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Book Review

Delving beneath the art of deception

By Kevin O'Kelly
August 27, 2008
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The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century
By Edward Dolnick
Harper, 349 pp., illustrated, $26.95

In the autumn of 1937 the art expert Abraham Bredius made an astonishing announcement: the existence of a hitherto-unknown painting by Johannes Vermeer. Since his rediscovery in the mid-1800s, the 17th-century painter had come to rival Rembrandt in importance. What's more, the number of known works by Vermeer was quite small: 35 or 36 was the consensus (Rembrandt, to put that number in perspective, is known to have produced almost 300 paintings). This new work, which was being called "Christ at Emmaus," was a discovery of international importance.

And it was a discovery particularly important to the Dutch. Vermeer was, after all, one of their own, and once other art experts began to accept Bredius's judgment, the all-important consideration was to keep the painting in the Netherlands. The Amsterdam art dealer charged with selling it was asking $3.9.million. If a Dutch buyer could not come up with the sum in two weeks, "Christ at Emmaus" would then be available on the American market. Begging contributions from every possible donor, the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, was able to raise the money, and "Christ at Emmaus" soon became its most popular painting.

Too bad it was a fake.

Five other Vermeers appeared on the market in the following five years --also fakes. And they all sold. Hermann Goering was one of the buyers.

This extravagant, improbable fraud and the man behind it -- the painter Han van Meegeren-- are the subjects of "The Forger's Spell," the second book on art crime by Edward Dolnick after his award-winning "The Rescue Artist."

Van Meegeren was a commercially successful but critically derided Dutch artist of the 1920s and '30s who decided to settle the score with the art establishment that had snubbed him. He was going to fool them all and make millions doing it.

Other books on forgery center on technique: How was it possible to produce something so like the real thing? But the story of van Meegeren's fraud lies in his psychological dance with his victims. While he was a genius at reproducing the appearance of age --his forgeries had all the crackling and simulated grime one would expect in a 300-year-old painting -- he could not reproduce the appearance of a Vermeer. His Vermeers, in fact, look like nothing so much as van Meegerens.

Dolnick plunges us into the professional art world of the interwar years, deftly portraying the play of personalities and ideas that made such deception possible. Whether analyzing the psyche of Bredius --who desperately wanted an amazing discovery to close his career --or discussing studies that demonstrate experts can be easier to fool than amateurs, Dolnick brilliantly re-creates the circumstances that made possible one of the most audacious frauds of the 20th century.

And in doing so Dolnick plumbs the nature of fraud itself, which has an element of interest missing from many other crimes. Whether the author of a pyramid scheme promises easy wealth to an investor or a forger offers an unknown Emily Dickinson manuscript to a collector, the victims have to be completely willing collaborators. And why shouldn't they be? The crime consists of the victims being offered exactly what they want.

The utter willingness of van Meegeren's victims is evident in the stupefying fact that no one questioned the unlikelihood of six hitherto-unknown paintings by a Dutch master being unearthed in a six-year period. Desire trumped rationality: the desire of collectors and curators for new discoveries, the desire of experts who had staked their reputations on the authenticity of the earlier "discovered" Vermeers not to be disproved --all conspired to dismiss every possible suspicion. Had van Meegeren's victims ever been able to confront him, he could honestly have said, "I couldn't have done it without you."

There's more to this wonderful book: van Meegeren's ingenuity in making a painting less than a year old look 300; the Nazi plunder of Europe's art; and van Meegeren's unmasking at war's end. These and the other interwoven stories in "The Forger's Spell" add up to an incomparable page turner.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at www.notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.

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