• Andrew Bell

Lost Ruminations of a Master-Forger by Andrew Bell

Updated: Jan 25

"The Smiling Girl", Han van Meegeren, circa 1925. (public domain)

Han van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who became notorious for his near-authentic forgeries of the Old Masters and Renaissance-style oil paintings. In the midst of a failing art career, he resorted to crafting forgeries, and many of his most profitable fakes were sold off as original Vermeers.

In a twist of fate, he was forced to confess to his fraud after he was charged with selling an “original” Vermeer to the Nazi Hermann Göring. A spectacular trial ensued where van Meegeren had to prove to a Dutch court that he in fact painted the Vermeer sold to Göring by performing his forge-craft in front of court-appointed witnesses.

He succeeded, and was subsequently acquitted, saving him from the death penalty, though he was convicted of a lesser charge of fraud and sentenced to one year in prison. Van Meegeren would die before he could serve his jail sentence, however, due to complications arising from a bacchanalian lifestyle and multiple chemical addictions.

In a recently discovered text, hidden away in the floorboards of one of the many properties he bought as his wealth accumulated and his eccentricities became debilitating, this Dutch master-forger expresses a previously unknown infatuation with derivatives and outlines his understanding of life.

Johannes Vermeer, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1653-1675) (public domain)

I’ve always been a pretty good bullshitter. And that has, I think, made me pretty good at sifting thought all the bullshit to find out where the truth is. And the truth is, there’s a whole lot of bullshit in this world. So walk softly and carry a long brush. The gift of discernment comes with the burden of bullshit that weighs heavy and fucks you from angles you never knew existed. Quantum angles that are two places at once, leaving you reeling and begging for Pythagorean theorems or Newtonian apples.

I got poor marks in geometry in high school—it was by far my worst subject for some reason. Loved calculus. The idea of infinitely approaching an imagined limit seemed to mirror the exponential acceleration of bullshit we’ve been stepping in ever since some asshole figured out how to stick a grain-seed in the ground, grow it, cut it, eat it and repeat until walls go up, trenches are dug, and everyone’s trapped and gluton-ous and shooting at each other with exploding things and crying “My God, Not Yours!” or “Our State, Not Theirs!” But maybe the bullshit is imagined and the limit is real. It’s really pretty hard to tell.

All I can say is that you should be pretty well-versed in something in order to really understand its opposite, if there even is one. I’ve actually come to realize that most of life is just a process of approaching or falling away from certain idealized states. “Real” or “Fake”, for example, are just words that can be interpreted differently by different people in different languages in different societies.

The ideas behind the words themselves represent imagined limits, and just like on a growth curve, we do our best to plot points that are increasingly accurate approximations of how quickly we’re moving through the infinity between Three, Two, One and the imagined Zero of our ideals. Substitute Real/Fake with Love/Hate, Happy/Sad, Doubtful/Certain, or Humble/Proud—it doesn’t ultimately matter.

What I’m trying to say is that all of these dichotomies—these dichotomies that seem to represent a core binary in the human psyche—they are, at base, imaginary. What’s real is the effect they have as we plot our points ever closer, from 1 to .1 to .001 to .0001 to .00001, et cetera [1]. Yet because we believe in them, these ideals, they also actually do become real. A placebo or nocebo effect, if you will. The whole of human existence sometimes seems as paradoxical and mobius as the concept of Zero; we have created something for nothing.

The word “derivative” has always fascinated me. In mathematics, derivatives are ways of expressing how different variables relate to each other in a continuum. In the classic example of position vs. time, the first derivative of position with respect to time is speed, while the second derivative of position is acceleration.

Put differently, derivatives give us the instantaneous rate of change at a point—a point we’re trying to grasp at as things move past it at differing speeds. Derivatives help us to approximate, to account for error and project continuity. They allow us to understand a moment within an eternity, and make possible things like cruise control systems and temperature control. Nicolas Minorsky’s Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) Theory has been fundamental to the past few decades of industrial development since he proposed it back in 1922. I believe I sold him or his son-in-law a particularly elegant and exactingly-aged Rembrandt [2].

