Home > Art, History > The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (P.S.)

The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (P.S.)

  • Author: Edward Dolnick
  • ISBN 13: 9780060825423
  • Publisher:  Harper Perennial
  • Published:  June, 2009
  • Pages:  384
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF
  • Price:  $11.99

As riveting as a World War II thriller, The Forger’s Spell is the true story of three men and an extraordinary deception: the revered artist Johannes Vermeer; the small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate him years later; and the con man’s mark, Hermann Goering, the fanatical art collector and one of Nazi Germany’s most reviled leaders.

Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

“‘Idiots!’ he yelled. ‘You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it’s not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!”’ With lines like that, it’s clear Dolnick has found the nonfiction equivalent of a Vermeer, buried under other (and more hackneyed) tales of World War II. Critics had nothing but praise for this book, noting that Van Meegeren raised a number of questions about the value of art, especially when the same art critics who had clasped the fake Vermeers to their chests later mocked them as obvious, ugly fakes. At a time when art museums are taking in record crowds, The Forger’s Spell will undoubtedly cause many a viewer to squint a bit closer at the “masterpiece” hanging on the wall. Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

From Booklist

How we love stories of audacious con artists, and doesn’t Dolnick love to tell the tales. His art-theft chronicle, The Rescue Artist (2005), won an Edgar Award, and now he vividly portrays a staggeringly successful Dutch art forger. Han van Meegeren was a “dreadful” painter, and yet he managed to fake Vermeer, the most sublime of artists. Between 1938 and 1945, when Van Meegeren was caught, his Christ at Emmaus was “the most famous and the most admired Vermeer in the world.” Van Meegeren’s “Vermeers” are actually hideous and trite, yet this dapper, cunning, and patient man bamboozled top critics and museum directors and swindled the world’s most monstrous collector, the Nazi Hermann Göring. How to explain this mass delusion, the “forger’s spell”? Dolnick covers it all, from Van Meegeren’s technical brilliance to his shrewd choice of subject matter to his extraordinary manipulation of egos and perceptions. Dolnick’s zesty, incisive, and entertaining inquiry illuminates the hidden dimensions and explicates the far-reaching implications of this fascinating and provocative collision of art and ambition, deception and war. –Donna Seaman


An engaging and highly amusing account of a clever craftsman. . . . On all those levels this is a delightful foray into art history and psychology” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch )

Vividly portrays a staggeringly successful Dutch art forger. . . . Dolnick covers it all. . . . Dolnick’s zesty, incisive, and entertaining inquiry illuminates the hidden dimensionsand explicates the far-reaching implications of this fascinating and provocative collision of art and ambition, deception and war. (Booklist )

Mesmerizing account. . . . Dolnick brings his expertise in art theft, criminal psychology and military history to a scintillating portrait. . . . Polished, fast-paced narrative. . . . Compelling prose. . . . Energetic and authoritative. (Kirkus Reviews (starred review) )

When it comes to forgery and its ability to fascinate . . . Edward Dolnick has hit the mother lode. . . . Dolnick more than does it justice, drawing on his knowledge of a wide range of subjects.” (Los Angeles Times )

This account by Dolnick…is especially strong in plot development and characterization. It also has a unique point of view” (Library Journal )

Dolnick brilliantly re-creates the circumstances that made possible one of the most audacious frauds of the 20th century. And in doing so Dolnick plumbs the nature of fraud itself . . . an incomparable page turner.” (Boston Globe )

A fascinating analysis of the forger’s technique and a perceptive discussion of van Meegeren’s genius at manipulating people. . . . Compelling look at how a forger worked his magic.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review) )

Dolnick…tells his story engagingly and with a light touch. He has a novelist’s talent for characterization, and he raises fascinating questions.” (New York Times Book Review )

The Forger’s Spell is an excellent read, a swift and astute narrative written from many complex perspectives to great effect.” (Chicago Sun-Times )

“Dolnick weaves a lot of fascinating information into a highly readable narrative. . . . The Forger’s Spell is a terrific story.” (Newsday )

Edward Dolnick’s Forger’s Spell gives us a well-researched and highly readable account of the underworld of forgers, corrupt dealers, and collectors in Nazi occupied Europe. . . . Wonderful theater, full of fascinating stories, this is a great cautionary tale for all in the art world.” (Lynn Nicholas )

Who can resist the story of a great scam–especially when the markis art-greedy Hermann Goering and the author is an Edgar winner? (Publishers Weekly (Staff Picks) )

Pacing and prose as gripping as those of the best mystery novelist. . . . The Forger’s Spell is simply spellbinding.” (Philadelphia Inquirer )

This is the first book on art forgery that really gets to the bottom of the Han van Meegeren tale of chicanery and double dealing. A spirited and provocative read.” (Thomas Hoving )

“Riveting new art thriller. . . . Likely to captivate not just readers moved by war, art, and the art of deception, but anyone interested in human vanity and our sometimes baffling ability to see only what we want to see.” (Christian Science Monitor )

