’s evil genius, because he taught HVM how to make colors like Vermeer, mix colors like Vermeer, and paint like him to boot. And we all know that if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…then it must be a Vermeer?

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Now, if you know anything about Vermeer then you know that there are only like 36 of his paintings in the entire world. So, imagine being a museum owner or an art historian and finding out that a new Vermeer has been discovered. You’d likely wet yourself with nerdy joy, pop some bubbly then French kiss the person right next to you (Sorry, Deb!). Here are some bona fide Vermeer’s so you know what’s what…

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The Astronomer

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The Procuress

And last but not least:

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The Girl with the Pearl Earring

Congratulations on completing your 30-second Sartle tutorial in Johannes Vermeer! Now here are some not-so-bona-fide Vermeers, aka van Meegeren’s pirated copies…

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If you can’t figure out the difference between the Vermeers and the van Meegeren’s, don’t beat yourself up. Wiser men have been hoodwinked by this guy…so let’s get back to how van Meegeren made chumps outta everyone. 

One of the counterfeit Vermeer’s made it to Nazi politician Hermann Goering’s collection for what you can estimate as $7 million today. That’s a whole lotta lettuce! Did you Nazi that coming? All good things must come to an end though. Goering’s capture in 1945 meant the Hermann Goering Art Collection was totally up for grabs. And whose virtuous hands should it fall into but the Monuments Men/the Allies! Let’s all take a moment to thank Hollywood for putting a face to the name i.e. thanks for George Clooney.

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Anyway, the Allies tracked the painting back to van Meegeren with information that they coaxed out of his art dealer Alois Miedl. Van Meegeren is thus arrested and interrogated about why he would sell a precious Vermeer to a dickwad like Goering. The allies were under the impression that van Meegeren was a Nazi collaborator. Put yourselves in van Meegeren’s place for a second…he’s probably thinking, “what’s worse? Owning up to being a Nazi sympathizer and going to prison forever, or telling everyone that I made all these paintings and ending up in prison forever?” This is what we call a lose-lose situation, folks. But van Meegeren thought, “may as well go out with a bang.”

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So he strode up to court on the day of the trial, stopping briefly to smirk for paparazzi, and assumed the position of the accused, surrounded by his own masterpieces which had been hung up on the walls as evidence. He confessed, saying: “The painting in Goering’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a van Meegeren! I painted the picture!” Collective gasp all around the room, I’m sure. The papers proclaim him a Nazi painter who forges pictures. So he goes down on both counts. 

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Here he is at trial thinking, “….oops.”

He only spent about a year in prison though. Van Meegeren died soon after, but somewhere between trials and prison time he also demonstrated his skill by painting his last painting in front of reporters and court-appointed witnesses. Van Meegeren used actual 17th century canvases, and this meant you had the cool, crackled effect in the original base layer. Now, here’s the part where the evil genius comes in…van Meegeren had to get the oil in the oil paint to look like it had been dry for more than 50 years. So he used Bakelite, a liquid that hardens super fast when heated, mixed with the pigments. And how does one heat a painting? You bake it, of course! So, once the oven was preheated, van Meegeren would stick the painting in and let it cook to a nice crispy, golden brown.

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In spite of what you’d think is bad publicity; van Meegeren actually became quite the celebrity. He was voted one of the most popular people of 1947, had two books written about him, and was generally just acknowledged as a kind of a badass. Not to mention, he literally had trunks full of cash. The dude was chowing down caviar in Amsterdam during an actual winter of starvation! (He was not a great guy obviously.) After all the trouble, he probably wished Daddy dearest were around to see that.

By Saher Sohail

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Saher Sohail

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