Wednesday, December 29, 2010

p3 Crime week continues: Scenes from a failed novel

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(Excerpt from a manuscript discovered in 1956 by a demolition crew worker in a time capsule placed in the cornerstone of the C. M. Jones Building in Burbank CA. The author of the manuscript is unknown. The demolition crew worker died, penniless, several years later under unexplained circumstances.)

She dumped the contents of her book bag onto the dining room table and poured herself a glass of wine. Where to start? The Hetrick book? No, too many fresh and nasty memories there. Besides, what she needed was a task she could finish in the next hour or so, a quick victory to regain her psychic momentum. Reading and taking notes on one of the articles she copied would be a more manageable task for the short time she had to work in. She pulled the two photocopies out and hefted them, one in each hand. The Durbin article on the skyrocketing price of modern art auctioned by Christie's and Sotheby's during the 1980's felt almost twice as heavy as Selinski's account of the forged Vermeer paintings of the 1930's. The Vermeer forgeries it would be. She slung the longer article back into her book bag.

Careful reading was, for Maggie, a pleasurable activity. It could be less pleasurable if the writer was not very good, and that was the case with many scholarly articles. But Selinski was a historian of some prose skill, and the topic was fascinating enough in its own right. She was soon deep in concentration, making occasional checks and notes in the margin with a pencil.

Han van Meegeren was a painter in Amsterdam at the turn of the century. His early career was successful, but he was soon overtaken by the rapid changes sweeping Dutch and European art of the early twentieth century. Once a darling of the art world, by the end of the 1920's van Meegeren was out of fashion, and had lost his support among dealers and critics, whom he came to regard with deep, if understandable, resentment.

Resentful and disappointed artists are not normally the objects of careful later study, but van Meegeren was different. At the end of World War II, van Meegeren was charged with wartime collaboration. Specifically, he was accused of helping arrange for German Air Marshal Hermann Goering to purchase The Adulteress, a recently discovered work by the seventeenth century Dutch master Jan Vermeer, for his private collection.

Van Meegeren's claim to an asterisk in the art history books was his defense against these charges. He floored his accusers by insisting that he had not, as the prosecution claimed, turned over a national treasure to the Nazis -- for he himself had painted The Adulteress and passed it off to Goering as a genuine Vermeer, recently discovered. In the course of the interrogation, it came to light that several of the "Vermeers" hanging in the best collections of Europe during the previous two decades, and a handful of works attributed to other artists as well, were also forgeries by the industrious van Meegeren. Van Meegeren even painted yet another "new Vermeer" while in police custody, just to make his point. At worst, he argued in his own defense, he was guilty of fraud, and perhaps even heroic fraud at that, considering the infamy of his victim in the case of The Adulteress.

Well, yes, retorted the prosecution, but for each of these "acts of heroism" he certainly had been well compensated, hadn't he -- since the forged Vermeers had all sold for handsome prices? Van Meegeren shrugged modestly; it had been his desire simply to create paintings that would appreciated again, and this he could no longer do under his own unfashionable name. He would happily have given the paintings away, he insisted, just to have them enjoyed. But to do this he was instead forced -- sadly, he allowed one to gather, and reluctantly -- to misrepresent his own works as Vermeers. And how could he possibly pass off these forgeries without arousing suspicion if he did not charge the buyers an authentic-sounding price?

Yet few historians rule out another motive: the sweet taste of revenge taken against the experts and dealers who had abandoned him years earlier, however cold the dish when it was finally served (van Meegeren died of a heart attack only a few weeks after he was eventually convicted and given the minimum sentence). True, not all critics had been taken in: Even at the time of their original "discovery" several experts had been nervous about the "new Vermeers," pointing out that they showed very un-Vermeer-like problems of perspective, color, and form. But these voices were soon in the silenced minority. Once he began producing forgeries, Van Meegeren even found he could fool a given expert more easily if he first studied that expert's published essays, and then used subjects or techniques that would appear to corroborate his prey's pet theories about Vermeer and seventeenth century art. Thus, in a perverse dance, the critics and the forger used one another to bolster the reputations of their own work.

Maggie looked up from the article and chuckled to herself. Han van Meegeren may have been convicted as a forger, but he was her kind of forger. Whatever else he accomplished, he had clearly provided a brisk tutorial in humility for the dealers, historians, and critics of his time. Maggie lifted her wine. "Here's to you, Han," she said softly, and drained the glass.

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