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  • Writer's pictureZanelle Awinyo

The Artist That Tricked the Nazis

This Article was written by Zanelle Awinyo, Year 9

One of the strangest trials in Dutch History was in 1947. The defendant in this case, was an art forger who had counterfeited millions of dollars worth of paintings.

But he wasn’t pleading for his innocence... in fact, his life depended on proving that the paintings were counterfeits and he was indeed a fraud.

Like many art forgers, Han van Meegeren was an artist whose original works failed to bring him fame. Bitter towards the art world, van Meegeren became determined to make fools out of the critics. He learned all he could about the Old Masters, their techniques, materials and daily life; and chose to forge the 17th-century Baroque painter, Johannes Vermeer- famous for the painting ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

Working in secret for six years, the forger perfected his art. From his research, he knew historians believed Vermeer had an early period of religious paintings influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio, though none of these works had surfaced. Naturally, van Meegeren decided to make one, ‘The Supper at Emmaus’. Renowned art specialists had declared his painting of Vermeer’s "lost early masterpieces." Having the stamp of approval from the art world, the painting was sold in 1937 for the equivalent of over four million dollars today.

The successful bid prompted van Meegeren to forge and sell more works through various art dealers, and the art world continued to believe in their authenticity.

Later on, when the Nazis occupied Holland during the Second World War; Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s top generals, sought to add a Vermeer to his collection of artworks looted from Europe. Van Meegeren obliged, selling him one of his forged paintings, ‘Christ with the Adulteress’. However as the tide of the war turned, so did van Meegeren’s luck.

After the Allied victory, he was arrested for delivering a priceless piece of Dutch heritage to

the Nazis; an act of treasonous collaboration punishable by death.

Van Meegeren had to prove that the painting wasn’t a National treasure. Step by step he explained how he’d forged Vermeer’s art style to create multiple works; the very experts who had verified his art as Vermeer’s authentic work needed to protect their reputations so they went against van Meegeren stating they were truly authentic.

With few options left, van Meegeren set to work on a new Vermeer. Once he presented the fake to the court they finally believed him. He was acquitted for collaborating with the Nazis and instead was sentenced to a year in prison for fraud. This transformed his public image from a swindler to a folk hero that had tricked the Nazis

...And that’s a Free Fact you now know


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