Abraham Bredius was a Dutch art critic and the world’s greatest expert on Johannes Vermeer. The 17th century artist Vermeer is best-known to us today as the painter of Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in vivid colors with brilliant use of light. His total output was fewer than 50 artworks, painted mainly in the 1660s, and today we have only 34 of them. Bredius spent his life uncovering fake Vermeer painting and denouncing forged art attributed to Dutch Masters. He wrote a seven-volume work named Künstler-Inventare; Urkunden zur Geschichte der hollandischen Kunst des 16ten, 17ten und 18ten Jahrhunderts which was a record of inventories of painters. In 1935, he published a catalog of authentic Rembrandt paintings, removing 60 forgeries from among the artists 690 known works.
In 1937, an Italian politician, Gerard Boon, came to visit the 82-year-old Bredius. Boon had been a Dutch politician and was now an outspoken anti-fascist. He brought with him a crate which contained a painting.
Boon told Bredius that the painting belonged to an Italian family who wanted to flee Mussolini’s Italy for America. If Bredius could confirm the painting was genuine Vermeer, the family of dissidents could sell it and use the money to make their escape.
Bredius studied the painting carefully. It depicted Jesus and the Disciples at Emmaus. If this were indeed a Vermeer, it would be the first new painting of the Dutch Master to have been discovered in decades. Bredius had always dreamed of discovering a new painting by one of the Masters.
For years, Bredius had claimed there was a missing link between Vermeer’s early works, which were biblical, and his later works, which were mainly set in Delft homes. This painting was exactly the link he had predicted. And although most experts thought that Vermeer had never left the Netherlands, Bredius believed he had journeyed to Italy to study under Caravaggio. This new painting had elements of Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” that confirmed the old art critic’s view.
He studied the oil and canvas carefully, checking for all the tell-tale signs of forgery. Vermeer was famous for using large amounts of lapis lazuli to get his brilliant blues and hues. Bredius checked the pigments carefully, and they seemed genuine. He checked the canvas – it was several hundred years old. He noted that the painting contained a 17th century jug, the kind of anachronism typical of Vermeer. And finally, he tested to see whether the paint was fully dry. The oil paints used by the Dutch Masters could take decades to fully harden. Bredius had detected many fakes by using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to check if the paint was wet. Emmaus passed the test.
After thoroughly examining the painting he declared it a genuine Vermeer. He wrote in The Burlington Magazine, “We have here — I am inclined to say — the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft . . . quite different from all his other paintings and yet every inch a Vermeer.” He added, “When this masterpiece was shown to me, I had difficulty controlling my emotions.”
Based on his authentication and at his urging, the painting was soon bought by The Rembrandt Society for 520,000 florins, the equivalent of $10 million in today’s money.
The only problem was that the painting did not look anything like any of Vermeer’s other works. Instead of the delicate play of light, the emotions, the feelings one sees in a classic Vermeer, the painting of Emmaus looked stodgy and ordinary. The faces do not radiate or shine; the people in the image seem lifeless.
Bredius acknowledged that this painting was, “quite different from all his other paintings.” Yet he was convinced it was authentic.
He was entirely wrong. The painting was a forgery by a Dutch artist named Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren. But it would take a decade for the truth to come out. And only because the forger himself confessed.*
In the meantime, half a dozen other Vermeers were “discovered,” all of which earned van Meegeren about $100 million in today’s money.
Van Meegeren became fabulously wealthy. He owned some 57 properties in Amsterdam alone. Even during the height of World War II, while many Dutch people were starving under Nazi occupation, van Meegeren lived an extremely lavish lifestyle.
But on May 29, 1945, there was a knock at van Meegeren’s door, and the 56-year-old painter was arrested. Not for forgery, but for aiding and abetting the enemy. Because, in 1942, Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s most trusted advisors, had traded 137 looted paintings to acquire a painting by Vermeer entitled Christ with the Adulteress. The Allies had discovered the painting and traced it back to van Meegeren.
Faced with the death penalty for selling a Dutch masterpiece to the enemy, van Meegeren confessed. “The painting in Göring’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!”
At first the authorities were skeptical. How could it be that van Meegeren had fooled the greatest expert in the entire artworld? But he could prove he was the artist. He had painted over a 17th century painting. He told them to examine what was beneath the painting, and they found it was just as he had described.
At his trial, the incredulous lawyers nevertheless forced van Meegeren to prove he was the forger by painting another “Vermeer,” entitled, “Jesus among the Doctors.” The trial was an international sensation, making headlines around the world. It turned out that van Meegeren had purchased large quantities of lapis lazuli, taken old canvasses, and spent six years perfecting his technique of hardening the oil paint by mixing it with bakelite – an early form of plastic. He had even acquired a 17th century jug to use in the painting, knowing that the art critic would be looking for just such an anachronism. Van Meegeren knew all Bredius’s methods in detecting forgeries and figured out how to beat them all.
