Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: 'Provenance' by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo


Provenance, which means history of ownership, is a key term to drop at a gallery opening between sips of Champagne, preferably with the hint of a French accent. The word has gained currency in the past 10 years.

The currency comes from disputes over works of art, which grab headlines with art prices soaring and prominent people often holding the works in question.

With paintings that were seized from Jews during the Nazi era, the art trade routinely expunged names of Jewish collectors or dealers from a work's provenance to avoid stigmatizing paintings as Holocaust loot and alerting heirs to stolen property. A new field of expertise is filling gaps in these histories.

Most countries ban the export of antiquities, so that anything without papers documenting its export before that ban was issued is suspect. The demand for illegally exported antiquities has in turn triggered a demand for fake export documents. Provenance maneuverings involving antiquities have dogged museums in Southern California in recent years.

Provenance cleansing and trimming are facts of today's art market. Yet the scheming in "Provenance," by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, reveals the degree to which "proper" histories can sell phony art.

In 1985, a velvet-tongued British con man, John Drewe, who saw gold and glamour in modern art, persuaded a cash-poor painter to copy everything from Ben Nicholson to Alberto Giacometti - not copies of masterpieces, just modern pictures that no one had seen before.

To market those investments, Drewe created provenance papers for the forgeries, certifying ties to respected museums or venerable galleries. The right donation or bottle of Champagne with a curator won Drewe access to the archives at the Tate and other museums, where he "documented" his fakes, cooking the books.

Security, Drewe figured, was based on the assumption that people might remove things, not add them. For a while it worked. Plenty of experts were tricked.

This decadelong scam and its unraveling had everything - a Faustian tale of a desperate painter, John Myatt, toiling for the Mephistophelean Drewe, plus credulous museum directors and art dealers, heroic subalterns who smelled a rat, and hard-nosed Scotland Yard cops. Drewe, Myatt and another accomplice went to jail, briefly.

Only about 80 of the 200 Myatt forgeries that Drewe admitted selling were recovered. The rest are still out there - art historical disinformation.

The authors of "Provenance" have a feel for the color and flair of the epicurean who dined and dressed lavishly and drove a Rolls-Royce. Usually passing himself off as a nuclear physicist, he also claimed to work for British intelligence or as an arms dealer. Even his name was a fake.

They deal adroitly with Drewe's Achilles' heel, a vanity that led him to talk too much and leave clues. We see Drewe's vileness toward the Israeli mother of his children. She testified against him and ended up far more damaged than the museums and art buyers he cheated.

The Drewe scandal was a wild feast of duplicity with a rich ensemble cast. Yet its characters are far more complex and mysterious than what we get in "Provenance," which stumbles through opportunities for drama and shortchanges its own crescendo, the spectacle of Drewe's trial in 1998, when he played lawyer grandiloquently, and lost. Also, inexplicably, there are no illustrations.

Drewe's target was modern art, which ends (these days) about 1980. Contemporary art, now much more in fashion than when Drewe was active 10 years ago, seems to have found a partial solution to the plague of fakes born of scarcity: Artists and their dealers produce in multiples to satisfy demand. Yet anyone buying works by Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring knows (or should know) that fakes are out there in droves.

Although Drewe's predatory days are over, forgery will survive as long as collectors seek venerable and rare works, like Modigliani, another faker's favorite. And why not? Drewe's punishment - an early release after serving two years of a six-year sentence, suggests that art forgery is a minor, and victimless, crime.

John Drewe was caught in the act. Yet beware, buyers. He's the devil we know. The greatest art frauds are those that remain unrevealed and unpunished.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: 'The Man Who Loved Books Too Much' by Allison Hoover Bartlett

By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Riverhead, $24.95, 288 pages

Judging by the number of individual objects stolen one by one, the world's busiest thief may be John Gilkey, although his total take doesn't match a rookie pitcher's signing bonus or the price of an Old Masters burgher. Day in and day out, he stole rare books, many of them worth five figures, here a "Book of Hours" circa 1480, there an "On the Road," autographed by Jack Kerouac. Why do we care? Because "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" offers both a galloping foray into the wonky world of the rare-book market and a chronicle of modern crime and punishment.

