I Was Vermeer, By Frank Wynne

A welcome appraisal for a vengeful master forger
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The Independent Culture

When writing my own book, Impostors, I excluded art forgers. I wasn't interested in fraud as a way of making money, but of remaking an identity: the true impostor primarily seeks not riches but success, recognition of his worth, which he has found impossible to achieve as "himself".

Reading Frank Wynne's account of Han van Meegeren, the celebrated forger of Vermeer and other Dutch masters, I realised I had dismissed this category too hastily. For Van Meegeren, making paintings that could pass as masterpieces had less to do with the vast sums for which they could be sold, than with taking his revenge on a world that had failed to recognise his talent.

The young Han van Meegeren's beautiful, original canvases could have been painted three centuries before, so unaffected was his work by the changes forced on art by the development of photography and the advent of surrealism. His most famous original was a sketch dashed off in under 10 minutes of a baby deer he brought to his studio. He took the charming, if sentimental, sketch to a printer, who refused to buy it until Van Meegeren mentioned that the animal belonged to Queen Juliana. This was perhaps the first time Van Meegeren realised that it was not the nature of the thing itself, but its provenance, that determined its value.

Art is the business of selling fetishes, as the forger Geert Jan Jansen explained to Wynne: "People don't buy a painting because they think it's beautiful, they buy it for the signature, they buy it to have a Warhol to hang on their wall." The difficulty of detecting the forger's hand is not only technically fraught but hampered by vested interests. Critics make and stake their reputations on attributing works, and everyone dreams of discovering a lost work. Art buyers are as reluctant as critics to admit they have been duped. Van Meegeren was to benefit from the pride and avarice of those he despised.

Most tales of imposture are rich with irony. It was only when accused of being involved in supplying Dutch "old masters" for Goebbels's magnificent private collection during the German occupation that Van Meegeren spilt the beans. He had not collaborated with the Nazis, he had tricked them; he was not a self-serving traitor but a national hero. His art, as ever, was to tell the lie that everyone wanted to believe.

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