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
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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 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.

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