Michelangelo, Kreisler, Van Meegeren
MASTERMIND – WITH A TWIST. THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE WILL HIGHLIGHT THE DEEDS OF PEOPLE WHO MADE THE HEADLINES FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS: FORGERS AND THEIR SKILLS.
Forgeries are as old as time, indeed, even prehistoric hunters were ‘con men’, as they imitated the calls of their prey to attract them, as we now know thanks to murals found in prehistoric caves. That specific type of con can be considered an activity essential for surviving, and nobody will resent the hunters’ success. What about today? When spectacular art forgeries are revealed for what they are, we’ll still admire the counterfeiter’s work, similarly to what we would do when admiring the hunters’ success. However, malice is reserved for the experts who had acknowledged a work of art as genuine, as a masterpiece by the masters of the past. Overjoyed at having discovered an until then ‘unseen’ work, they rush to be the first people to reveal it to the world, often becoming victims of their own distraction. The situation only worsens if said experts demand and are paid a princely sum for their expertise. Those experts stop being victims, like anyone else, and turn into fraudsters. Just like the author of the forgery.
Countless fakes have made a splash over the course of the years: the alleged Hitler diaries by Konrad Kujau were acquired by the Stern for nearly 10 million German Marks in 1983; Elmyr de Hory, an art forger from Hungary, who was the subject of a documentary by Orson Welles; Christian Goller, whose Grünewald forgery decorates the wall of a museum; in 2005, the case of a publication by Galileo Galilei with new flourishes, celebrated as genuine by experts – and we could go on and on.
Three forgers have been the focus of my attention recently: the sculptor Michelangelo, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, and the painter Henricus Antonius ‘Han’ van Meegeren
The Le Vite…written by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in 1550 and 1568 gathered over 100 biographies of artists, and mentioned the forgery of an 80 cm marble sculpture of Cupid sculpted by Michelangelo during his early years. There are two sides to this story. Cardinal Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, who commissioned Michelangelo’s works in Florence, recommended Michelangelo should bury the statue of Cupid in the ground to give it that ‘ancient patina’, and then sell it at a premium in Rome. However, another account relates that art dealer Baldassare di Milanese buried the Cupid in his Roman vineyard and then sold it for 200 scudi to Raffaele Riario, Cardinal of San Giorgio. The con didn’t last for long, as a visitor of the cardinal told him he’d seen that very same Cupid in Florence, therefore making it not as ancient as clamed. Milanese had to take back the Cupid and return the 200 scudi. Michelangelo had been paid a measly 30 scudi and, as the Cupid couldn’t be sold for more, we have to ask ourselves if Michelangelo himself hadn’t been tricked? Vasari’s report suggests that was indeed the case, regardless of which variant of the story is correct.
Forgers come from every walk of life, including music. The world-famous violinist Fritz Kreisler, 1875-1962, was celebrated as a virtuoso interpreter and composer. When it came to his original work, he passed some of them off as the brainchild of some musical geniuses such as Antonio Vivaldi, Gaetano Pugnani, and Giuseppe Tartini whose autographs he just happened to possess. Music critics at the time enthused over the new compositions which Kreisler performed during his concerts. Experts clamoured to see the autographs so the related works could be categorised and assigned to the relevant body of production – the pressure on Kreisler grew so much that, in 1935, he announced how he’d composed the works himself. The critics who had previously celebrated him were thrown into a spiral of shame; however, none of this affected Kreisler’s popularity. Moreover, rumour has it that even Leopold Mozart had forged Tartini’s art of decorating at his violin school. Plagiarism or emulation? Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera was based on John Gay’s Beggar Opera, some of his poems are eerily similar to those of François Villon. In recent years, we’ve also discovered how the doctoral theses of many politicians were the work of plagiarism. In New York, Pei-Shen Qian from China painted works of art that he’d sold to a famous gallery for X million dollars, passing them off as paintings produced by Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning.
One successful forger was Dutchman Han van Meegeren, 1889-1947. His Vermeer paintings were sold for princely sums to museums, dealers, and collectors. And even Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring bought a van Meegeren-Vermeer for 1,650,000 Dutch guilders. In 1945, as a result of this transaction, van Meegeren was accused of aiding and abetting the enemy. His honour would not allow this and he declared to have painted the Göring-Vermeer paintings himself, but nobody believed him. While in prison, he completed another Vermeer to prove he was saying the truth, and listed all his other Vermeer paintings.
Van Meegeren had minutely prepared for his forgeries. He studied the techniques and materials used by the old masters, painted some of the old masterpieces on canvas after having removed their paintings, he used colour pigments that were common at the time of Vermeer. Moreover, the mistakes he did make were only flagged much later using chemical analyses. An international committee made up of experts was tasked by the court to prove whether van Meegeren’s claims were true or false. It took them a good two years but, ultimately, they found the proof they were looking for in an ingredient only found in the ceruse of the 20th century, therefore it would have been impossible to use it at the time Vermeer was alive. These results have been considered conclusive since 1967. However, already back then there were some experts who claimed his Vermeer paintings were forgeries. Ultimately, Han van Meegeren wasn’t charged as an accomplice of the enemy, but was taken to prison for his forgeries and tax evasion. Indeed, the state collects taxes even for illegal activities. The only tricky issue is how to go about declaring said activities.
Con men and swindlers can only be considered geniuses when they don’t get caught. Which begs the question: how many more forgeries are still out there, waiting to be discovered?