Allison Hoover Bartlett, a journeyman magazine writer, first stumbled upon the curious story of a "bibliodick," an amateur sleuth working the old-book beat. Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City rare-book dealer, had become the volunteer "security chair" for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. Dragging the musty society into the new millennium, he built a database and used e-mail to circulate reports of thievery that proved to be more common than anyone knew.

Purloining rare books, it appears, was a bigger business than lifting fine art, and more hidden because booksellers were loath to report their losses, while cops tended to ignore them. This changed on Mr. Sanders' watch, as the mental tenacity and memory for detail that made him a successful book trader made him a demon watchdog. As a result of his sleuthing and Internet alarums, Mr. Gilkey would be discovered as the Willie Sutton of book robbers. As a result of that, Ms. Bartlett would pursue an article idea, like a hound after a conspiracy of foxes, chasing them in diverse directions. And as a result of that, she would grow the article into this quixotic and captivating true-crime narrative that comprises a composite portrait of three overlapping personae who all love books: the criminal, the crimestopper and the author.

Mr. Sanders, middle-aged, ponytailed and bearded, is the first to seize our attention by the lapels, like a certain old tar at a wedding. As a boy, he "devoured every book the librarians let him get his hands on, and some they didn't." Not allowed to check out books from the adult room, he found ways to read "Frankenstein" anyway. From the start of Ms. Bartlett's reporting, Mr. Sanders is tutor, mentor and guide, Aristotle to her Dante, as she descends into the terra incognita of bookland. (Then sometimes he clams up and plays Charon instead.)

To mix metaphors in mid-stream — and what's the fun of writing about libri literati if not to exercise a little license? — Ms. Sanders is the Grand Inquisitor ridding Christendom of the bibliophilic infidel. He "chased these guys down streets and alleys and parking lots. He has taken them to court. He has scared them half to death." He pursued various miscreants clue by clue, and browbeat cops and prosecutors into giving them their just deserts.

Mr. Gilkey's case was a hard one to crack because this thief was so New-Age in his method and ubiquitous in his range that at first nobody suspected a one-man crime wave. There seemed to be no pattern to the thefts reported by shops around the country, and no consistent modus operandi by a burglar whose tools included the credit card, checkbook, phonebooth and Internet connection.

Polite and neat, a bit obsequious, Mr. Gilkey clerked in a tony department store where each day he lifted names and numbers from two or three affluent customers' cards. Systematically surveying rare-book stores on the Net, he would call from a pay phone and chat up the clerk, sounding knowledgeable and saying he was shopping for a gift, something in the $3,000 range, say a Vanity Fair first edition. Offered instead a choice two-volume "The Mayor of Casterbridge," complete "with brown half morocco by Riviere, marbled sides, gilt decorated and lettered spine," he would charge it to someone's valid card. He'd have it mailed to his alias at an address that was actually a hotel, or he'd request the prize wrapped and ready when he stopped by later.

American Express or Visa approved the charge and Mr. Gilkey collected the book. When the card holder got the bill and went through the roof, the card company would cancel the charge and stick the bookstore with the loss, since the bookseller did not have a signed sales slip. It was very simple, Mr. Gilkey told Ms. Bartlett in an extended series of interviews that began in one of the jails where he served time.

His motive? Collecting books was his life's mission and his obsession. He thought they were his due, and he felt no guilt or regret about stealing them. Jejune and self-absorbed, when his favorite football team lost a game, "he felt slighted. — So he did what he usually did when he felt wronged: he stole a book, this time using a bad check." Ms. Bartlett concludes that Mr. Gilkey had a passion for possession, and that perverse form of love is one driving force in the narrative. Another is a kind of wanderlust into Bibliophile Nation, which the narrator tours with the genuine wonder of an art-history major seeing Florence for the first time.

Often her prose aptly demonstrates the writers' workshop adage "Show Don't Tell." Seemingly intelligent, Mr. Gilkey "frequently mispronounced words the way well-read people who have not grown up around well-read people often do." Her profile of him is detailed and nuanced as it projects a man who came to love books and libraries through movies for the ideal elegance they represented, and somehow became convinced that he was entitled to take them gratis from people who have so many.

