Foundations: Famous Forgers

June 2023

What can authenticators and art market participants learn from one of the most famous art forgers, Hans van Meegeren?

Hans Van Meegeren painting Jesus Among the Doctors in 1945

Lurking beneath the shimmering façade of artistic masterpieces lies a dark side of the art world: forgery. For centuries, cunning individuals have replicated and passed off counterfeit artworks as genuine, leaving an indelible mark on the legacy of renowned artists down to our own day. In this article, we focus on Han van Meegeren's forgeries, but rather than documenting every detail, we will focus on what valuable insights might be gleaned from the perspective of an art authenticator and market participant.

"My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money, but for art's sake" - Hans van Meegeren

Summary:

Art forger Han van Meegeren's audacious plan to seek revenge on his critics unfolded in the 1930s. Disillusioned by accusations of unoriginality and negative reviews from his first solo exhibition in 1917,  he set out to create a "new" masterpiece by Johannes Vermeer. Van Meegeren carefully constructed a painting that aligned with a prominent contemporary theory, suggesting a phase in Vermeer's career influenced by Italian art and focused on religious subjects. The result, "Supper at Emmaus," his magnum opus:, was hailed as a triumph and acquired by the prestigious Boijmans Gallery. Aware that intense scrutiny awaited, van Meegeren employed ingenious techniques to ensure “Supper’s”  authenticity would not be questioned. Using seventeenth century canvas and pigments, he added a secret ingredient: Bakelite. When baked in the oven, this unconventional addition caused the paint to dry into a rock-hard surface, giving the illusion of an old and aged artwork.

Lessons

For a time, his counterfeits successfully fooled experts and collectors, until the fateful year of 1945. After World War II, Van Meegeren faced charges of treason for selling a priceless Vermeer to Nazi leader Hermann Goering. In a remarkable turn of events, Van Meegeren's defense was to admit that his work was, in fact, a forgery. The scandal that followed was nothing short of seismic, thrusting Van Meegeren into the limelight as the world's greatest art forger and the audacious swindler who deceived Goering and connoisseurs alike.

The Role of Psychological Effects in Art Authentication:

The psychological desire to fill in missing gaps has an impact on viewers;  this  factor is often underestimated and challenging to quantify. Forgers, like van Meegeren, are acutely aware of this aspect and exploit it. They create what can be described as "missing links" in the art world, producing artworks that are believed to have existed or fit into the oeuvre of a famous artist. This strategy plays on the very human desires of experts and collectors to uncover hidden treasures and attribute them to renowned artists. The prospect of discovering a lost work by a celebrated painter often brings fame and fortune and is an enticing goal for researchers and art enthusiasts alike. As experts marshal evidence to support an attribution, they may be seduced by the forgery. However, this psychological element also works in reverse. Given the prevalence of forgery, experts and dealers have developed a dose of skepticism when presented with a potential "sleeper". Consequently, some genuine artworks may not receive full attribution or recognition due to this cynicism. At Hephaestus, our approach is rooted in carefully sampled and accurate data sets, stripping away subjective judgments and biases. As paintings progress through our increasingly narrow protocols, we strip away objections, and become increasingly confident in the attribution. Each step of our process is designed to evaluate the authenticity of the artwork, ensuring that it passes every test before receiving our stamp of authentication.

Forgers' Knowledge of Scientific Tests:

Forgery is just as sophisticated as connoisseurship; in fact, many of them, like van Meegeren,are frustrated artists themselves. Possibly the main difference between forgers and the original artists is the effect of the subconscious on a work of art—a factor that is notoriously difficult to perceive with the five senses. Forgery is a craft that requires knowledge and adaptability. Forgers are well-versed in the scientific tests used by experts to authenticate artworks. They meticulously study and exploit the vulnerabilities of these techniques, employing clever workarounds or attempting to reverse-engineer the tests. Han van Meegeren's case serves as a prime example. He was aware that experts would likely examine the polymerisation or hardness of the paint to determine authenticity. His introduction of Bakelite, an early plastic, to the paint provided the appearance of age and authenticity, tricking even the most astute observers. At Hephaestus, we address this challenge in three fundamental ways. Firstly, we employ a variety of scientific techniques in our analysis, ensuring a comprehensive assessment of the artwork. By employing multiple approaches, we can cross-reference the results and gain a more complete understanding of the work's authenticity. Secondly, we have developed a sequential protocol that accounts for forgery techniques and their attempts to reverse-engineer the tests. By refining our methodology and staying one step ahead, we aim to detect and expose even the most sophisticated forgeries. Additionally, to safeguard against forgers we maintain the confidentiality of our protocol. By keeping it undisclosed, we prevent forgers from knowing the specific tests they may encounter, thus diminishing their ability to manipulate or evade detection.

The Evolution of Forgery Recognition:

Art forgery is not an isolated phenomenon; it exists within a larger context of evolving artistic styles and changing aesthetic preferences. While Han van Meegeren is often hailed as one of the greatest art forgers in history, it is worth noting that his imitations are not entirely convincing to a twenty-first century observer. Using Bakelite as an additive, while effective for a time, would raise immediate red flags in a modern laboratory setting. However, even beyond the scientific analysis, the overall appearance of van Meegeren's forgeries lacked the characteristic essence and subtleties of a true Vermeer. This raises an intriguing question: Why were his paintings not more convincing? One possibility lies in the interplay of the aforementioned psychological effects, but perhaps there is another explanation. At a certain moment in time, an imitation of the past may appear realistic and plausible, however, as the years pass and our understanding of artistic styles evolve, these efforts can become more obvious for what they are—mere imitations. Our perception tends to impart a stylistic element onto recreations, and this stylistic interpretation can subtly shift over time. Just as costumes from period dramas made decades ago now appear unrealistic and out of touch, the same principle can be applied to forgeries. As our collective aesthetic sensibilities and knowledge of art history progresses, we develop a sharper eye for the nuance, and detect those deviations that distinguish an authentic artwork from a forgery.

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