Then there’s the financial term for “derivative”. In finance—an economic branch of thought which represents, to me, our collective irresponsibility and gluttony — a derivative is basically a contract between two or more parties [3]. The money value of that contract is derived from the fluctuations in an underlying asset like a commodity, a stock, a bond, or really anything else that could be perceived as valuable or impacting the value of other things. It should come as no big surprise that derivatives in finance function very similarly to how they do in mathematics; they help us to approximate, to account for error and project continuity.

Just like in PID theory, where derivatives allow for the error correction and estimation required for applications like temperature and cruise control, the financial risk of an asset can be controlled through the approximation of its value at a certain point within the fluctuating continuum of the market.

This allows for speculation, or “futures”, where things can be bought and sold not for their present, fixed-point worth, but for what they may be worth. In this sense, the derivative exists as a kind of lifeline. Swim towards the abyss, intrepid investors! But know your pursuit of the unknown is anchored in a mathematically calibrated fail-safe that will crank you back from the Zero limit. There are obviously some problems that can arise from this blinding reliance on flotsam-with-rubbery-strings-attached-to-mainland-limbs-keeping-us-from-plummeting-over-the-edge-of-the-falls.

In my own “great” nation of Holland, derivatives were involved in a particularly humorous and catastrophic event involving flowers. Tulip Mania, as they’ve called it. In or around 1634, tulips were all the rage in Holland. Bulbs brought from Turkey, where they grew native, were selling for tens of thousands of today’s dollars each [4]. Such lunacy was driven by derivative contracts that allowed investors to buy more than they could afford. Prices went up and up and up as the value of a plant was assumed to accelerate infinitely towards some inconceivable, imagined limit.

Eventually, after a few years, the bubble burst, and a single tulip bulb was effectively worthless [5]. Despite this, the mathematical and financial efficacy of the derivative maintained; the market never hit Zero, never disappeared to nothing—tulip bulbs were still worth something to someone, however insignificant the monetary amount. Life went on; the bubble reinflated elsewhere.

De voetwassing. (1935-1943). Han van Meegeren (public domain)

We then come to a more basic understanding of “derivative”, where it simply means “originating from or “influenced by”. Linguistically speaking, the word “derivative” derives from the Latin derivare. Similarly, my “great” native Dutch derives from the Germanic languages, which themselves are derivatives of the more ancient Indo-European tongues that share Neolithic roots across continents. Schools of thought also derive from previous ones. There would be no Darwin without the moral philosophers like Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and the like. And religion! Would we have Christianity without Judaism? Protestantism without Catholicism? Each new form derives from a previous, is a new point along the continuum.

In art too, we may certainly say the same. From cave walls to Egyptian tombs to Grecian urns to Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance to the Old Masters and beyond into a surrealist / cubist future that will, I think, begin to disassemble and dissolve into indiscernible nonsense—each preceding form is a derivative of its accumulations.

But then there is the cynical derivative, the one meaning “unoriginal” or “copied” or “tired” or “try something new, goddamnit”. This is the word that many unforgiving critics attributed to my early style as I attempted to make a name for myself as a fresh-faced adolescent recently dropped out of architecture school (to the dismay of my nagging late father) [6].

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I feel as though there should be more regard for the history of art, for the curved acceleration towards now that’s made the present possible. It seems to me that there is a tendency now to project towards some abstract future without any real understanding of the traditions of the past.

It is in the Old Masters of Art’s recent past that I originally attempted to enunciate my craft. The realistic poses of milk maids or common workers, or the intimate windows into domestic home life imbued with the auras of daily tasks, have forever inspired me. Their presence and forthcomingness was an endless spring of life from which inspiration was continual and without pretense. There was never any need for unnecessary layers of interpretation; the mere sight of the scene was interpretation enough, as bodies flowed into setting and language became realized through posture, burden, and the spatial accommodation of Other.

One needs only to look to Vermeer for the true realization of the simple-yet-textured embodiment of this ideal. In his works rests an inescapable confrontation between oil and flesh, where an exacting combination of pigments aligns precisely with an exacting perception of the simple, scenic act. Human plus our created nature, presented in portrait as we attempt to wrest life from the mundane.