The most mystifying of the three principals, Mr. Gilkey is a man of modest origins, no legitimate accomplishment and almost inscrutable motives. Unable to buy rare volumes, he found other ways to "get" them, his word for stealing. "It was fun, he thought." This portrait stands on its own, for while Ms. Bartlett examines Mr. Gilkey with the guile of a forensic psychiatrist in one-on-one interviews, she does not attempt a diagnosis or wallow in psychobabble. Surely it would be easy to simply call him nuts, nor can I offer anything more specific than the feeling that this man has a hole in his soul.

The third intriguing character, the author herself, is almost an Emma Bovary. She loves books passionately but ponders what she should risk: To become a slave to her passion, a dedicated serious collector? Like both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Gilkey? So ensnared by the dilemma that she scrambles a simile as she writes "Collecting is like hunger. Having one more book doesn't quench the longing for another."

In the end she doesn't give in to seduction, but remains an honest woman, a reader. Take that, Flaubert.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Washington Post Review: 'The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow' By Donald McRae

Darrow for the Defense

Jonathan Yardley / THE WASHINGTON POST

On March 13, 1938, a strange woman named Mary Field Parton, who over the years had had a strange relationship with the celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow, wrote in her diary: "Darrow died today at this hour. That is, his body died following the earlier death of his brilliant mind. It will not be long before a generation will say, 'Who was Darrow? Never heard of him.' So quickly the waters of oblivion close over the great of a generation."

Her prediction was pretty much on the mark. As a teenager in the 1950s, I was very aware of Darrow, principally through the play "Inherit the Wind" and its subsequent movie adaptation, as well as Meyer Levin's bestselling novel "Compulsion," which was also made into a film. No American lawyer today is as famous as Darrow was in the first decades of the 20th century -- not merely famous, but also adored and despised, venerated and reviled -- but now, nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, he is as forgotten as the people he defended: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy Chicago youths who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy as "an experiment"; John T. Scopes, arrested in 1925 for teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school; Ossian Sweet, an African American accused, along with 10 others, of murdering a white man during a racial confrontation that same year in the Detroit neighborhood into which he, his wife and baby daughter had just moved.

But recently Darrow's been enjoying something of a revival. Two books were published last year in which he plays a central role: "For the Thrill of It," Simon Baatz's first-rate account of the Leopold and Loeb case, and "American Lightning," Howard Blum's inept retelling of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in which Darrow, representing the radical unionists who had committed the crime, came within a whisker -- a hung jury, to be precise -- of being convicted of jury-tampering, a case that left him disbarred in California, his reputation in shreds.

This is where Donald McRae comes in. Straining mightily (and for the most part unsuccessfully) to put a new twist on Darrow's story, McRae begins with Darrow wallowing in the slough of despond, saved from suicide in January 1912 -- "he had just learned that he was about to stand trial on the charge of bribing two members of a jury in a murder case that had gone disastrously wrong" -- by the loving intercession of Mary Field Parton, who was then his mistress. McRae, a British journalist who up to now has written primarily about sports, then launches into detailed accounts of the three aforementioned cases, his premise being that the trials of Leopold and Loeb, Scopes and Sweet provided, within the space of two years, the opportunity for Darrow to regain not merely his reputation but also his self-respect.

He's right about that. Such éclat as Darrow still enjoys, primarily among lawyers and history buffs, rests on his defense of Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial," as H.L. Mencken called it. Darrow took the case out of deep contempt for the Tennessee law, passed in 1925, that made it "unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." Fundamentalist fever was white hot in Tennessee at the time, the Ku Klux Klan was on the march, and the American Civil Liberties Union was delighted when Darrow and another prominent lawyer, Dudley Field Malone, declared themselves "willing, without fees or expense, to help the defense of Professor Scopes in any way you may suggest or direct."

