Dutch master forger collected by Rijksmuseum

29 May 2014, by
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The Rijksmuseum has taken the unusual step of acquiring the plaster death mask of Han van Meegeren, one of the greatest forgers in Dutch history.

Rijksmueum director Wim Pijbes recently purchased the image of the fakes artist, which was cast soon after his death. It will complement the museum’s existing collection of papers, materials and other evidence related to Van Meegeren’s crimes.

"Van Meegeren’s was the most scandalous and most famous forgery case in the 20th century, making several Vermeer fakes and selling them to the most prominent museums and collectors of the time," Pijbes said.

"You can always be wrong, it could always be a fake - there are still lots of fakes on the market - and the greatest mistake you can do as a museum is to buy a forgery."

Master forger Han van Meegeren

The celebrated career of this master forger began in the 1930s, when tired of struggling to make a living as a portrait painter, Van Meegeren began producing paintings he said were early works by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

As only 35 works by Vermeer were known, Van Meegeren was able to convince many people in the art world that his paintings were genuine, passing off his less skilled technique as evidence of an artist developing his talents.

Pijbes described the works as horrible, but they were "regarded as really early Vermeers because nobody knew how early Vermeers would look."

His scam continued for years, with his greatest triumph being the sale of the forged Emmaüsgangers (Supper at Emmaus) by "Vermeer" to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in 1938 for 1.275.000 guilders.

Van Meegeren also forged works by other painters of the Golden Age, including Frans Hals, Gerard ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch.

Downfall of a clever cheat

It all unravelled at the end of the Second World War, when Van Meegeren was arrested for treason. He was charged with having sold Dutch cultural property to the Nazis; specifically, a Vermeer to Hermann Göring.

Death mask of Han van Meegeren in the Rijksmuseum

In order to defend himself he had to tell the truth. He was sentenced to a year in prison for the forgeries, but died of heart failure in Amsterdam only a few weeks into his sentence, a condition possibly exacerbated by his addictions to morphine and alcohol.

Creation of a hero

Who created the death mask, and why, is unknown, but Van Meegeren became something of a romantic hero. A biography was published as early as 1946, the year before he died.

The fact that he tricked Hermann Göring has been regarded by some even as a heroic deed, while others considered his forgeries to be an act of rebellion against the art establishment.

According to the Rijksmuseum, the death mask itself, set in its palette frame, is "a perfect illustration of the hero worship bestowed on the "misunderstood" Van Meegeren in the 1950s." 

For the moment, Pijbes has not decided what to do with the mask. It will take its place in storage next to Emmaüsgangers, testament to the fact that that even the best museums can be fooled.

Sources: Rijksmuseum, The Independent

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