Johannes Vermeer, "Woman reading a letter" (1653-1675) (public domain)

Of course, these scenes have really only existed to me in the abstract renderings of others. Maybe this is why my critics have exhausted their vocabularies deriding my original works as tired auditions, though I would argue until my lungs bled that such auditions were entirely authentic and indicative of a sensibility that could be replicated without end in infinite iterations, without seeming to become tired, because of the inherent value of their simple and Christ-like surrenderings to the everyday struggles of our present, chained, commodified inability to free ourselves from the walls of a society we’ve built so soundly around our selves.

But still, I never truly realized my full potential until I understood how to tear down these walls. And that realization became housed in the fact that I could take from my own periphery the focus of the Masters’ own work and promulgate it in novel ways. By forfeiting my own name and taking on that of Vermeer, as I’ve been able to do so successfully until this unfortunate present moment, I’ve been able to transcend the bounds of Art as a Form and mold it into Art as an Act. The Act here, is one of originality housed in replica. Or maybe, replica housed in originality. As the Acts have progressed, it has really been impossible to distinguish between the order of the two, which is more or less the point of the whole endeavor.

The Act itself necessitates a stage, a set, performers, a director, and, of course, an audience. Let me take you through the process, as concisely as I can, before my time runs out here and I must go and face my Boethian waltz with Providential Law. It can be difficult to differentiate between the components of this process, as they are part of an accelerating continuum that’s being sucked into and from some void. But for the sake of the image, I’ll do my best to plot points that create as accurate an approximation of the whole mess as possible.

First, the stage. This is a tricky one, because at first glance it would seem obvious that the stage here would be the canvas, the base of operations if you will. But if you peer deeper, it becomes obvious that in my work, the stage is really Art itself. But then if you peer still deeper, as I have too many times, you come to realize that the stage is really the imagined limits our ideals, which I believe I alluded to earlier. These ideals—the ideal of Art, or Culture, or pornography, or humility, or brazenness, or whatever else—serve as the proving ground for the process, the raised surface in the theatre on which the Act plays out.

Then, the set. I can say here that the set consists of the materials involved in the process. The canvases, which I choose specifically for their 17th century originality. The badger hair brushes used so exquisitely by Vermeer himself. The paints, mixed to chemical precision using the same Lapis Lazulis, white leads, indigos, and cinnabars as the Old Masters. The phenol formaldehyde hardeners and forays into the oven for baking at specific temperatures to give the works their age and craquelure. The India Ink washes to tie the aging process together in a cohesive and wholly convincing manner.

Next we come to the performers. The performers in the Act are at once the people created from the paints and the buyers and art galleries where they are housed. The first is obvious. The human bodies performing the human act, the scenic act, the mundane household act, the blessed act. Lady Playing a Lute, or Woman Reading Music, or Supper at Emmaus, or Christ with the Adulteress, or any of my other pieces; they are performing their own subtle dances. Yet the buyers and auctioneers and galleries are also dancing their own jigs, are also very much the performers in the whole god-forsaken show, twirling their judgments and upward-tilting noses and fancy galas with expensive champagnes and empty small-talk bullshit.

The Supper at Emmaus, 1937. Han van Meegeren (public domain)

It would again seem obvious that the director of this whole spectacle would be yours truly, yet in my opinion, that simply isn’t the case. The director, really, is History. History and Time. These two forces are the accelerants in the continuum, the bellows stoking the flames that makes the Act compelling and keeps the audience gripped.

And the audience, dear reader. The audience is Han van Meegeren! I am the one gripped to his chair arm watching the whole thing play out! I am the one towards which the whole operation is directed. I am the one most susceptible to its bluster and falls and crescendos and drama and intrigue. The one watching from the nose-bleeds, peeking around a pillar. The one in the front row sweating in anticipation or wet with the performers forcefully exhaled spittle as they dialogue.

But sadly, this whole beautiful act came to an end once it came to light that I had sold one particularly enticing Vermeer to Hermann Göring, the Nazi general now as dead as that goddamn fürer himself [7]. Facing the death penalty for aiding and abetting the enemy, I was forced to confess my sins in order to take the lesser charge of forgery.