The presence of Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution promised that the trial would be a circus; Bryan, who had been defeated for the presidency three times, had turned his attention and his formidable oratorical skills to the fundamentalist cause, and a circus is just what it was in Dayton, Tenn., that summer:

"A carnival atmosphere swept through the whole town. Apart from the brightly colored flags and slogans draped over Main Street, most of the local stores featured images of monkeys and coconuts. In between the lemonade counters and hot-dog stands, erected especially for the trial, vendors sold 'Your Old Man's a Monkey' buttons and Hell and the High Schools booklets. The diminutive author of that tract, T.T. Martin, bustled around Dayton, distributing leaflets mocking 'Mass Meetings for Infidels, Scoffers, Atheists, Communists, Evolutionists and Others' or making impromptu street-corner sermons on the literal truth of the Bible."

Darrow lost the battle but won the war. The jury found Scopes guilty, and the court fined Scopes the $100 minimum penalty, which was paid by Mencken's paper, the Baltimore Evening Sun. But Darrow put Bryan on the stand and made a fool of him, ridiculing his literal interpretations of the Bible and his utter inability to comprehend Darwinism. Mencken wrote: "This three-time candidate for the Presidency came in a hero and he sat down in the end as one of the most tragic asses in American history." Days after the trial's end Bryan, a notorious glutton, "suffered a massive stroke and died in his sleep." Asked by a reporter if Bryan had died of a broken heart, Darrow replied: "Broken heart nothing. He died of a busted belly."

As to the two other trials, Leopold and Loeb confessed to the murder of Bobby Franks, indeed boasted about it, so the only issue was whether they would be executed for the crime. Darrow argued that they had acted out of mental illness, but the judge didn't give that as the reason for handing down life sentences. Instead, he said, "In choosing imprisonment instead of death, the court is moved chiefly by the consideration of the age of the defendants." Probably Darrow's eloquence persuaded the judge to go (relatively) easy on the boys, but he declined to hand Darrow a clear victory.

The case of Ossian Sweet is now the least known of the three. It didn't get the saturation coverage that the other two did, probably because the defendants were African Americans. It was an early civil-rights case, though, and an important one, as Darrow managed to plant sufficient doubt in the minds of the all-white jury to persuade them not to convict Sweet's brother, leading the way to the exoneration of all the defendants. The Sweet family clearly had been victimized by a mob, and whoever actually killed a white man in the mob presumably never will be known.

So long as McRae is writing about the three cases, his narrative moves along nicely, but when he turns to the relationship between Darrow and Mary Field Parton his prose quickly descends to the depths of treacle. These passages -- and there are many of them -- are to my taste almost completely unreadable, though I do not discount the possibility that others may feel otherwise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Minnesota Reads Review of 'Newton and the Counterfeiter' by Thomas Levenson


Thomas Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter is an extensive examination of Sir Isaac Newton’s life as a scientist, alchemist, and, unbeknownst to many, a criminal investigator. Newton, a professor at Cambridge, was already renowned for this scientific writings in the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (containing, among many things, his famous three laws of motion). The Royal Crown, realizing his high intellectual abilities, drafted Newton into service to stop the plague of counterfeiting that was pushing the English economy to the brink of collapse. Using the example of Newton’s prosecution of lifetime counterfeiter William Chaloner, Levenson showed how Newton used the same scientific mind that developed physical and mathematical laws to prosecute counterfeiters.

Levenson’s analysis of Isaac Newtown was no romanticized account of either Newton himself or life in England during the late 1600s and early 1700s. There were many graphic descriptions of the rough and filthy conditions persistent in London at that time: excrement in the streets, piles of both garbage & dead typhus victims, and detailed accounts of both hangings and torture by the rack are common are just a few. Newton himself, while rightly portrayed as a brilliant mind, was also fairly treated through Levenson’s examinations of his alchemist attempts to create gold, his strong emotional relationship with fellow mathematician Nicholas Fatio de Duillier, and his borderline torturous (albeit legal) prosecution of Chaloner.

Levenson’s book also offered a primer on the English language of the Renaissance era, thanks to his direct quotes from source material. Here is a dandy of a quote from Charloner talking to Thomas Carter, a fellow counterfeiter, and paid informant for Newton. It also shows us some interesting spelling from that era.

