The book, I Was Vermeer
I was Vermeer is a book that explores the question of art forgery and the motivations behind the acts of forging. In particular, the book explores in detail the origins of forgery, tracing its roots back as far as the early 19th century. Amongst those the book focuses on, is Han van Meegeren, a Dutch forger who made a fortune out of forgeries of Vermeers, which he then sold to the Nazis. The book itself starts with Wynne’s experiences interacting with a master forger: Geert Jan Jansen, convicted of forgeries to which he himself admits to. Similar to many art lovers, the most pressing question for Wynne is why anyone would want to forge art. For Geert Jan Jansen, the forgeries were simply engaged in as a way of survival, in the cruel world of art and painting, the only thing that sells is reputation and big paintings, this leads to the death of may upcoming artists and galleries; his being one of them. In order to survive, he opted to start deceiving customers on the origins of his paintings, before proceeding to create numerous forgeries. However, from Wynne’s interview with Geert, forgeries are here to stay, and identifying forgeries is bound to prove a tough task, as forgeries become more and more authentic the more they are sold.
Following Wynne’s encounter with Geert, the book then proceeds to Han van Meegeren’s story, beginning with Wynne’s tour of his residence, as well as a slight flashback to how Han Van Meegeren was arrested following a dilemma over whether or not to profess the truth to officers that he was a forger swindling the Nazis, as opposed to the collaborator they thought him to be. After a significant amount of time however, van Meegeren admitted to having forged the painting in question, as well as a number of other paintings, making a fortune to the tune of 50 million dollars. Though initially doubted, the art critics who had once relegated his art to the back burner, vindicated him and led to his consideration as a hero instead of the true forger that he was. In fact, his lawyers even argued that he himself was not really guilty of any crime, as he had not claimed to be selling genuine paintings, with the critics the ones who had declared them genuine. His acclamation and stature only continued to grow following his death, more so due to the fact that most people considered him a hero for having swindled the Nazis. The book also details how Han van Meegeren turned into the master forger that he was, as well as the tools and methods he used to achieve his goals.
The book, through its accounts and peek preview into the lives of master forgers provides important insight into one of the greatest problems afflicting art. It not only delves into the ways through which forgeries find their way into public and reputable galleries, but it also provides interesting insight into the motivations and personalities behind forgeries. While for most material gain is usually the primary motivation behind their choices to create forgeries, the aspect of pride and ego cannot be understated. Most forgers are usually talented artists in their own right, as can be seen in the case of Geert Jan Jansen, whose forgeries were never returned, in part due to the quality of the paintings he created. The same case also applies to Han van Meegeren, who though talented, was rejected solely on the basis that his work was outdated. In fact, in most cases, the general public usually admires the forger, as they recognize the fact that creating a good forgery actually takes skill, and it is this admiration that actually serves to fuel the practice.
Both cases the book focuses on, actually have similarities; the main one being the lack of proper persecution that would otherwise accompany the discovery of thieves of similar stature. Han van Meegeren had admitted to swindling the Nazis, to the tune of more than 50 million dollars, and yet he actually became posthumously, largely due to the fact that he had managed to swindle the Nazis, but also due to the fact that he had managed to create works of art that rivaled the genuine ones. A majority of master forgers are individuals capable of producing quality works of art, and considering that most art lovers are more interested in quality rather than authenticity, quality work can easily be passed off as genuine. The second greatest impediment to the war against forgeries judging by the accounts the book provides, is artistic pride. A majority of those who purchase art consider themselves genuine experts, and would therefore, find it quite difficult to soil their names by confessing that they had indeed been tricked. In the case of Geert, that was one of the impediments to gathering evidence. All in all, the book provides essential insight into the making of forgeries, as well as the approaches most forgers take. The narration of Han van Meegeren’s life and engagements, not only makes for interesting reading, but it also highlights important lessons that the art industry must learn.
Wynne, Frank. I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger.Bloomsbury USA, 2006.