Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

Bad Vermeers, great book

October 26th, 2008

In New York I recently met Jonathan Lopez whose The Man Who Made Vermeers has just been published. It is about the most colossal art forgery of all times: the fake Vermeer’s by Dutchman Han van Meegeren. Four years of intense research (Lopez is an artist himself and knows Dutch) and superlative writing skills gives new dimensions to a well-known story. Lopez reveals the master forger as an arch-opportunist, a cunning liar, and a fervent sympathizer of the fascist cause from as early as 1928. Deftly reconstructing an insidious network of illicit trade in the art market’s underworld, Lopez allows few reputations to emerge unscathed in this gripping incredibly readable book. Moreover, Lopez provides a plausable response to the question which all those who have taken up the case have tactfully avoided or inadequately addressed: how could the most renowned museum curators, art dealers and private collectors been taken by fakes which appear almost laughable today?

Even if you are like me and have until now turned a cold shoulder to the Van Meegeren story, the The Man Who Made Vermeers is a must-read. The L.A. Times book review says why.

Lopez will be speaking at the MET on November 14, 2008 , 6:00 pm. along with Walter Liedtke, curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lopez will be lecturing in other places too.