To Catch a Thief

Woman Playing the Lute Han van Meegeren ca 1933 58 x 47 cm
Woman Playing the Lute ca. 1933 Han van Meegeren (a Vermeer forgery)

One of the greatest forensic tools investigators have at their disposal in detecting forgeries of paintings is the pigment itself. The availability and use of pigments for oil paintings has changed over the centuries and knowledge of the chronological histories of color developments is essential to the investigation process. Forgers often find old canvasses and scrape them down to paint their “new discoveries” on, making sure to recreate the craquelure of old paint. On the surface, they look genuine. However, if the forger fails to use exactly the proper pigments of the era, prepared in the traditional manner by hand, chemical analysis will show up the fake.

Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art is an entertaining collection of stories all centered around specific pigments. The story of cobalt blue involves a famous forgery.

An Amsterdam art dealer, Han van Meegeren sold an “undiscovered” Vermeer to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in 1943. Goering was led to believe that it was an extremely valuable painting by the great 17th-century artist. Unknown to Goering, van Meegeren had been forging Pieter de Hooches and Vermeers for some time and had become very wealthy as a result. Unfortunately for van Meegeren, at the end of the war he was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis by selling them Dutch art. Now he had to prove that his Vermeer was a fake and that he had deliberately tricked Goering into buying it! No one believed that he could create such a perfect fake and they even locked him in a room and made him paint another. But even that wasn’t good enough to get him released.

What finally proved him innocent of collaboration, but guilty of forgery, was one of the pigments he used. Van Meegeren was well informed about which pigments were in use in which centuries and he was careful to purchase what he thought was the purest Afghan ultramarine for the painting. Fortunately for him, the man who sold the ultramarine to him was a bit of a crook himself and had cut it with the cheaper cobalt blue, a pigment which had not been available as paint until 1802. When the investigators discovered the cobalt in the paint layers, they realized at once that the painting could not have been made in the 1660s. This single piece of evidence spared van Meegeren the death penalty.

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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.