Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren (Dutch pronunciation: [ɦɛnˈrikɵs ɑnˈtoːniɵs ˈɦɑn vɑn ˈmeːɣərə(n)]; 10 October 1889 – 30 December 1947) was a Dutch painter and portraitist and is considered to be one of the most ingenious art forgers of the 20th century. Despite his life of crime, van Meegeren became a national hero after World War II when it was revealed that he had sold a forged painting to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
As a child, van Meegeren developed an enthusiasm for the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and he set out to become an artist himself. Art critics, however, decried his work as tired and derivative, and van Meegeren felt that they had destroyed his career. He decided to prove his talent to the critics by forging paintings of some of the world’s most famous artists, including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, and Johannes Vermeer. He so well replicated the styles and colours of the artists that the best art critics and experts of the time regarded his paintings as genuine and sometimes exquisite. His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, created in 1937 while living in the south of France. This painting was hailed as a real Vermeer by famous art experts such as Abraham Bredius. Bredius acclaimed it as “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft” and wrote of the “wonderful moment” of being “confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master”.
During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen wanted to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and they avidly bought van Meegeren’s forgeries, thinking them the work of the masters. Nevertheless, a false “Vermeer” ended up in the possession of Göring, who had traded 137 other paintings for it, and it became one of his most prized possessions. Following the war, the forgery was discovered in Göring’s possession and van Meegeren was arrested on 29 May 1945 as a collaborator, as officials believed that he had sold real Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. This would have been an act of treason carrying the death penalty, so van Meegeren confessed to the less serious charge of forgery. He was convicted on falsification and fraud charges on 12 November 1947, after a brief but highly publicised trial, and was sentenced to a modest punishment of one year in prison. He did not serve out his sentence, however; he died 30 December 1947 in the Valerius Clinic in Amsterdam, after two heart attacks.
It is estimated that van Meegeren duped buyers out of the equivalent of more than 30 million dollars in 1967’s money, including the government of the Netherlands