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The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Centuryby Edward Dolnick
Synopses & Reviews
As riveting as a World War II thriller, The Forger's Spell is the true story of Johannes Vermeer and the small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate him centuries later. The con man's mark was Hermann Goering, one of the most reviled leaders of Nazi Germany and a fanatic collector of art.
It was an almost perfect crime. For seven years a no-account painter named Han van Meegeren managed to pass off his paintings as those of one of the most beloved and admired artists who ever lived. But, as Edward Dolnick reveals, the reason for the forger's success was not his artistic skill. Van Meegeren was a mediocre artist. His true genius lay in psychological manipulation, and he came within inches of fooling both the Nazis and the world. Instead, he landed in an Amsterdam court on trial for his life.
ARTnews called Dolnick's previous book, the Edgar Award-winning The Rescue Artist, "the best book ever written on art crime." In The Forger's Spell, the stage is bigger, the stakes are higher, and the villains are blacker.
"Edgar-winner Dolnick (The Rescue Artist) delves into the extraordinary story of Han van Meegeren (1889 — 1947), who made a fortune in German-occupied Holland by forging paintings of the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer. The discovery of a 'new' Vermeer was just what the beleaguered Dutch needed to lift their spirits, and van Meegeren's Christ at Emmaus had already been bought by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam in 1937 for $2.6 million. Collectors, critics and the public were blind to the clumsiness of this work and five other 'Vermeers' done by van Meegeren. Dolnick asks how everyone could have been fooled, and he answers with a fascinating analysis of the forger's technique and a perceptive discussion of van Meegeren's genius at manipulating people. Van Meegeren was unmasked in 1945 by one of his clients, Hermann Goering. Later accused of treason for collaboration, he saved himself from execution and even became a hero for having swindled Goering. Dolnick's compelling look at how a forger worked his magic leads to one sad conclusion: there will always be eager victims waiting to be duped. Illus. not seen by PW. (June 24)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In Amsterdam at the close of World War II, a dapper little man named Han van Meegeren, a noted art dealer, faced a charge of collaboration with the Nazis. At issue was a painting by Johannes Vermeer that had found its way, with Van Meegeren's help, into the hands of Reich Marshall Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command. If the court found him guilty, Van Meegeren faced a death sentence. For several... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) days the prisoner had been vague about his role in the transaction, but at length, under persistent questioning, his composure broke: "Idiots!" he yelled. "You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it's not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!" "This is the true story of a colossal hoax," writes Edward Dolnick at the start of this gripping historical narrative. "The time was World War II. The place, occupied Holland." If that has the stentorian ring of an old RKO "Radio Picture," it must be said that the broad strokes of Van Meegeren's story sound like a vintage Hollywood two-reeler: "The Painter Who Fooled the Nazis!" If Jack Warner had gotten his hands on the material, there would have been roles for Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. "Everything about the case was larger than life," Dolnick tells us. "The sums that changed hands soared into the millions; the artist who inspired that frenzy of buying was one of the best-loved painters who ever lived, Johannes Vermeer; the collectors vying for masterpieces included both Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering." Van Meegeren, the man at the center of the drama, was a "middling painter of old-fashioned taste" who found a higher calling as the most successful and opportunistic art forger of the 20th century. While his fellow Dutchmen suffered and starved during the Nazi occupation, Van Meegeren lived a life of dizzying opulence through the sale of "newly discovered" Vermeer masterpieces. Dolnick, a veteran science writer, knows his way around a canvas. His previous book was "The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece." He is careful to place Van Meegeren's deception in a suitable frame, detailing circumstances that allowed the forger to exploit a "Vermeer gap" — created not only by the scarcity of the artist's work but also by the values it represented. During the war years, Dolnick explains, "admiration of Vermeer took on a new dimension that had little to do with his marquee value. Art historians and ordinary art lovers alike saw embodied in the great painter the very qualities that Goering and his ilk had put most at risk." This cultish devotion to Vermeer sparked a thriving market, first among Dutch collectors who wanted to keep their national treasures out of Nazi hands, and later, after the outbreak of war, among German art scouts, who coveted Vermeer as the rarest of all jewels. "In all the world there are only three dozen Vermeers," Dolnick explains. "Even a conqueror with Europe at his feet could do nothing to alter that brute fact." But Van Meegeren could. For years critics had scorned him as a minor talent who could do little but ape his betters. He responded by turning his energies to fakery, an arena in which he proved supreme. Over a long period of rigorous trial and error, he developed a process that made him, according to one expert, "the Edison of art forgers." It was not enough simply to mimic Vermeer's technique; Van Meegeren diligently recreated the artist's original materials, down to the lead-based paints and marten-hair brushes. Once the canvas was complete, he subjected it to various stresses to harden and crack the paint, in order to simulate the passage of three centuries and convey the necessary patina of age. It is strangely mesmerizing to witness Van Meegeren bend to his labors, though in effect we are simply watching paint dry. By the time the "perfumed monster" Hermann Goering enters the picture, "The Forger's Spell" has raised provocative questions about the nature of art and the psychology of deception, anticipating more recent fabulists such as Clifford Irving, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. The man who understood these issues best may well have been Van Meegeren himself. "Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it," he declared after his exposure. "Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?" Daniel Stashower is the author of "The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder." Reviewed by Daniel Stashower, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Dolnick's zesty, incisive, and entertaining inquiry illuminates the hidden dimensions and explicates the far-reaching implications of this fascinating and provocative collision of art and ambition, deception and war." Booklist
"Forgery is interesting in part because it demands great, if imitative, skill, and in part because copying itself has become a significant aspect of contemporary art-making. It is an art-crime that encourages reflections on the nature of art itself. This book is an aid to such reflections." New York Times
"Energetic and authoritative." Kirkus Reviews
"Dolnick goes beyond the techniques of forgery to show how fakes succeed, and how the ability of the forger depends on the fallibility of experts." Rocky Mountain News
Book News Annotation:
Han van Meegeren's story is one of the footnotes to history. Before and during the Second World War, the Dutch painter sold a number of paintings by Vermeer to high Nazi officials, especially Herman Goering. The Dutch people considered him a collaborator. Then, after the war, it was discovered that the "Vermeers" were actually the work of van Meegeren. The man who had duped Goering became a national hero. Dolnick tells the story in an engaging manner, sympathetic to the artist and the art critics who were also fooled. He explains the genius of van Meegeren's choice of Vermeer and how he convinced the Nazis the works were genuine. This is a well-referenced work accessible to the general reader. Annotation ©2008 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown, The Rescue Artist, and Madness on the Couch. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He lives with his wife near Washington, D.C.
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