The Greatest Forger in the History of Art


The Supper at Emmaus (1937)

This painting that looks like the piece by the great Dutch painter of the 17th century Johannes Vermeer is actually an art piece by Han van Meegeren, one of the greatest forgers in the history of painting. The following illustrates his extraordinary story.

During the Nazis occupation in Europe, an exhaustive number of masterpieces were looted and assembled by them, as Hitler, a failed painter, was an ardent collector of great art as well as what the Nazis considered as degenerate art.

At that time, Hermann Göring was the number two in the Nazi party, who was also a passionate art collector. He spent a fortune on amassing great art of the past and built his own collection. He was an art connoisseur himself and had a good eye for art. Nevertheless, after the fall of the Nazis and Göring was arrested, many paintings were discovered in his vault. To many people’s surprise, some of them were considered to be the paintings by great Vermeer.

Vermeer only painted around 40 paintings or less in his lifetime, and particularly his early work is scarce. Nonetheless, Vermeer must have received some training somewhere to be so great as he had become. And in the 17th century, most painters had to paint biblical-themed paintings during their apprenticeship, although few of such studies by Vermeer were ever found.

Thus, when a number of biblical-themed paintings that looked like by Vermeer were found in Göring’s vault, many art critics around the world were thrilled. Little did they know then was that they were not Vermeers but by Han van Meegeren, who once firmly swore vengeance upon art critics that shunned him as a painter and dismissed his work as derivative. The irony was that his gift was precisely ability to imitate and internalise someone else’s style. Many renowned art critics were tricked, and his trickery was elevated to the level of mastery.

After the end of the War, Meegeren was put on trial for treason as a traitor who sold the Dutch national treasure, i.e. paintings by Vermeer, to the Nazis. However, during the trial, Meegeren confessed that he was actually the author of the paintings. And to prove it, he began to paint another masterpiece in the style of Vermeer before the sceptical eyes.

Once he was proven innocent, he grew to the status of a national hero who managed to trick the Nazis into buying something worth a fortune and yet with a fake provenance. Before the formal end of the trial, however, Meegeren suddenly died of heart attack. What has remained as a mystery is that during his lifetime as a forger he produced a number of fake paintings in the styles of many masters, and allegedly, some of them are still in the collections of the world’s renowned museums as authentic. However, since his sudden death, the truth has been lost forever.

In today’s art world, few painters are truly skilful. Without a gallery to represent or a powerful curator to recommend, few painters may be able to stand on their own. Great athletes often remind us of other greats of the past that came before them. They honed their skill by learning and imitating the greats. For some reasons, however, this learning process seems frowned upon in the world of contemporary painting.


Crockett, Zachary. (2014, September 24). The Art Forger Who Became a National Hero. PRINCEONOMICS.

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