What We’re Reading: The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a “judge the book by its cover” kind of reader. When I’m not sure what I’m in the mood to read, this truth becomes even more evident as I’ll pick a random book off the shelf because it’s blue or features a cat. In this case, The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century grabbed my attention because of my love for Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. My sister, the real art buff in the family, had thrust Tracy Chevalier’s book of the same name on me just before the movie featuring Scarlett Johansson was released. In a serendipitous moment, I had found my entry into the art world.

A history nerd, even as a middle schooler, I’d walked the halls of the St. Louis Art Museum loudly sighing as my sister stared at the same painting for what felt like millennia. With Tracy Chevalier’s book, however, these paintings become people. Humanized in the way historical figures can be by reading their diaries, letters, and political missives (historians are, essentially, nosy people) Chevalier constructed a relatable narrative. A fictional novel, The Girl with the Pearl Earring acted as a gateway to wanting to learn the truth, like any good historian. Enter The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick.

Firstly, it is important to define a forgery. A forgery can be done in two ways: either producing a duplicate of a work already in existence or creating a new work in the style of the chosen artist. This means that forgers can create a second version of a revered painting, like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and try to sell it as a newly discovered duplicate or they can create completely new “unknown” work by an Old Master. Obviously, a forgery of a new work cannot be done with a living artist to dispute the work as not their own. Therefore, the Old Masters, like Vermeer or Rembrandt, are prime targets. Master painters whose works we wish we had more of, such as Vermeer, make for particularly good targets because the art world is hungry for them and want them to be real. Dolnick describes the way that the need or want to find an “unknown” Vermeer, in this case, plays a large role in Van Meegeren’s ability to deceive. A backwards mystery, we know the ending, what Dolnick lays out for us is how Van Meegeren met that ending.   

Dolnick weaves a howdunit instead of a whodunit. We know the who: Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren; the what: forging “unknown” Vermeer paintings; the when: Nazi Occupied Holland; the why: the more than $3 million (equivalent to about $30 million today) that Van Meegeren made; but the how is what captures the audience. How was Van Meegeren able to dupe accredited art authenticators not once, not twice, but multiple times over; even crafting a work hailed as the greatest Vermeer of all time? Dolnick takes on this question of “How” by placing the actors on the historical timeline and exposing the desire of the Third Reich to collect specific artists that conformed to their political narrative. This drive to collect, not only because Hitler considered himself an art connoisseur but to curate a history that enforced his aesthetic ideal and attacked “degenerate” art, made his regime susceptible to forgers. The job of the forger is, after all, to fool a person.

Dolnick takes the reader through the steps of forging an Old Master work: How do you fake canvas to look older? How do you insure your paints match those mixed by the artist? How do you replicate a style honed over years of practice? Or, conversely, how do you forge multiple works to fit the changing style of the artist over time? In this case, the forger’s marks, Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, collected Old Masters with rigor to fulfill their political and personal ambitions. The book introduces how an ambitious mark is an easy mark and constructs a timeline both for the forger and the collector. As neither an art historian nor an art conservator, the book breaks down the process and the steps Van Meegeren took as well as the mercurial art market and how artworks are bought, sold, and authenticated without patronizing the reader. Remember, from the beginning Dolnick gives away the ending: that Van Meegeren ends up on trial in Amsterdam for his crime. But the how, how Van Meegeren commits the fraud, how he sells to Goering and Hitler, and how he eventually gets caught is the spell that keeps you reading.

Published in 2008, why am I choosing to highlight a book over 10 years old? Because even today, art forgery continues and, when discovered, thrills the public. Written in a conversational tone, Dolnick weaves together the worlds of history and art history to produce a compelling look at another side of an extremely well-studied period: Nazi Germany. Despite its older publication date, the story itself remains contemporary and also describes the emerging technologies that work to foil forgery which have continued to advance. For example, the digitization of masterworks allows close examination of minuscule brushstrokes to determine if a painting can be attributed to a specific artist. Of course, this also means that we possess enough of an artist’s known works, or their canon, to provide the program with enough data to make those determinations. This dearth of data is exactly how Van Meegeren was able to work his magic, and though more difficult and with more hurdles to overcome, the forgers spell continues to be cast today.

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