Shakespeare declared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” The same should be said of the collector, the artist, and the criminal.
The true collector’s relationship to the object of his delight—whether a watch, an automobile, or a piece of fine art—begins innocently enough; yet time and keener knowledge fan passing curiosity into a desire to possess. As his ardor grows, the collector, like the lover, subordinates all other appetites to this one, which engulfs his mind in fevered, avaricious flames of cupidity. The Patek Philippe triple-calendar Calatrava wristwatch, the Bugatti Type 57SC, the Château Latour 1928, or the drawing by Bronzino calls out to the smitten collector, who cannot eat or sleep or think until he consummates this union. At the height (or depth) of his obsession, the collector—and particularly the collector of art—achieves a rational state of irrationality not unlike that of the criminal poised on the precipice of transgression, and indeed a few manage to take that final, fatal step into the realm of felony, as the theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream from Oslo’s Munch Museum this past summer seems to attest.
The same dark demons that drive the delinquent connoisseur can goad the artist as well. Michelangelo, according to Giorgio Vasari, not only duplicated old master drawings he had borrowed, but smoked and stained his renderings so convincingly that he was able to return them to the rightful owners in place of the originals. He also once carved a marble cupid in the classical style, which, after giving it a patina of age, he offered to a Roman cardinal for the colossal sum of 100 ducats. Israhel van Meckenem, the gifted 15th-century engraver and notorious copyist-cum-plagiarist, did not bother always to replicate others’ works himself, but in some instances would merely scrape the signature from the plate of another artist and substitute his own—as he did with Master F.V.B.’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, which was itself copied from Martin Schongauer.
Meckenem and Michelangelo anticipated a professional class of forgers who would commit themselves full-time to their nefarious enterprises. In 1799, German artist Wolfgang Küffner borrowed from the Nuremberg Town Hall Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait, ostensibly for study. He returned a deft copy, however, which went undiscovered until 1805, when the original was suddenly offered for sale.
Yet, among these professionals, profit alone rarely provides sufficient motive for deception: The favorite justification generally involves revenge against the haughty critic and the idiot investor. Few artistic acts of vengeance quite match that of Han van Meegeren (pictured center), a Dutch artist much enamored of 17th-century old masters, whose contempt for the contemporary artists of the early 20th century was surpassed only by his bitterness toward art critic and Vermeer authority Abraham Bredius. A talented imitator of styles, van Meegeren devised over the course of several years a series of techniques that would enable him to age his forgeries convincingly utilizing period canvases and phenol and formaldehyde to harden the pigments. He applied these tools to a picture entitled Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, which a third party presented for evaluation to Bredius. The latter at once proclaimed it “the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Van Meegeren had intended to embarrass Bredius publicly—until the scholar and a consortium of collectors offered the equivalent of several million dollars for the painting. Thus began a prolific career of Vermeer creation that culminated with the sale of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery to Marshall Hermann Göring, the aesthetically inclined Nazi responsible for sacking the museums of Europe to assemble his own art collection, several hundred works from which he traded for the fake Vermeer, along with a cash payment. Van Meegeren’s triumph would turn to tribulation when this undiscovered “masterpiece” was found by the Allies in an Austrian salt mine, along with other Nazi plunder, and traced to van Meegeren, who could defend against the accusation of collaboration only by admitting his forgeries. In the end, he argued, he was something of a hero, since his deal with Göring had delivered so many legitimate artworks from the clutches of the Third Reich. But Göring—the criminal turned collector—had committed a minor forgery of his own: The cash he paid van Meegeren also was counterfeit.
Senior Vice President, Editorial