Gripping historical narrative. . . . Dolnick, a veteran science writer, knows his way around a canvas. . . . The Forger’s Spell has raised provocative questions about the nature of art and the psychology of deception.” (Washington Post Book World )

Most helpful reviews

Not as good as the Rescue Artist

By Patsy

When I saw this book mentioned in the New York Times, I went out and bought a copy because I had really enjoyed Edward Dolnick’s previous book, The Rescue Artist. I wasn’t anywhere near as impressed with The Forger’s Spell. What made The Rescue Artist so good was the way Dolnick described the detective Charlie Hill on the hunt for a stolen painting. Hill was a really great, quirky character that Dolnick made come to life on the page. In The Forger’s Spell, there’s no character like that. The forger, Hans Van Meegeren, is interesting for what he was able to do – sell a forged Vermeer to Hermann Goering – but you never get much sense of who he was. Dolnick presents Van Meegeren as a greedy, second-rate painter who managed to fool a bunch of art experts and rich people because they were stupid and easy marks. It’s not so compelling, and there’s way too much padding here – a lot of chapters that don’t advance the plot, and are pretty easy to skip. I would recommend buying Tom Hoving’s book, False Impressions, which is a really good book about forgery. The Forger’s Spell is nowhere near as good or interesting

interesting story, disappointing book

By Amy Smith

I am a fan of Edward Dolnick’s book The Rescue Artist, but I have to say that I was disappointed in The Forger’s Spell. I bought it as soon as it came out because I was interested in the story of Han Van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a fascinating crook who figured out how to fool people into seeing what they wanted to see. But I had already read Van Meegeren’s story in John Kilbracken’s book The Master Forger and, unfortunately, I didn’t learn anything new in Dolnick’s book. Anyone interested in Van Meegeren should look at Kilbracken’s book, which does a better job of bringing the story to life. I wouldn’t recommend The Forger’s Spell.

Put it On Your Paperback List for Summer 09

By J. A. Walsh

Dolnick has a good story with a lot of hooks: big money, Vermeer, Nazi intrigue, etc. And, I think he delivers with an interesting core story and a lot of good side notes on Nazi personalities, art forgery and art history — especially of the Dutch school in the 17th cent.

But, where his more frenetic style payed dividends in “The Rescue Artist,” I think it takes something away from this subject. The book is composed of dozens of very short chapters and bounces around — sometimes without real solid continuity.

Which is why I recommend the paperback. If you’re looking for something to read in short bursts on the train or at the beach, this book is very manageable, tells a good story and brings you out of the Evanovich-level mass market fiction zone.

From Goodreads.com

My review is going to be choppy, like this book. Yes, at times it was a fascinating read, but I think the author tried to cram too much information into one book. It was extensively researched and annotated, but jumped from subject to subject without much continuity.

It was part technical manual (forgery 101), biography, art history, art hoaxes, and WWII history (in particular the Nazi looting of Europe’s works of art). One good thing about this book was that it made me want to read several others that deal with many of the different subjects it touched on.

The basic outline told the story of art forger, Han Van Meegeren, and how he cheated Nazi Luftwaffe Commander, Hermann Goering, out of millions of dollars by selling him his own paintings that he claimed were never-before-discovered Vermeers. Van Meegeren also painted and sold fake works by Hals and De Hooch, but he is most (in)famous for wowing the art world with his fake Vermeer, titled Christ at Emmaus.

How did he do it? Quite a few chapters were devoted to the way Van Meegeren, through much trial and error, perfected the creation of paints that would appear to match those used in the seventeenth-century. He also bought inexpensive paintings from that time period and scraped the old painting off of the canvas before painting his “Vermeer.” He would then bake the paintings so that they appeared fragile. After that he would crack them, varnish them, and pour India ink into the cracks to give the appearance of the dust that would have naturally accumulated with age.

Van Meegeren also had the word of art experts who validated the authenticity of the paintings. Many, but not all, were in fact taken in and believed in the authenticity of the works. They also believed the stories behind how Van Meegeren had “acquired” the paintings. He would simply say that a Dutch family, who wished to remain anonymous, wanted to sell their painting in order to gain safe passage out of Holland before/during the Nazi occupation.

Why did he do it? There were two reasons. One, obviously, was greed. The other was revenge on the art-world critics who he felt failed to recognize the “genius” of his own work. He definitely felt he had the last laugh when his Christ at Emmaus was revealed to be a fake. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s interesting to read about how he was finally caught. I want to end on one of my favorite quotes from the book:

The Met’s Theodore Rousseau once remarked, “We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls.”


Miscellaneous thoughts that don’t really fit anywhere in this review:

1. I learned a new word and I think I’m going to incorporate it into my everyday life: Craquelure. This is the delicate network of cracks that appear on old paintings. Art experts and forgers pay special attention to these cracks because they help validate the age and authenticity of a painting.

I’ll use it in a sentence: Dang, I’ve got some serious craquelure going on around my eyes and I need botox!