But alas! My work was too convincing! They couldn’t conceive of these works as anything less than original, as anti-derivative. So I was forced to perform a final Act in the court of Law to reveal my process and prove my guilt (or innocence?). An Anti-Act. They kindly provided me with my medicine, and I now sit between sessions where state-appointed observers wait to scrutinize what I assume will be my last work, Jesus Among the Doctors [8].

Christ Among the Doctors (1945). Han van Meegeren (creative commons)

I have no qualms about fooling the Nazis—or anyone else who bought one of my works for that matter. Göring and his ilk were fooling both themselves and their nation, with disastrous results which led to the deaths of millions and the disillusionment of millions more.

I use fooling here not lightly, but more in the sense of the linguistic derivative of “fool”, which in its Latin follis means “bellows” or “windbag”, with which blacksmiths of old would stoke their fires to smelt their ores into whatever murderous or useful tools were most profitable. From Latin (via the Old French fol), the Middle English fool was derived, coming to mean “empty-headed” or “full of air”.

What I mean, I suppose, is that I liken my craft to air. It’s all but impossible to pinpoint because it’s everywhere around us, yet in order to really understand it, we must curate its presence at fixed points by understanding its makeup, its DNA, its atomic composition.

It will take me painting in front of a crowd of onlookers in a court of Law to prove what otherwise would have passed as Real or Authentic or very-much-not-derivative. It will take scientific method and analysis of my materials and process to prove that it is not, in fact, Vermeer’s or any of the other Old Masters which I’ve managed to create so deftly since my studies in Delft. And this realization has kept me from the gallows.

This Final Anti-Act will, for better or worse, bottle the air and shelve it in the storeroom of a lab somewhere to be forgotten.

A derivative does not discriminate, but rather exists to bring continuity to an otherwise inconceivable whole. This act may well be discriminatory within the context of one point, but in the grander scheme of things, theses derivatives help quantify the unquantifiable, help us approach the unknown, assist us in realizing the arc of time and space in ways that we’d be blind to otherwise.

So if they say my art is derivative, then I accept! I am glad to play a part in the Act of realizing the whole by shedding light on the points that make it. And though that whole is as unreal as Zero, I embrace the attempt and will take to my grave the comfort of knowing that I tried.

Though with regard to the Nazis…

At this point van Meegeren’s elucidations digress into a series of pseudo-racist, most assuredly xenophobic ramblings that are nearly indecipherable and beyond the literary scope of this publication. We do, however, look forward to the continued unearthing of possible texts, as the sheer volume of his hoarded paraphernalia, stashed away in various corners of his many properties, comes to light. We thank the Dutch Institute of Irrepressibly Fine Art and the Association of Lost Things for their continued help in this regard.

[1] The author seems to have omitted the opposite analogy, where points would expand from 1 to 10 to 100 and onwards towards infinity, making sense of the positive/negative dichotomy thing.

[2] Nicolas Minorsky only had one son, so selling a painting to his “son-in-law” would be a highly contentious claim, especially in the 1940s.

[3] van Meegeren was notoriously bad with his money, buying multiple properties, spending extravagant sums on drugs and alcohol, and hiding extra cash in random places.

[4] This was written sometime between July and December of 1946.

[5] Modern analysis of the ‘Tulip Mania’ phenomenon suggests that the event was more limited in scope than previously assumed, and inflated significantly by propagandist and plagiarized accounts of what amounted to nothing more than “a meaningless drinking game”. (Peter Garber, Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias, Cambridge University Press, 2000.)

[6] Ironically (or perhaps fatefully), van Meegeren studied architecture in Delft, the hometown of Johannes Vermeer.

[7] Van Meegeren sold “Christ the Adulteress” to Göring, which he traded 137 other looted (and probably original) paintings for.

[8] Van Meegeren was addicted to morphine and alcohol towards the end of his life, spiraling further as his wealth acquired from the sale of his forgeries accumulated and his behavior became increasingly erratic and paranoid. Ironically (or fatefully), Hermann Göring was also addicted to morphine.

Isaac Blessing Jacob (1913). Han van Meegeren (public domain)

Andrew Bell is a freelance writer currently bumming around various parts of Turkey. He is a contributing writer for Berlin-based PANTA Magazine and New York City / Istanbul-based SOUR Studio