Can this happen again?

November 21st, 2008

The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez is the most penetrating and useful book written about the spectacular Han van Meegeren case of false Vermeers. Among its merits is an articulated answer to the crucial question skated by preceding studies: how could it have happened? In a nutshell here is the author’s answer: “a fake doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind.”

This answer arouses a more insidious one: could it happen today? Let’s hear Jonathan’s take:

Well, I think anyone who says, “We could never be fooled again,” is probably a bit naive. Attractively packaged products of little inherent value continue to fool some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the world–for instance, the bond traders at Bear Stearns who were haplessly buying and selling bogus mortgage securities. But, that said, I think the possibility of anyone passing off a forged Vermeer today would be virtually nil. And I don’t think it’s just because of the advances that have been made in the scientific examination of pictures, although that’s part of it. The real problem is that you can only fool people if, on some level, they actively want to believe you. With the mortgage securities, for instance, Wall Street wanted to believe that risk could be managed through financial engineering–a kind of narcissism, if you think about it–but it all worked quite profitably for a while, and that made the whole scheme seem credible. In the 1920s and ‘30s, art experts still expected to find more Vermeers because it seemed only logical that such a skillful artist would have produced more works than the thirty-five that we know today. And since Vermeer had really only been rediscovered in the latter half of the 19th century, it seemed completely plausible that more of his paintings would eventually show up. In fact a couple did: The Girl with the Red Hat, for instance, was rediscovered in 1925. Today, there’s absolutely no expectation that any new Vermeers will turn up–and because there is no expectation, any fake would be greeted with intense skepticism. Van Meegeren operated in an entirely different atmosphere: he was making art historians’ dreams come true.

2 Responses to “Can this happen again?”

  1. ARech

    To see it as a matter-of-fact: Art forgery is a constant part also of today’s art trade and the daily task of those police-departments who have specialized in solving criminal acts in the arts’ field. They estimate that c. 60 per cent of all works of art circulating on the art market are fakes or falsely attributed works. ‘Top-rated’ contemporary artists with best-selling fakes are Salvatore Dalí, Pablo Picasso or, to a certain degree, Vincent van Gogh.
    Art forgery is likewise a regular topic on international conferences as well as subject of numerous publications. Even a ‘Museum Security Network’ has been established (see
    http://www.museum-security.org/forgery1.htm ).

    So the question might not so much whether it could happen again, as it happens daily and will ever do as long as people want to be fooled, either wittingly or unwittingly.

    As with regard to the Han van Meegeren case it seems rather the question: How could it have happened that even leading art historians of their time, like Abraham Bredius (1855-1946), Director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague for 20 years and renowned Rembrandt- and Vermeer-specialist, were fooled by a painter of rather moderate talent. Well, when Bredius was presented Van Meegeren’s ‘Christ and the Disciples of Emmaus’, he was already an 83 years old man but he was certainly not so blind as not being able to distinguish between Vermeer’s so softly and finely executed figures and the sophisticated complexity of his compositions and the flat, rather ghostlike faces and broad figures in nearly all of Van Meegeren’s works.

    He may certainly not have been able to realize a rather fine detail in Van Meegeren’s picture: the specifics of the bottom of the Berkemeyer-glass left-side and on full display. In a quite intelligible article ‘Between Fantasy and Reality. Utensils in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art’ (in ‘Senses and Sins’, exh.cat. 2005) Dutch art historian Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen proves by comparing a typical 17th-century Berkemeyer with that depicted by Van Meegeren that this painting (‘Emmaus’) is not of 17th-century origin, as already the glass shows specifics of those used in 19th century. So with a bit of knowledge of period and contemporary daily utensils which were always depicted by 17th-century artists with utmost accuracy, it would have been possible to reveal Van Meegeren’s forgery, without any modern technique of today’s examination practice. But as Lopez resumed quite right: it was an art historian’s dream… and the dream or wish of many others to follow…

    AR

  2. Flying Fox » Blog Archive » Still on the Van Meegeren trail

    […] and his take on the possibilities of the nightmare happening again: http://flyingfox.jonathanjanson.com/2008/11/21/can-this-happen-again/ […]

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