Wee have played the fool one with another hitherto for want of an understanding betwixt us but now if you’l joyn with me nothing can hurt us & weel fun them all. (209)

What Levenson did very well in Newton and the Counterfeiter was show Newton as a product of the Renaissance Ideal, the idea of a well educated person that excels in a wide variety of fields. Newton not only was involved in physics, mathematics, & alchemy, he was also deeply interested in theology and natural philosophy. I tend to hold the Renaissance Ideal in high regard because people of this sort have propagated many advances in humanity. The essence of a good liberal arts education is the opportunity for the learner to tap into this ideal and become lifelong learners in both the subject of their major and in a wide variety of other fields. Isaac Newton and others like him are fine examples of the benefits of the Renaissance Ideal. In this era of quick-n-easy degrees, extreme specialization, and lazy thinking, the Renaissance Ideal is sorely needed, in my humble opinion.

--Ben Kimball / Minnesota Reads

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: 'Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach' by Laurence Leamer Review
Guest Reviewer: Meryl Gordon, Author of Mrs. Astor Regrets

Just the name--Palm Beach--conjures up an American fantasy of wealth, privilege and exclusivity. Laurence Leamer, in his well-written and entertaining new book, Madness Under the Royal Palms, offers up an inside look at this playground of the rich, and its under-class of social-climbing wannabes. Tracing the history of Palm Beach and its magnificent real estate, describing the fabulous parties, investigating some of the city's sordid secrets, Leamer's book provides a memorable, and at times haunting, portrayal of high society at a moment of transition, where things are often not what they seem.

From Publishers Weekly
Leamer (The Kennedy Women) reveals the secrets of the Palm Beach elite who reside behind the high walls and manicured hedges of this exclusive enclave. A winter resident since 1994, the author gains the trust of his subjects, playing tennis with them and attending their parties. Such firsthand experience is supplemented by newspaper articles and interviews with scores of men and women who, although usually guarded, are unusually open to Leamer (the informant for the chapter Palm Beach Millionaire Seeks Playmate gave the author access to his personal papers, including unpublished memoirs). The book's highly visual vignettes—dominated by divorce, infidelity, excessive drinking and violence—produce a depressing picture of sad, angry, insecure and frequently nasty people hiding behind empty smiles, luxury cars and socially invisible servants. Leamer reflects: Like [Henry] James, I found that few of the lives have the beauty of the surroundings, or the depths of the artistic vision that inspired this island. Some readers may find this book a penetrating portrayal of a privileged segment of the American population; others might regard it as a book-length gossip column. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

New Yorker Review: 'The Man Who Made Vermeers' by Jonathan Lopez and 'The Forger's Spell' by Edward Dolnick

Dutch Master


by Peter Schjeldahl

The case of Han van Meegeren, the boldest modern forger of Old Masters (as far as we know), is a grand yarn of twisty deceit, involving prestigious dupes and scads of money, with a sensational trial at the finish. It even has a serious side. Van Meegeren, since his death, in 1947, has become a compulsive reference for philosophical discussions of fact and fraud in art—a subject bound to disquiet art lovers. (Be honest. What you are given to believe about an art work is going to color your experience of it.) He became the most original of fakers when, starting in 1936, he put aside mere canny simulations, mostly of the work of Johannes Vermeer, to create wildly implausible pictures which were presented as discoveries of a missing phase in the artist’s conveniently spotty, little-documented opus. (Only thirty-five undisputed Vermeers exist today. As an added boon to forgers, a few aren’t very good.) Van Meegeren’s tour de force was a feat more of intellect than of skill. He knew whom he had to fool first: an eighty-three-year-old monster of vanity named Abraham Bredius, who had an earned, though moldering, track record as an authenticator of newfound Vermeers. In 1937, in the august British art-history journal The Burlington Magazine, Bredius declared “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first of van Meegeren’s late counterfeits, to be “themasterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.” Other Dutch experts concurred, under pressure to keep a national treasure from being sold overseas. (The remarkably dreary canvas still hangs, presented now as a historical curio, at the Boijmans Museum, in Rotterdam, which bought it in 1937.) It took van Meegeren himself to reveal the truth, in 1945, when not to do so might have put his neck in a hangman’s noose.

