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The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegerenby Jonathan Lopez
THEY CAME FOR HIM on May 29, 1945. Shortly after 9:00 in the evening, Lt. Joseph Piller walked over to Keizersgracht 321 from his nearby headquarters on the Herengracht. An armed soldier was by his side. They had a car at their disposal—one of the few working vehicles in the city—but tonight they had no intention of using it. They planned to conduct Han van Meegeren to Weteringschans Prison on foot, marching him through the streets at the point of a gun.
It was cool and damp in Amsterdam; it had rained on and off all day. Complete darkness had settled upon the city: there were no street lamps, no house lights, no bright points of illumination shining down from apartment windows. The electricity and gas had been shut off throughout the Dutch capital for months. Having promised to lead occupied Holland into a glorious new era under his rule, Hitler had instead plunged it back into the age of the candle and the kerosene lantern. Even with the Germans now defeated, the power grid wouldnt be up and running again for weeks; gas service wouldnt return to normal until the winter. And of course there had been other, more serious indignities visited upon the Dutch people that could never be set right at all.
Knocking on the front door of Van Meegerens home, an elegant, centuries-old burghers residence, Lieutenant Piller announced himself as an officer of the provisional military government, or Militair Gezag. Once the introductions were dispensed with, matters took their natural course. The silver-haired Van Meegeren, a small man with a theatrically large presence, expressed complete bewilderment at Pillers inquiries into Hermann Goerings seemingly looted Vermeer. And with regard to the five other biblical Vermeers that Lieutenant Piller had traced back to him, Van Meegeren was likewise unable to provide further particulars. Piller then asked how, exactly, Van Meegeren had gotten so rich amid the widespread deprivations of the war. "He said that he had sold a group of Flemish Primitives prior to the outbreak of hostilities," Piller noted in his statement for the case file, "and that it was in this way that he had come by his money." Having already interviewed enough people to know better, Lieutenant Piller wasted no time informing Van Meegeren that the game was over.
As Van Meegeren later described it, he remained stoic and inscrutable throughout the mile-long journey to the Weteringschans. If true, this was no mean feat: collaborators on their way to jail were often jeered at or accosted by angry bystanders, even at night, now that curfews had been abandoned. In the three weeks since the end of the war in Europe, the public humiliation of quislings had become victorys sideshow. Thousands of -German-friendly Dutchmen were being led off to prison all across the country, sometimes one by one and sometimes in large groups, stumbling along with their hands clasped behind their necks, their faces frozen with fear.
During the war, the Germans had used Weteringschans Prison as a way station for Amsterdam Jews picked up in night raids, or razzias. Anne Franks family had been kept there before being sent on to the death camps. Located just a stones throw from the Rijksmuseum, in the center of the city, it was a convenient place for the Gestapo to take care of the record keeping so important to their far-flung apparatus of murder. Resistance leaders had also been held at the Weteringschans; some had been tortured there; some had been put to death. That this hulking, high-walled, nineteenth-century jail was now filling up with the Nazis friends and helpers was a kind of poetic justice—inadequate, to be sure, but gratifying nonetheless.
When they finally arrived at the prison, Lieutenant Piller gave Van Meegeren one last chance to tell the truth, instructing him to write down the names of the people who had provided him with the Vermeers.
"They tried to get me to talk," Van Meegeren later recalled, "but they did not succeed."
His stubbornness earned him a stay in solitary confinement. The guards shut him away sometime after 11:00 that night—and Lieutenant Piller, for his part, would have been content to let Van Meegeren rot in the Weteringschans forever.
JOSEPH PILLER WAS neither a professional soldier nor an expert in the history of art. He didnt understand the full details of Van Meegerens case, and many of his assumptions about what had occurred would later turn out to be wrong. But Piller approached this matter, like everything else he was working on in those chaotic days just after the Liberation, with a sense of passion and purpose. "It was clear that I didnt like collaborators," he later remarked. "Too much had happened in my life to be kind to people like that. I was more extreme then. I was young and had witnessed many deaths, and I hated anyone who had worked with the Germans."
A self-described "simple Jewish boy," Joseph Piller had been living happily in Amsterdam until May 1940, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands. He soon found it expedient to take refuge in the countryside with his wife and infant daughter. A skinny twenty-six year old, a garment worker by trade, Piller had no prior experience with rural life, but he made the most of his time among the farms and fields of the tiny village of Emst. He joined the local Resistance and set to work finding hiding places for Jewish children from the cities: locating reliable farmers who could take on young "guests"; procuring false identity papers and ration cards through clandestine channels; raiding German storerooms for supplies; and keeping a constant eye out for the unwelcome attention of informants. This network was fully established and running smoothly when the admirable Piller suddenly found himself with additional responsibilities one day in 1942, when a British secret agent named Dick Kragt fell from the sky bearing special orders from London. Kragt had parachuted into the Netherlands on a mission to rescue Allied airmen shot down over occupied territory—to hide them, protect them, and then spirit them across the front lines to safety. And, together, Kragt and Piller proceeded to do just that, time and again, over the next two and half years, expanding the Undergrounds existing operation to accommodate the new assignment.
