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Edward Dolnick: The Forger's Spell

It'd make a terrific movie. A Dutch artist, dismissed by critics as "shallow and insipid," gets revenge by forging a religious work by one of Holland's greatest painters, not copying Johannes Vermeer's style so much as suggesting it. The critics who mocked the forger fall over themselves praising the genius of the new-old piece, and it sells for millions. The forger follows it up with more faux-Vermeers, each received as rapturously as the last; none of the paintings are actually good, but before anyone realizes it, the Nazis invade Holland, making for one hell of a third act. Cast a character actor as the forger, an aging icon to stand in for the conned connoisseurs, and someone with suitably imposing presence to play Hermann Goering, and you have prime Oscar bait.

In The Forger's Spell: A True Story Of Vermeer, Nazis, And The Greatest Art Hoax Of The Twentieth Century, Edward Dolnick (The Rescue Artist) does well by great material, telling the true story of one man's quest to pull the wool over the eyes of the world that rejected him. Han van Meegeren was a mediocre painter with a talent for giving people what they wanted to see without them realizing they wanted it; still, choosing Vermeer to imitate was a huge gamble on his part, given that most forgers stick to lesser-known artists. Forging the work of a master means close scrutiny, but since Vermeer's confirmed output is so slight, people are always looking for more. And once there's a desired outcome, objectivity gets thrown out the window; van Meegeren's first fake, Christ At Emmaus, was praised not only as a new Vermeer, but as the best Vermeer of them all.


Dolnick examines the hoax in loose chronology, beginning with van Meegeren's arrest after World War II, then looping back around to detail his process, as well as spending some time on Goering and Hitler's obsession with art collecting—an obsession which would lead to Goering purchasing one of the false Vermeers, and which would ultimately bring about van Meegeren's downfall. Forger's Spell also provides a brief study on the art of the fake, and explains the climate that allows a forger to flourish. It's a fascinating true-crime book, a gripping read and a cautionary tale; the great artists are few and far between, but there will always be someone trying to fill all those empty canvases.

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