Two new books re-spin the van Meegeren saga, one breezily, with entertaining digressions on secondary figures and the arcana of forgery, and the other in profoundly researched, focussed, absorbing depth. “The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century” (Harper; $26.95), by the science journalist Edward Dolnick, aggrandizes the story’s abundant hooks, such as the happenstance that van Meegeren’s victims included the art maven Hermann Göring, who, in 1943, swapped a hundred and thirty-seven paintings from his largely ill-gotten collection for a van Meegeren Vermeer. “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren” (Harcourt; $26), by the writer and artist Jonathan Lopez, brings hard light to van Meegeren’s machinations and (very bad) character. Lopez debunks the myths, savored by Dolnick, which cast the forger as a romantic avenger, and which sweeten the tale in other ways. It seems that Göring, while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, may not have learned that his cherished Vermeer was a phony, as nice as it is to think that he did. This small point is notable because, in time, the fact that van Meegeren had scammed Göring helped him not only to evade charges of collaboration but to become a folk hero. Lopez demonstrates how evidence of the painter’s coziness with the Occupation regime got buried by the single question of whether he had sold Göring a patrimonial cynosure (potentially a capital offense) or a worthless fake. Early in 1947, a newspaper poll found van Meegeren to be the second most popular man in the Netherlands, after the newly elected Prime Minister.

Van Meegeren was born in 1889, in the provincial city of Deventer, the third of five children in a middle-class Catholic family. In 1907, his father, a schoolmaster, sent him to Vermeer’s city, Delft, to study architecture. The feckless lad preferred to paint and draw. In 1911, he got his girlfriend, a Protestant named Anna de Voogt, pregnant. They married and soon had a second child. He worked as an assistant drawing instructor (the only steady job he ever held) until 1917, when he moved his household to “the city of beautiful nonsense,” as a contemporaneous guidebook characterized The Hague—the home of the royal family and an illustrious strutting ground for the idle rich. There he launched himself as an artist. With “his small, birdlike frame constantly aflutter and his irreverent sense of humor,” in Lopez’s description, van Meegeren beguiled the town. (A photograph of him from 1918, in Lopez’s book, made me laugh out loud; he comes across as the archetypal simpering fop, fit to start a scene by P. G. Wodehouse.) Lopez—who, unlike Dolnick, speaks Dutch and is steeped in the history of the period—records that van Meegeren became the favorite artist of the Liberal State Party of the Netherlands, a fading force of the patrician élite. His work was sprightly, in a nostalgically conservative vein. His pretty, filmy drawing of a doe, identified as a pet of the young Princess Julianna, became a popular icon throughout the Netherlands. Reproductions testify that he had a subtle sense of color and a firm gift for telling portraiture. Come to think of it, what are artistic forgeries but portraits of imaginary art works?

Van Meegeren’s first legitimate exhibition in The Hague, in 1917, of work in several genres, reaped positive reviews. His second, five years later, of Christian religious paintings, sold well but repelled critics with its treacly piety—van Meegeren, it turned out, was a student of Scripture. (In the show, there was an early-warning “Supper at Emmaus”—representing Jesus, who has appeared as a stranger to his disciples after his death, being recognized at the moment when he breaks bread for them.) Informed opinion consigned van Meegeren to the always populous ranks of the formerly promising. He evoked the setback poignantly in his public confession, in 1945: “Driven into a state of anxiety and depression due to the all-too-meager appreciation of my work, I decided, one fateful day, to revenge myself on the art critics and experts by doing something the likes of which the world had never seen before.” That’s rubbish, if only because the “something” to which van Meegeren referred—his invention of a new Vermeer style—was just the latest chapter in a then still unknown, long-running criminal enterprise. Lopez affirms that van Meegeren was dirty before his artistic reputation collapsed. He speculates—reasonably, to my mind—that faking ruined the artist’s creativity. “Slowly but surely, the imitative logic of forgery condemned Van Meegeren to a state of arrested development,” Lopez writes. The state of being oneself dies when set aside.

