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  • Writer's pictureAlessia Stokes

Just some 17th century Bakelite...

Dutch 17th century painter, Johannes Vermeer and your granny's vintage telephone are more closely linked than you might have imagined. A man called Han van Meegeren, and a touch of phenol formaldehyde, or Bakelite as it was commonly called, was the link that fooled the art world in the 1930s.

There is big money is art, (the global art market was valued at over 67 billion USD in 2018 according to Statista, a global data platform), sadly though, just not for the artists. Within the art world of dealers, auction houses and museums, millions of dollars are spent on "priceless" artworks. However, how "priceless" these pieces actually are is up for debate. It is believed by Switzerland's Fine Art Expert Institute, that "at least half of artwork circulated in the market is fake."

If this figure is accurate, how is it that these forgeries are making their way into the art world, and how are they "passing" as legitimate?

The simple answer is greed and ego. "Forgeries are an ever-changing portrait of human desires. Each society, each generation, fakes the things it covets the most." (Mark Jones, "Fake? The Art of Deception") Forgeries on the market are an unspoken treaty of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" between forgers, and the art dealers and auction houses. There is a "fear of missing out", or "it just might be genuine" mentality among the art dealers and auctions houses. There needs to be “a nugget of plausibility,” which is used to exploit an eager buyer. “Both the believer and the deceiver play an active role in the fraud.” (Colette Loll, Art Fraud Insights) Dealers and auction houses are desperate to offer a "new undiscovered" work of an artist. Forgers rely on this. Artworks, however, are supposed to meet certain criteria before they are put up for sale. They are:

  1. Provenance - documentation supporting the origin or ownership of the work

  2. A physical comparison - the work needs to fit the style and nuance of the artist it is allegedly by

  3. A scientific exam - the materials used need to be true to the period the painting was said to be painted in.

Han van Meegeren was not respected as an artist in his own right. He was obsessed with the Dutch Masters and had little more than disdain for the modern art movements of the time. He was disenchanted by not getting the recognition he felt he deserved. This is a common feeling among forgers. "I decided to prove my worth as an artist by painting a perfect 17th century canvas", he stated at his trial. Forgers feel a rush from knowing that the "experts" had been duped. Then, how do you fake a 17th century painting in the 1930s?

This was the predicament that van Meegeren found himself in. Vermeer was his idol, and he needed to create an "undiscovered" Vermeer. Within the art world, it was strongly believed that Vermeer must have painted some religious works before he became a more established artist. This was the gap that van Meegeren wanted to fill.

He prepared the same pigments used by the Master, making sure that the painting would pass the chemical analysis test. At great effort and cost, he reused canvasses from the 17th century. This involved removing the old painting and then painting the new work over it. It would then pass the x-ray test. Where things became more complicated, was in the hardening of the paint and the craquelure, or the hairline cracking that naturally happens as a painting ages. Oil paint can take as much as 50 years to dry properly and not lift when swabbed with a solvent. This is where Bakelite changed everything for van Meegeren.

The chemicals in Bakelite harden when heated. Van Meegeren, although having no scientific training, spent much time in his basement working out the process he needed to make his theory work. This included making his own oven to fit large scale canvasses. Despite the highly toxic chemicals, which may have even lead to his death at the young age of 58, he continued to refine his method. He would paint with a small amount of Bakelite and pigment, then bake to harden and create cracking lines. Then, continue to build up the layers. This process allowed him to fool the experts and even sell fakes to the Nazis. That decision was his eventual undoing. (See "Fake or Fortune, van Meegeren" - for a really interesting investigation to uncover if another painting believed to be from the 17th century was real or one of his fakes, and the book, "I was Vermeer" for the fascinating, true story of Han van Meegeren, Frank Wynne, 2006 )

While van Meegeren went to such lengths, there are others who do not, and yet their works were "passed" as authentic. John Myatt in the 1990s was one such person. Due to masterfully forged provenances by his highly calculating partner John Drewe, his obvious fakes, painted with household paint and KY-jelly, were sold for thousands of pounds at auctions. The really convincing paperwork of Drewe, and those who just overlooked the blatant forgeries to have a "happy client" and a great sale for the dealer or auction house, lead to about 200 of his works being filtered into the art market. Only 80 have been recovered and the extent of document fraud and tampering to art achieves by Drewe is still not known. (The article, "A 20th century master scam" - is a detailed account of what happened, and if you can overlook the really bad re-enactments, the documentary "Con Artist: The Scam that Shook the Foundations of the Art World" - rounds out the above NY Times article.)

There is a strong duality of really appreciating the skill that the art forger possesses and then feeling repulsed by the liar. "The accomplished forger is a historian, a restorer, a chemist, a graphologist and a documentalist if he is to exploit his talents as a charlatan" (F. Wynne)

Perhaps there is there is little difference in the art market to magic shows; the audience wants to be fooled.

Learn more



  • Anatomy of a Fake, Forgery Experts Explain 5 Ways to Spot a Fake -

  • Art and Craft (2014) - Art and Craft is a documentary that follows a few days in the life of famous art forger, Mark. A Landis. Mr. Landis is a savant who has spent 30 years deceiving museums with his drawings by making them believe that they actually have art by a famous artist, when, in fact it's just him. (IMDB)

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