Art Forgeries

“What we have here is a — I am inclined to say — the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer.”

Abraham Bredius

Okay; there are a lot of art forgeries but only a small subset of these forgeries graduate to become their own genre of performance art. I’ll highlight a good example or two here and leave further investigation as an exercise for the reader.

Han van Meegeren was arrested after World War II and charged with having sold a Dutch national treasure, in the form of a Vermeer painting, to the Nazi Hermann Göring. Van Meegeren defended himself in court by demonstrating that he had painted the “Vermeer” himself and had conned Göring with the fake. He managed to avoid a treason conviction, but ended up doing time for forgery — alas, Göring wasn’t the only person who’d been duped by his fake Vermeers.

Before the forgeries were uncovered, in 1937, the art historian Abraham Bredius saw one of van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers — Christ at Emmaus — and wrote:

It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio! And what a picture! …[W]hat we have here is a — I am inclined to say — the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.

The forger Elmyr de Hory managed to pass off hundreds or thousands of “masterpieces” on the world’s galleries and museums. His story was originally told in the book Fake by Clifford Irving, who later wrote the fake Howard Hughes autobiography. Both of these stories were later captured in the film F for Fake by Orson Welles — you know, the guy who scared everyone with The War of the Worlds radio show way back when. The world’s a weird place.

More akin to the faked authors in our Fake Folks section is the case of “disumbrationist” painter Pavel Jerdanowitch, who turned out to be a fellow named Paul Jordan Smith who had cooked up the whole thing to make fun of modern art.

In a similar vein, an Australian woman by the name of Elizabeth Durack passed her paintings off as the work of “Eddie Burrup,” a nonexistant aboriginal artist. The director of Flinders Art Museum said that the thousands of art-lovers who saw Burrup’s work at the “Native Title Now” exhibition of aboriginal art became “directly involved in the deception,” so congratulations goes out to all of them as well.

Will Blundell recently “confessed to being the hand behind paintings that look like the work of artists from Monet to Picasso, Sidney Nolan to Brett Whiteley — a life’s work that would be worth more than $100 million if genuine.”

Eric Hebborn made and sold hundreds of forged drawings and other artworks, and even wrote The Faker’s Handbook giving instructions.

In 1935 the New York City Museum of Modern Art held a Van Gogh exhibition. On the theory that many attendees were more interested in the sensational aspects of Van Gogh’s life than in his art, prankster Hugh Troy (see also our Hugh Troy page) molded a piece of beef, placed it in a velvet-lined box and attached a label that read: “This is the ear which Vincent van Gogh cut off and sent to his mistress, a French prostitute, Dec. 24, 1888.” Troy smuggled this supplementary exhibit into the museum, where it attracted the greatest crowds.

Göring's Vermeer
Göring's Vermeer

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On This Day in SniggleryJune 25, 2001: Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, finally admits that the magazine’s report on the bizarre sport of monkey fishing was “willful inaccuracy.” (See News Trolls for more info)