Lopez dates van Meegeren’s initiation into The Hague’s underworld of art swindlers to 1920, at the latest. He was mentored by a dealer and painter, Theo van Wijngaarden, who had apprenticed in chicanery with a titan: Leo Nardus. Nardus stuck American millionaires with innumerable old copies, fresh fakes, and fanciful misattributions of famous artists until 1908, when a panel of invited experts, including Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry, convened at the home of the Philadelphia streetcar magnate P. A. B. Widener and concluded that his collection was worth about five per cent of what Nardus had charged him for it. (Found out but unexposed—to spare Widener and other duped moguls public embarrassment—Nardus was left free to indulge his passions for chess and swordsmanship; he won a bronze medal in fencing for the Dutch team at the 1912 Olympics.) The hardly less resourceful van Wijngaarden, on his own, perfected a paint medium, gelatin glue, to finesse a standard test for the age of oil paint: rubbing with alcohol, which dissolves oils that have had less than decades to dry. (The glue weathers alcohol but, as was later discovered—too late for a generation of marks—softens on contact with another chemical compound: water.) Van Wijngaarden maintained a network of well-placed accomplices, extending to London and Berlin, who could pilot fakes into the mainstream of respectable commerce. He lacked only top-drawer product. He himself painted well, but not well enough. He wanted an adept protégé, and he found him in van Meegeren, who was ready.

Soon after arriving in The Hague, van Meegeren had cast off Anna and the children and taken up with the raffish Johanna de Boer, the actress wife of a friend. She became his complaisant partner for life and, in 1928, his second wife, apparently indulgent of his extravagant and libertine ways, as well as his alcoholism, which became full-blown in the early nineteen-thirties. During the war, van Meegeren even maintained a separate house, in Amsterdam, for partying, where, it was reported, prostitutes were encouraged to grab jewels from an opened strongbox on their way out. Johanna is frustratingly shadowy in both books. What she knew of her husband’s crimes needn’t be plumbed. Starting in the nineteen-twenties, his spasmodic income, which added up to millions of pre-inflation dollars, would have spoken for itself. After 1932, the couple inhabited houses on the French Riviera, where van Meegeren could more easily evade questions about his mysterious wealth. But Johanna’s point of view would be fascinating grist—for a novel, if not enough is discoverable to flesh out a biography. The same can be said of several supporting players in the comedy. Dolnick gratifies a reader’s side-long interest with piquant accounts of, among others, the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant aesthete, living in splendor in Monaco, with an insatiable ache for prestige, and Joseph Piller, a young Jewish lieutenant and hero of the Dutch Resistance, who arrested van Meegeren—knocking at the door of the artist’s grand house on May 29, 1945—and then, in a fever of vicarious celebrity, became his champion, a seduction trenchantly conveyed by Lopez. (The “fat, swaggering” figure of the infinitely grotesque Göring, however, distractingly consumes far more pages in Dolnick’s narrative than his part warrants.)

Van Meegeren never admitted having produced any of the known gelatin-glue Vermeers, which included “The Lacemaker” and “The Smiling Girl,” but he almost certainly did paint them. Van Wijngaarden steered the pictures to the attention of a revered German connoisseur, Wilhelm von Bode, who was taken in by them—predictably, as they seem to have been created with him in mind. (“The Smiling Girl” echoed a detail of a Vermeer—“The Girl with a Glass of Wine”—that Bode had adored since his early youth.) The always sticky matter of provenance was glossed over with tales of impecunious émigrés from the Russian Revolution—at a time when toppled aristocrats manned hotel doors throughout Europe—and amid expectations that lost works by Vermeer were bound to turn up, several having done so since his rediscovery by a French connoisseur in the eighteen-sixties. The two paintings were sold to the Pittsburgh banker Andrew Mellon by the magus of Old Master dealers, Joseph Duveen, and adorned the National Gallery in Washington, at one point nervously reassigned to a “Follower of Vermeer,” in the nineteen-seventies. “The Lacemaker,” especially, looks silly now, depicting a pert young woman who could be a sidekick of Louise Brooks. But superior forgeries typically secrete subliminally up-to-the-minute associations, which pass, at first blush, as signs of “timeless” genius. The art historian Max Friedländer, who said, “Forgeries must be served hot,” promulgated a forty-year rule—four decades or so being how long it takes for the modern nuances of a forgery to date themselves as clichés of the period in which they were painted. Duveen was misled, although he wasn’t by van Meegeren’s “Emmaus.” In 1937, he sent his right-hand man, Edward Fowles, to inspect the painting in Paris. Fowles cabled, “PICTURE A ROTTEN FAKE.” (Duveen kept the verdict to himself; saving other dealers from disgrace didn’t figure in his business plan.) Both books vivify the wild-and-woolly milieu of Jazz Age dealing in old art. Barely professionalized, and with museum science still primitive, the trade relied on the often snap judgments of glorified amateurs, of whom even the loftiest (even Berenson) were goof-prone—Duveen had earlier spurned “Girl with the Red Hat,” the only true Vermeer to emerge in the twenties.

