Master-forger Han van Meegeren’s death mask bought as reminder that the best museums can be fooled
Bearing in mind that the director of Amsterdam’s world-renowned Rijksmuseum calls Han van Meegeren’s paintings “horrible”, it may seem strange that he has acquired the artist’s death mask. But while Wim Pijbes may abhor the artworks, he has a begrudging respect for the business acumen of the master forger who fooled Europe’s high society in the early 20th century.
So for what he calls “a bargain” of €300 (£243), Mr Pijbes has recently snapped up a rather ghoulish image of the painter cast in plaster soon after his death in prison in 1947. As well as complementing the museum’s existing collection of a papers, materials and other evidence related to Van Meegeren’s crimes, Mr Pijbes says it also serves as a reminder that even the best museums can be fooled.
“Van Meegeren’s was the most scandalous and most famous forgery case in the 20th century, making several Vermeer fakes and selling them to the most prominent museums and collectors of the time,” says Mr Pijbes, who bought the mask at auction in Rotterdam. “[A museum] can always be wrong, it could always be a fake – there are still lots of fakes on the market – and the greatest mistake you can do as a museum is to buy a forgery.”
Born in the Netherlands in 1889, Van Meegeren made a modest living as a portrait painter, but his career did not match his ambition. So, in the 1930s, he started producing paintings which he claimed were early works by the Dutch master Vermeer.
Read more: Fakes, mistakes and hidden masterpieces
Van Meegeren 'fake' revealed as genuine
New detection system can spot the best fakes
Only 35 works by 17th-century master were known, and Van Meegeren was able to convince the art world that his paintings were the missing link, even if his brushwork was not quite up to the mark. A visitor looking at the painting Christ and Disciples of Emmaus by Han van Meegeren
“[They] were horrible, but regarded as really early Vermeers [since] nobody knew how early Vermeers would look,” Mr Pijbes told The Independent.
The critics Van Meegeren loathed were fooled, and what began as an elaborate revenge plot turned into a handy source of income, as he struggled with morphine and alcohol addictions. His ruse continued for years, and he made millions from his Vermeers. The hoax was uncovered at the end of the Second World War, when he was arrested for treason, charged with having sold Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, specifically for selling a Vermeer to Hermann Göring. His only defence was a full confession. He was jailed for a year in 1947, and died a few weeks into his sentence.
The identity and motives of the person who cast his death mask remain a mystery, says Mr Pijbes. But they created a unique example of the art form, casting the likeness in the middle of a painting palette complete with brushes.
Mr Pijbes has not yet decided what to do with the mask. For the moment, it will remain in storage alongside the single Van Meegeren the Rijksmuseum was unlucky enough to acquire.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food