J.'s Reviews > The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick
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's review
Nov 20, 2008

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bookshelves: history, arts, europe, non-fiction, con-games
Recommended for: ... copy-cats ....
Read in November, 2008

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.
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