Eventually, on November 12, 1947, van Meegeren was found guilty of forgery and fraud and sentenced to one year in prison. However, two weeks later, the artist was rushed to hospital with chest pain, and on December 30, 1947, died of heart failure. He was only 58 years old. Years of living an opulent lifestyle, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, and drug abuse had taken their toll.
When he had left court, he was hailed as a hero. He was the plucky artist, whose skill had fooled the Nazis. A poll taken as he left the court found he was the second most popular person in the Netherlands – only the prime minister was better-liked than he. There was even talk of putting up a statue of him.
How had van Meegeren managed to fool Bredius and the art world with such crude forgeries? Because they wanted to be fooled.
Remember Boon, the anti-fascist activist who originally brought the painting to be authenticated? He had been told the lie that if the painting was genuine, it would help a family escape the clutches of Mussolini. He desperately wanted the painting to be a Vermeer, because it would further his deeply held values.
Nowadays, this type of logic is called nowadays, “motivated reasoning.” Broadly speaking, the term is used by psychologists to explain situations where the reasoning process is influenced by motivations or goals.
Bredius was also misled by discovering what he wanted to find. Van Meegeren knew that the foremost art critic had long dreamed of discovering a Vermeer that would show the link between the early and late works, and of proving that the Dutch Master had studied under Caravaggio. Van Meegeren gave him exactly what he wanted. Motivated reasoning is such a powerful force that even though Bredius knew Emmaus was unlike anything else Vermeer had painted, he still declared it genuine.
But van Meegeren’s brilliance at encouraging people to believe what they wanted to believe did not end there. The nation that applauded the clever Dutchman who tricked the Nazis also allowed themselves to be fooled because it suited their narrative.
Did anyone really believe that van Meegeren could have purchased dozens of homes around Amsterdam and held high-profile parties, living a life of luxury in Nazi-occupied Holland without collaborating with the Germans?
But it turned out that van Meegeren not only worked with the Nazis; he was an enthusiastic supporter. In 1942, he published a slim, luxurious volume entitled Han Van Meegeren: Teekeningen 1. It included several grotesque anti-Semitic images.
During his trial, the Dutch resistance newspaper published the news that a copy of Teekeningen 1 was found in Adolf Hitler’s library. It had been hand-delivered to the Fuhrer with a handwritten dedication in artists’ charcoal: “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute — Han van Meegeren.”
Van Meegeren claimed he had signed hundreds of copies of the book, and the dedication had not been written by him. It was a flimsy lie, but it was enough for the nation to praise him as a hero, instead of decrying him as a supporter of the enemy. The people of the Netherlands had had enough of collaborators and traitors, and preferred to view van Meegeren as an ally.
Motivated reasoning is an immensely powerful force. We choose to believe the lies that support the reality within which we want to live.
According to the Psalmist, a lie is the hallmark of humanity, as he wrote, “All men are liars,” (Psalms 116:11). Rashi explains that King David wrote this as he fled from his son Absalom and the people who supported his rebellion. They repaid all the good that David had done with betrayal. The people chose to believe the lies and falsehoods that Absalom spun that freed them from the legacy of David.
In last week’s Torah reading, in his curses that came out as blessings, Balaam said, “God is not a man that he should lie,” (Numbers 23:19). God is free from bias, has no need to reason based on motivation, and sees things as they actually are. This is what separated man from the Divine.
In this week’s Torah reading, Pinchas, we read of the prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salu, and the Midianite woman he took publicly to show his commitment to the idolatry of Baal Peor as he turned his back on the Torah of God. The woman’s name was Cozbi bat Tzur. Cozbi is related to the word for a lie, Cazav.
Zimri chose the lie. Even after 40 years of miraculous life in the desert, even though he was a leader of a tribe and well respected by all, he reasoned that it was permissible, perhaps even obligatory, for him to have relations with a Midianite woman. That doesn’t mean he turned his back on God. It just means that his emotional bias — his desire for a foreign woman or for idolatry — allowed him to justify his actions. But his reasoning let him down. He went with the lie.
As King David said, we all do this. It is human nature to believe we are acting rationally, when, in fact, we are led by motivational reasoning to confirm our own initial bias.
We are genuinely shocked when a well-known person is convicted of crimes. Yet often, the signs were there, in the public domain, and we chose to ignore them because of our belief that the person was fundamentally good.
In our working lives, we make decisions that we justify to ourselves because they follow the rules that we laid out. Once we’ve reached our decision we can then find even more ways to explain our actions. But without awareness of our own motivational reasoning, we sometimes end up in a place that defies objective logic.
I won’t even mention politics or public policy or societal values. It is obvious to anyone who has ever looked at social media that people justify their beliefs and actions to themselves using logic that makes sense only to them and those who already hold similar beliefs.
We all do this, all the time. It is almost impossible to step back and try to be objective. But perhaps even an awareness that we fool ourselves will prevent us from acting like Zimri and intentionally choosing lies over truth.
With thanks to David Wiseman for the original idea. And to Tim Harford and his “Cautionary Tales” podcast for telling the story of van Meegeren so brilliantly.
* There is a 2019 movie entitled, “The Last Vermeer” which tells the story of van Meegeren.
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