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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-The Forgers SpellEdward Dolnick, author of The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece, about the theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, tells the amazing story of Han van Meegeren, a failed artist who turned to forging Vermeers—and managed to sell one to the infamous Nazi Hermann Goering.

The Topic: Cursed—or blessed—with a style many critics derided as "old-fashioned," Han van Meegeren discovered he could execute works that resembled old masters, particularly the rare works of the mysterious Johannes Vermeer. Though at first he planned to fool people only to make money and prove a point to critics, at some point the game escalated, and Van Meegeren had pocketed the modern equivalent of $30 million. Eventually, art aficionado Hermann Goering took notice and "convinced" Van Meegeren to sell him a Vermeer in exchange for 137 works from the Nazis’ own collection. But Van Meegeren didn’t fool just Goering: some of the best art minds in the world were convinced that the lowly Dutchman’s works were undiscovered jewels.
Harper. 368 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0060825413

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Dolnick asks a series of questions and offers answers both technical and psychological. … The spellbinding process of creating the forgeries themselves is reported here in detail and with noteworthy dash." M.E. Collins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Forgery is interesting in part because it demands great, if imitative, skill, and in part because copying itself has become a significant aspect of contemporary art-making. It is an art-crime that encourages reflections on the nature of art itself. This book is an aid to such reflections." Anthony Julius

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Dolnick examines what makes a convincing fake, which goes well beyond the ability to mimic a great artist’s style. … The Forger’s Spell is a terrific story, highlighting that, all too often, we see what we want to see: con or art, crook or hero." Heller McAlpin

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"As in The Rescue Artist, his previous look at art theft, Dolnick exposes the seamier parts of the art world not covered in any art school, writing with pacing and prose as gripping as those of the best mystery novelist. Full of scoundrels, schemes, and artistic dreams, The Forger’s Spell is simply spellbinding." Richard Di Dio

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Van Meegeren may not have been a great artist, but his technical expertise in faking 400-year-old art was something to behold. Dolnick’s explanation of how he did that is fascinating in itself." Dan Danborn

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It is strangely mesmerizing to witness Van Meegeren bend to his labors, though in effect we are simply watching paint dry. By the time the ‘perfumed monster’ Hermann Goering enters the picture, The Forger’s Spell has raised provocative questions about the nature of art and the psychology of deception, anticipating more recent fabulists such as Clifford Irving, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair." Daniel Stashower

Critical Summary

"‘Idiots!’ he yelled. ‘You think I sold a Vermeer to that fat Goering. But it’s not a Vermeer. I painted it myself!"’ With lines like that, it’s clear Dolnick has found the nonfiction equivalent of a Vermeer, buried under other (and more hackneyed) tales of World War II. Critics had nothing but praise for this book, noting that Van Meegeren raised a number of questions about the value of art, especially when the same art critics who had clasped the fake Vermeers to their chests later mocked them as obvious, ugly fakes. At a time when art museums are taking in record crowds, The Forger’s Spell will undoubtedly cause many a viewer to squint a bit closer at the "masterpiece" hanging on the wall.