So unfolded one of the biggest art forgery scandals of the 20th century, when a little-known Dutch artist Han van Meegeren created and sold several fake Vermeers, earning the equivalent of £60 million. His fraud was only discovered after World War II when he was accused of treason for selling an original Vermeer to the Nazi leader. To prove it was a fake, van Meegeren agreed to paint a new Vermeer in front of the press and court-appointed witnesses, thus effectively revoking the accusations of treason and establishing himself as one of the world’s most ingenious forgers.
By the end of the trial, the painting that had been worth millions, that experts and art lovers would come from all over the world to see, was worth nothing and, as van Meegeren said, ‘Nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?’
So how do we really value art? Van Meegeren’s story tells us it’s not just a question of aesthetics. When you can’t tell the difference between the artist’s work and a copy, there’s obviously more at play. There’s no doubt that a poster of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is not going to offer the same impression when confronted with the impressive scale of the original, yet you could argue the advancement of digital technology and photography can often capture a piece of art in a way not even possible when standing in front of it. Museums soften the light, use protective glass (bulletproof in the case of the ‘Mona Lisa’) and ask you to keep your distance – there can be no intimate inspection of Leonardo’s famous sfumato technique from ten feet away.
Yet we still crave the experience in the flesh. There’s something about being in the presence of a masterpiece that’s both inspiring and transformative. The feeling that we’re close to a work of genius and even the genius themselves. Museum curators talk about the concept of the ‘aura’, a mystical quality that inheres in an original work of art and its history, from the hand of the artist through the chain of ownership, as though the object has a soul and memory of its own.
It’s true that Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ only became fetishised after it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 – its absence, in fact, was not noticed for over 24 hours. The theft and recovery became part of the story, along with the puzzle of why the painting was not delivered to the patron, Lisa’s husband Francesco del Giocondo. The smile grows ever more mysterious.
Yet the very ubiquitous nature of Mona Lisa’s image is perhaps part of the story. Whether on postcards, tea towels or mugs, mass reproduction underscores the uniqueness and value of the original. Viewing the piece we’ve seen in books, on TV and in film is something we all want to experience – the museum visitor gets a tiny timeshare of something priceless. Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, or Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ – these iconic images and the artists that created them are vital threads that run through our history. Knowing that Vermeer made that brushstroke rather than van Meegeren bridges that gap in time and brings the past into the present. Taking a photo of a Jackson Pollock you’re standing in front of feels more important than buying the poster – it’s evidence of our close proximity to the genuine article.
Even if it’s a little magical thinking, looking into the eyes of a Rembrandt self-portrait, you can almost feel his consciousness vibrate. The desire to connect to one another, to tap into that mystery of creativity, is what’s so thrilling. Instead of van Meegeren rewriting history, he added a layer of intrigue, prestige and appreciation to Vermeer’s work and our understanding of art’s true value. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ The experience is felt not just through the eyes, but through our connection to the artist, the creative genius, the original spark, as if it could be transmuted through canvas or stone. And if our love of original works of art is anything to go by, maybe it can.