By the time he came face to face with Van Meegeren, Piller had been awarded an officers commission in the newly reconstituted Dutch army. Indeed, he had assumed a leading role in investigating the goings-on at Amsterdams famed Goudstikker gallery. A Jewish-owned business, the gallery had been taken over shortly after the invasion by one of Hermann Goerings henchmen, a -Bavarian banker named Alois Miedl. Known throughout the war years as the go-to man for German opportunists visiting the conquered Dutch capital, the chubby Miedl whiled away his evenings with the fast set of young Nazi officials who congregated at the bar of the sumptuous Amstel Hotel; he threw dinner parties for the likes of Ferdinand Hugo Aus der Fünten, the SS Hauptsturmführer in charge of transporting Dutch Jews to the death camps of Eastern Europe; and when VIPs came to town from Berlin, Miedl proudly led them on tours of the storerooms of looted Jewish valuables—silverware, furniture, porcelain, watches, wedding rings, childrens toys. Lieutenant Piller, as he informed Allied investigators at the time, was convinced that Miedl had turned the Goudstikker gallery into a front where looted art got laundered into cash to finance the Nazis Abwehr espionage ring. Given Miedls well-timed escape to the safety of Falangist Spain toward the end of the war, such a theory seemed more than credible. Piller was after big game: spies, informers, the hidden financial workings of the Third Reich. It was in the course of looking into these matters that he happened upon the Van Meegeren case.
"I discovered that a painting had passed through Miedls hands depicting Christ and the Adulteress, attributed to Johannes Vermeer," Piller stated in a later deposition. "Miedl bought it for 1.65 million guilders and then sold it to Hermann Goering. By interviewing various middlemen I realized that this work must have come from the artist Han van Meegeren.?Speaking to various other people, I soon discovered that a total of six paintings by Johannes Vermeer had appeared on the market since 1937 and that these also had come from the aforementioned Van Meegeren. I then went to Van Meegeren for an explanation."
But Van Meegeren was clearly not the type to explain. The man was a collaborator—Piller was quite sure of it—and like all collaborators, Van Meegeren had covered his tracks. Although Piller could link him to the Vermeers through various dealers and straw men, the trail went cold from there. The experts whom Piller consulted said that these particular Vermeers were part of a special cycle of paintings, unusual for their biblical subject matter. It was thought that Vermeer might have painted them to decorate a schuilkerk, a hidden Catholic church, during the Reformation. If these pictures had originally belonged together, then it stood to reason that Van Meegeren and his accomplices might have looted all of them from a single collection. But which one, where—and who else was involved?
On June 11, 1945, Piller transferred Van Meegeren from the Weteringschans to a nearby interrogation facility on the Apollolaan. There, Piller and his men questioned Van Meegeren for an entire day, around the clock, without pause. Van Meegeren admitted to nothing: when asked a question, he would either turn away and face the wall or else answer with an elaborate non sequitur.
Piller then decided to try a more aggressive tactic. He told Van Meegeren that the Allies had tracked down Miedl in Spain—which, in fact, was true. Piller then suggested that Miedl was prepared to testify under oath that Van Meegeren had come to the Goudstikker gallery with the sole intention of doing business with highly placed Germans, a threat that Piller invented out of thin air. If Van Meegeren refused to divulge the names of his accomplices, Piller could still get him for trading with the enemy—even without an admission of guilt—on the basis of Miedls supposed testimony.
Piller asked Van Meegeren one last time where Hermann -Goerings Vermeer had come from.
"He turned to me," Piller recalled, "and he said: I did it. I painted it."
For perhaps the first time in his life, Han van Meegeren was being entirely honest. And to Joseph Pillers everlasting astonishment, he found himself believing Van Meegerens confession almost immediately. "I was sure of it," Piller later observed. "Van Meegeren had done it. It was completely in keeping with human nature. He was someone who felt misunderstood by everyone involved with art. He wanted to show the world what he could really do.?After twenty-four hours of questioning, once you came to understand his psychology, it made perfect sense."
Indeed it did. And suddenly, Joseph Piller, who had just come through his own five-year David-and-Goliath struggle, saw something in Han van Meegeren that he rather liked.
Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan Lopez
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