2. Cool, this book has pictures!

3. This was before I finished reading the book. The pre-review:

I’m not finished reading this yet, but I read an interesting quote last night. It is relevant to today’s war, which is no doubt why it was included in the book.

From G.M. Gilbert’s interview with Hermann Goering at Nuremberg:

Gilbert remarked that in democracy the people have a say in the decision to go to war.

“Oh, that is all well and good,” Goering replied, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

From Mr.J

Art theft and Art forgery go hand in glove, and both have always been of interest to me for some reason. Maybe it’s the inherent sleight-of-hand in all the arts — can you really paint a woman’s face without daVinci coming to mind, can you really write a tragic play without thinking of the greeks ? For the moderns, this legerdemain was taken in stride, exalted even, by the time of say, Duchamp & Pablo P. But there was theft for art’s sake and theft for theft’s sake, and therein lies the tale.

Dolnick’s basic plot lines— the Real Events —- are magic; he does a fair amount with what he’s got, but it would take a ridiculously bad writer to foul up this particular story.

There’s a well-characterized forger, one who stands in the classic position of having his serious work shunned by the ‘serious’ art-world. He’s the right man (a prosperous commercial artist) in the right place (Holland of the Dutch Masters), with the right science and skills (adequate painter and highly imaginative psychological warrior) and he just happens to be in the right Time, as well……

Without giving away the two or three oddities in this otherwise-conventional Forgery-Theft-&-Apprehension-By-The-Law, it’s worth noting that conditions in continental Europe just before the War were astoundingly ripe for some artistic fudging of the artistic facts, and our protagonist van Meegeren played it beautifully.

So beautifully, in fact, that come his trial –and I don’t want to give away why—- his entire defense was consumed by proving that he was guilty of the forgery in question, beyond any shadow of a doubt.

An art forger tale with a twist. Couple of nice chapters on the radical ingeniousness of not copying the Master too comprehensively…. kind of a be-careful-for-the-scrutiny-you-wish-for scenario …. Only the Master would take certain detours, a forger would only copy what was already done…..

Oh, and here’s a brief side-anecdote, one that speaks to the integrity aspects of the artworld denizens. Here’s a collector / curator named Hannema…..

He roamed Europe in search of bargains, poking into tiny galleries and wooing prospective donors. Hannema’s taste was eclectic–tribal artifacts from New Guinea, old masters, Japandese swords. He pursued art wherever the trail led. In Paris one day, where he had been invited to look at a Georges de La Tour, he found a family in mourning. Perhaps it would be better to come back tomorrow ? No, monsieur, please. Today would be best; the funeral will be tomorrow.

“I did not feel good about it,” Hannema recalled, “but La Tour was just beginning to draw attention, and maybe I could pick it up for a reasonable price.” The black-clad family pushed Hannema into a candle-lit room. The painting hung on the wall above an old, emaciated woman, lying dead in her bed. “Please, monsieur. Just look.”

Hannema took off his shoes, borrowed a flashlight, and climbed onto the bed. The old woman’s body shifted a bit as Hannema studied the painting from different angles. It was a pleasant picture, he announced when he turned off the flashlight, but unfortunately, a fake.

Well told, and moves along. Recommended.

Tony Del Vecchio

Dolnick, Edward. THE FORGER’S SPELL. (2008). ****. This is the fascinating story of one of the greatest art forgers of the 20th Century, Han van Meegeren. He was a passable artist in his own right, but was pretty much ignored by the rest of the art community. According to him, he began to paint fakes to get back at the snobby critics and collectors, and, as a secondary benefit, to make some money. He settled on two famous painters from the 17th Century to work on: Vermeer and De Hooch. His first forgery was titled Christ at Emmaus, and was painted in the style of Vermeer. Through the use of several middlemen, van Meegeren was able to sell this painting for a fantastic amount of money. With this money, he adopted a lifestyle that was lavish – to say the least – in an era where the Dutch were under attack by the Nazis and there was no money to be had. Several famous art critics adopted this painting as their crusade objective and touted it to the rest of the world. It became more famous than any of the other Vermeer paintings that were known at the time. (It turns out that there are only 35 or 36 Vermeers known and catalogued.) Since he got away with the first one, van Meegeren continued in his career of forgery with several other paintings as if by Vermeer. He was extremely clever in his use of basic materials, and even discovered ways of producing the hardness and cracking of the oils as if they were indeed three-hundred years old. The story is a true tale of detection. What makes the story additionally interesting is the information the author provides on the Nazi art collectors, especially Hitler and Mermann Goering. Nazi leadership took every advantage of subdued countries to siphon off priceless works of art to their own private galleries. It turns out that one of van Meegeren’s painting, Christ With the Woman Taken in Adultery, supposedly as by Vermeer, was part of Goering’s collection, and one of his proudest possessions. Goering bragged that he had this Vermeer and showed it to all of his guests. He even bragged about how much money he had paid for it – although none of the money was his. In all, this is a fascinating story about fakery in the world of art, and the psychology of artists and critics. Recommended.

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  1. September 3, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Thank you for a great post.

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