The rumours, however, had a strong foundation in reality. As The Man Who Made Vermeers reveals, Van Meegeren worked virtually his entire adult life as a forger to the trade, turning out bogus old masters for a ring of art world intriguers operating out of London and Berlin. Major dealers like Sir Joseph Duveen were stung by these forgeries, as was the great Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon, who bought two of Van Meegeren's fake Vermeers during the 1920s. Unaware of his error, Mellon ultimately donated these two 'Vermeers' as part of his founding gift to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. They hung there as genuine works by the master until the late 1950s, when they were found, through technical analysis, to be of modern manufacture. Now kept in storage and mostly forgotten, these works have never before been traced back to Van Meegeren.
Why did Van Meegeren, who took such pride in his later biblical Vermeers, choose to keep his early fakes a secret? Was it a lingering sense of loyalty that stayed the forger's tongue about schemes involving multiple partners and associates in the art market's underworld? To some extent, that's probably the case. All the forgeries to which Van Meegeren did ultimately confess were made during the final phase of his career, when he was working without a net -- organizing the swindles himself; finding his own middlemen; secretly directing negotiations; and pocketing the bulk of the profits. But it would be naive to think that honor, even in the dubious form of honor among thieves, was an overriding concern for Van Meegeren. The primary reason that he kept quiet about the length and extent of his involvement in art fraud was that after getting arrested at the end of the brutal German occupation, he wanted to be perceived as something other than a seasoned professional criminal who had exploited the circumstances of war simply to make money. He reinvented himself as the bane of cultural snobs and Nazi tyrants alike. And in the zeitgeist of the imediate postwar era, that was a very good thing to be.
Yet, clever though this myth making was, Van Meegeren did himself an enduring biographical injustice with his bogus revenge-fantasy explanation for his life and career. His motivations were, in reality, considerably more complex and subtle, and the true story of his metamorphosis from painter to forger turns out to offer a poignant evocation of his inner conflicts: for it was not the cruelty of the critics that doomed Van Meegeren's legitimate artistic aspirations, but rather Van Meegeren himself. Seduced by the easy money and thrilling gamesmanship of his early forays into art forgery during the 1920s, the young Van Meegeren, slowly but surely, lost his sense of calling. Rather than soldier on, throwing his full energy into painting his own pictures in his own name, he allowed an essential part of who he was, the genuine artist, to wither on the vine. It was a Faustian bargain, one whose consequences included a chronic drinking problem, a failed first marriage, and a series of tawdry affairs. Moreover, as the chip on Van Meegeren's shoulder grew, so too did his taste for fascist politics.
This, of course, was the biggest thing that the forger was covering up in 1945. Van Meegeren really was a collaborator. During the occupation, he painted propagandistic artworks (under his own name) at the behest of the German-installed puppet government of the Netherlands, gave large sums of money to Nazi causes, and even sent a polite note to the Fuhrer in Berlin, as a token of his admiration. Van Meegeren's interest in Nazism was not a casual matter. It went back to the very toddler stage of the movement: as early as 1928, five years before Hitler assumed power as chancellor of Germany, Van Meegeren could be found parroting selections from Mein Kampf. Fleecing Hermann Goering, as it turns out, was just an ordinary business transaction, not a political statement. Van Meegeren truly believed in the fascist dream. After the war, that was a big problem.
Indeed, as The Man Who Made Vermeers relates in detail, the schemes that Van Meegeren employed to get himself out of trouble during the summer of 1945 -- manipulating not only public opinion and the news media, but also specific officials within the postwar Dutch government -- suggest that the famed forger's powers of deception extended far beyond the realm of painting. Past master at matching what people wanted to hear with what he wanted them to believe, Van Meegeren was a dangerous man in any context. But to give him his due, he was surely one of the most brilliant charlatans the world has ever known.