Feature

Book of the week: The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick

<em>The Forger&rsquo;s Spell</em> tells how the Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren fooled art experts and art collectors (Hermann Goering, for one) with forged Vermeer paintings. The author has given the story a new twist by pointing

The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick (HarperCollins, $27)

Three weeks after V-E Day, an investigator knocked on Han van Meegeren’s door. The 55-year-old Dutch painter was not widely celebrated, but he lived in one of the most elaborate homes in Amsterdam, which featured both a marble-tiled entrance hall and a skating rink in the basement. What interested Allied authorities was the role van Meegeren apparently had played in the sale of a treasured Vermeer painting to the Nazi military leader Hermann Goering. In time, van Meegeren was arrested and charged with treason. Only then did he reveal that his crime had not been collaborating in the pillaging of Holland. He had, in fact, forged the painting found in Goering’s possession, and Hitler’s deputy was not the only Vermeer collector he’d swindled.

Van Meegeren’s story has been told before, said Nina Siegal in Art + Auction. From 1938 to 1945, his Christ at Emmaus was the most admired painting attributed to Vermeer, and that embarrassing fact has helped inspire three movies and an acclaimed William Gaddis novel. But Edward Dolnick “puts a new spin on things,” by pointing out that van Meegeren was a hack. The painter stands out, the author says, as “perhaps the only forger whose most famous works a layman would immediately identify as a fake.” Plotted like a thriller, The Forger’s Spell explores how van Meegeren fooled the world anyway by appealing to the aesthetic biases and career imperatives of high culture’s gatekeepers. The book “leaves you with the unsettling feeling” that many common assumptions about the history of painting can’t be trusted.

Forgery is a compelling topic in itself, said Anthony Julius in The New York Times. Even when practiced by a mediocre artistic talent, tricking the experts requires elaborate effort and impressive skill. Dolnick’s descriptions of van Meegeren’s methods also raise interesting questions about why we value certain types of art and not others. Dolnick ranges widely, said Wook Kim in Entertainment Weekly. He offers enjoyable side trips into “the cult of Vermeer” and “the unlikely rivalry between Hitler and Goering.” It’s “the peculiar psychology” of the con man himself, though, that a reader is most likely to remember.

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