THE MAN WHO MADE VERMEERS:
Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
Finalist for the 2008 "Best Fact Crime" Edgar Award
It's a story that made Dutch painter Han van Meegeren famous worldwide when it broke at the end of World War II: A lifetoime of disappointment drove him to forge Vermeers, one of which he sold to Hermann Goering, making a mockery of the Nazis. And it's a story that's been believed every since. Too bad it isn't true.
Jonathan Lopez has drawn on never-before-seen documents from dozens of archives to write a revelatory new biography of the world's most famous forger. Neither unappreciated nor antifascist hero, Van Meegeren emerges as an ingenious dyed-in-the-wool crook who plied the forger's trade far longer than he ever admitted--a talented Mr. Ripley armed with a paintbrush. Lopez also explores a network of illicit commerce that operated across Europe: Not only was Van Meegeren a key player in that high-stakes game in the 1920s and '30s, landing fakes with powerful dealer and famous collectors such as Andrew Mellon, but he and his associates later offered a case study in wartime opportunism as they cashed in on the Nazi occupation.
The Man Who Made Vermeers is a long-overdue unvarnishing of Van Meegeren's legend and a deliciously detailed story of deceit in the art world.
"In this engaging study, art historian Lopez examines -- as did Edward Dolnick's Forger's Spell, published in June -- the fascinating case of Han van Meegeren, a notorious Dutch art forger. Van Meegeren, who sold Hermann Goering a fake Vermeer, was convicted of collaboration; he became a folk hero for duping the Nazi leader. But according to Lopez, van Meegeren was a successful forger long before WWII, and contrary to van Meegeren's claim that he was avenging himself on the art critics who had scorned his own work, Lopez says he was motivated by financial gain and Nazi sympathies: What is a forger if not a closeted ‹bermensch, an artist who secretly takes history itself for his canvas? Lopez asks provocatively. The author gives a vivid portrait of the 1920s Hague, a stylish place of mischief and artifice where van Meegeren learned his trade, and brilliantly examines the influence of Nazi Volksgeist imagery on van Meegeren's The Supper at Emmaus, part of his forged biblical Vermeer series. Lopez's writing is witty, crisp and vigorous, his research scrupulous and his pacing dynamic.
—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
"From the outrageous swindles he perpetrated in Vermeer's name to the nefarious dealings he had with the Nazis in occupied Holland, Han van Meegeren led an unforgettable, almost unbelievable life. Witty, erudite, and utterly compelling, Jonathan Lopez's account of the twentieth century's most notorious art forger is a must-read--a book that makes Van Meegeren's fake Vermeers even more fascinating, I dare say, than the Delft master's originals."
—Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
"Jonathan Lopez's remarkable book is at once a thrilling detective story and a meticulously researched study in art and social history. We learn not only how - but also why - Van Meegeren came to paint the forgeries that became sensations on the international art market between the wars."
—Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
"The Man Who Made Vermeers shatters the popular image of Han van Meegeren as a lone gunman or picaresque rogue. Jonathan 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 and delicious book."
—Koen Kleijn, De Groene Amsterdammer
"...thoughtful and elegantly written...Mr. Lopez is steeped in the literature of the period and it shows to fine effect"
—Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun
"Published within three months of each other...two wildly contrasting new books about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren strikingly demonstrate that attitude indelibly shapes content.
"Lopez's portrait of the art market is fuller and more damning. He extensively discusses Van Meegeren's 1920s apprenticeship with restorer/forger Theo van Wijngaarden (skated over by [Edward] Dolnick, who prefers to see the artist as a buccaneering individual). Lopez delves into the interactions among shady art dealers, crooked businessmen and experts who were sometimes betrayed by corrupt associates coaching the forgers to appeal to their preconceptions. He shows the wealthy American collectors and dealers who were their initial marks becoming increasingly wary as some of Van Meegeren's 1920s fakes were exposed. The stage is thus ably set for the biblical forgeries, less vulnerable to damning stylistic comparisons, since there were so few authentic biblical Vermeers. This extensive background also leads naturally to the moral dilemmas faced by the art market in Nazi-occupied Holland.
"Lopez points out that the trial repackaged "a Nazi-loving art forger" as a folk hero who gulled Goering. His caustic comment about this sanitized view of Van Meegeren -- it "transforms the tragedy of the Nazi era into light comedy" could also stand as a harsh but not entirely unfair assessment of Dolnick's vivid treatment.... Breezily written and immensely entertaining, "The Forger's Spell" will appeal to casual readers, especially anyone who thinks that critical pronouncements about art are mostly high-class hogwash. Those with a more serious interest in the subject, however, will close Dolnick's book with an uneasy feeling that it leaves out a lot, an impression amply justified by perusal of Lopez's more detailed and thoughtful work in The Man Who Made Vermeers."
—Wendy Smith, The Chicago Tribune
"Of the two books under review, [THE MAN WHO MADE VERMEERS and Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell] Lopez's is in most ways preferable. ... he has added a good deal to our understanding of the story."
—The New York Review of Books
"Profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing... The Man Who Made Vermeers brings hard light to van Meegeren's machinations and (very bad) character."
—The New Yorker
"Lopez's work... will draw in even the well informed with its new details. His pioneering research on van Meegeren's early life gives us further insight into what motivates deception, a subject that will never cease to fascinate as long as art is bought and sold."
"Artist and journalist Jonathan Lopez delved deeper into primary sources than Dolnick did, and has therefore produced a subtler, more nuanced account that adds significant detail to the story... this book adds much to our understanding of how [Van Meegeren] succeeded in his crimes and of how wrong and evil ideas can corrupt art and artists."
—Art & Antiques
"Terrific... it's so jam-packed and nicely written that you'll burn right through it."
—Los Angeles Times's "Culture Monster" column
"I can say with authority that Jonathan Lopez' The Man Who Made Vermeers makes for a terrific read, even by flashlight as you lay on top of sweat-soaked sheets wishing you'd thought to buy a battery-operated fan before Ike struck."
—Houston Chronicle's "Arts in Houston" column
"[An] astonishing tale."
"Lopez strips away the folk hero veneer of van Meegeren by deep research into archives and a thorough understanding of the complex world of art, faking art, and selling it... Here is a serious, funny, ironic, informative study of a delicious scoundrel that reads like a novel."
—Don Fry, The Virginia Quarterly Review