Amsterdam has had Johannes Vermeer fever ever since the national Rijksmuseum put on display more works by the Dutch master than had ever before been exhibited together.
Yet two new, small exhibitions outside Amsterdam, featuring fakes of the 17th-century painter’s work, promise to tell the best stories — of destroyed reputations, of obsession, and of a fascination with the artist who created Girl with a Pearl Earring.
They hark to the Second World War, and a web of deceit and forgery that sucked in Hermann Göring, the second most senior Nazi.
Interest in Vermeer was sky-high in the 1930s, and many in the art world were convinced that there must be more of his works to be found, especially from the early Baroque period. His oeuvre is estimated at about 35 works — 28 of which have been on display at the Rijksmuseum since February.
About two dozen of his finished paintings are thought to have been lost, including a version of Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, depicting a resurrected Jesus revealing himself to two of his disciples.
In 1937 Dirk Hannema, director of the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam, was said to have discovered the lost The Supper at Emmaus, sealing his stellar reputation. It was bought for the colossal price of 520,000 guilders, about $5.4 million in today’s money.
The painting was the centerpiece of a notable Hannema exhibition, Four Centuries of Masterpieces 1400-1800, that was opened by Queen Wilhelmina in 1938 with similar hype to that surrounding the present Rijksmuseum exhibition.
Abraham Bredius, the foremost art collector and curator of the day, described the work as “one of the most beautiful works that the [Dutch] Golden Age had produced”.
Shortly afterwards Europe was plunged into the chaos of war and Nazi occupation, and five more new and unknown “Vermeers” came on the market. In 1943 the Rijksmuseum bought The Footwashing for 1.3 million guilders, squirreling the new acquisition away in a bomb-proof cellar to wait for happier days.
About two dozen of his finished paintings are thought to have been lost.
Immediately after the war liberating American troops came across the collection of Göring, Hitler’s second in command, hidden in an Austrian salt mine away from looters.
Stashed with other rare or priceless works was a painting, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, thought by Göring to be an identified Vermeer. But the work led the Allied forces to the doorstep of a Dutch forger, Han van Meegeren, who was living in luxury in Amsterdam after selling the painting to Göring.
Van Meegeren, who had traded the picture for 137 paintings in Göring’s collection, worth about 1,650,000 guilders, faced a long prison sentence or even the death penalty for collaborating with Nazis.
To avoid conviction he confessed to being a forger, even painting a new “Vermeer”, Christ in the Temple, under supervision to prove his technique. He was sentenced to a year in jail — and hailed as a folk hero for conning the Nazis — but died of a heart attack, aged 58, before serving any time in jail.
His confession destroyed reputations such as that of Hannema, who fled to his castle Nijenhuis and lived there until his death in 1984. He continued, in the face of widespread ridicule, to insist that seven of his own paintings were Vermeers.
“They saw what they wanted to see,” Dr Gregor Weber, head of fine arts at the Rijksmuseum, told Amsterdam’s Het Parool newspaper. “Art historians have always assumed that Vermeer must have made several paintings with Biblical scenes — after all, he had already painted a Biblical scene in his youth [Christ in the House of Martha and Mary]. Han van Meegeren fulfilled that need by painting — with The Supper at Emmaus — exactly what they thought Vermeer had painted.”
Van Meegeren’s Supper will go on display at Museum Paul Tétar van Elven in Delft on May 7. The forgery that took in Göring, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, and other paintings owned by Hannema, form an exhibition, Searching for Vermeer, until 11 June at the Kasteel het Nijenhuis in Heino.
Van Meegeren still haunts the art world, especially at a time of renewed obsession and interest with Vermeer. “It makes you careful,” Weber said. “You constantly check whether your view is still clear and your frameworks are still correct.”
Some Vermeer attributions remain disputed today. The Rijksmuseum, which has Girl with a Flute on display, attributes it to the Dutchmaster but The National Gallery in Washington, which owns the painting, does not.
Bruno Waterfield is the Brussels correspondent for The Times of London