The art forgeries of Han van Meegeren
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Han van Meegeren The Forger

Henricus Antonius (Han) van Meegeren was born on the 10th October, 1889, at Deventer in Holland. In 1908 he began studying architecture at the Institute of Technology in Delft. But in 1912 he gave up architecture in favour of art and was lucky enough to be appointed as an assistant in Drawing and the History of Art at the college. He spent much time drawing and painting and won awards for one of his watercolours. In 1912 he also married Anna de Voogt and they had two children.

The Van Meegerens moved to The Hague in 1914, where Han supported them painting portraits and other works. In 1922 he held an exhibition of Biblical paintings (shades of things to come?) which were all sold. But his drinking and womanising led to his divorce in 1923 and he married Jo van Walraven, an actress. But due, perhaps, to his depraved lifestyle, his talent failed to develop and the critics were not kind to his work. Unappreciated in his own country, in 1932 he left for Roquebrune in the South of France. It was here that he started on his career as a forger. He said that his motive was to humble the critics who had denigrated his work by fooling them into accepting his work as the product of the great masters.

At the Villa Primavera, Roquebrune, he started his experiments with pigments, media and old canvases, painting several fakes, some of which were sold. Around 1936 he started work on his masterpiece, the Disciples at Emmaus, a task which took him six months of virtual seclusion. Encouraged, no doubt, by the success (not least financial) of the Emmaus, he produced a series of "Vermeers", which (apart from Jesus Among the Doctors), all sold readily, despite their ever-declining quality. As a result he became extremely wealthy. But when, finally, his past caught up with him and he confessed to his forgeries, he was bankrupted. He died of a heart attack on 30th December 1947.

It has been received wisdom to wring hands over the tragedy of Van Meegeren's misspent life, the perversion of his art, and so forth. But there is another point of view. Given that his talent, even had it developed into something greater, was a minor one, had he stuck to the straight and narrow he might now well be all but forgotten. But by taking so successfully to fakery he made a name for himself in art history that will always be remembered, if perhaps not for the "right" reasons.

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