Dolnick is good on van Meegeren’s studio practice, which kept pace with scientific progress. Mediocre old paintings, from the prolific Dutch Golden Age, were cheaply available, as grounds to paint on; but the overnight creation of a convincingly antique paint surface was a challenge. Van Meegeren’s late fakes deploy Bakelite, which, as a liquid medium, hardens with heat and stands up to almost any solvent. He learned, with difficulty, to make an ancestor of modern plastics ape the fluency of oils. Many failed experiments led at length to a proper blend, with admixed floral oils, and the correct baking recipe. “Emmaus,” a big picture, would have been larger, but the old painting, on its original stretchers, that van Meegeren bought for the job wouldn’t fit in his makeshift oven. As a matter of course, he used only pigments that were available to Vermeer, and concocted effects of age: craquelure, wormholes, yellowed varnish, soilage, and, for good measure in “Emmaus,” a poorly repaired rip. He turned negligent in subsequent works. Göring’s canvas, “Christ and the Adulteress,” employs cobalt blue, a nineteenth-century innovation in paints, and it is carelessly drawn, with anatomical solecisms in the figures. But van Meegeren no longer had to evoke Vermeer. It was enough that the hand that painted the works plainly be the same that had painted “Emmaus.” In 1945, his captor, Joseph Piller, had him paint a valedictory Vermeer, putatively to settle doubts of his confession but really, Lopez establishes, as a publicity stunt. That showpiece, “Christ in the Temple,” strikes me, in reproduction, as by far the most fetching of the lot, garnished with a droll anachronism: Jesus holds forth over an opened Bible. Time-travelled to recent years, van Meegeren would have made an upstanding postmodernist.

In the nineteen-thirties, painting Vermeers became less of a problem for van Meegeren than legitimatizing them. Having drifted out of touch with complicit intermediaries, he came into his own as a con man, tricking innocents into bringing his goods to market. The patsy for “Emmaus” was a Liberal State Party parliamentarian, Gerard A. Boon, who had led the successful fight for woman suffrage in the Netherlands and was a fierce critic of Nazi Germany. Van Meegeren convinced this good man that the painting belonged to a Dutch family living in Italy, who, persecuted by the Fascist authorities, desperately needed funds for an escape to America. The rest was intricate but, once Bredius was on board, smoothly managed. Boon’s receptiveness to van Meegeren is a puzzle, given Lopez’s insistence that the artist was an arch ultra-rightist. But his case seems solid. For three years, starting in 1928, in The Hague, van Meegeren published a scurrilous magazine, De Kemphann (The Fighting Cock), in which, Lopez writes, he “denounced modern painting as ‘art-Bolshevism,’ described its proponents as a ‘slimy bunch of woman-haters and negro-lovers,’ and invoked the image of ‘a Jew with a handcart’ as a symbol for the international art market.” He execrated van Gogh in particular. In 1945, while van Meegeren was imprisoned, an awkward item turned up in Hitler’s private library at the Reich Chancellery, in Berlin: a deluxe volume of poems by a Dutch Nazi poet, illustrated by van Meegeren and inscribed, in German, “To my beloved Führer in grateful tribute, from H. van Meegeren, Laren, North Holland, 1942.” Van Meegeren acknowledged the signature but theorized that a German officer must have penned the dedication, even though the handwriting was clearly the same. At his trial on an open-and-shut charge of forgery, all such matters were ignored. Urges to go easy on van Meegeren seem to have afflicted ordinarily sensible people—Dolnick among them, in much of his book—as if by hypnosis.

Lopez advances a sophisticated and troubling answer to the question that is most likely to baffle us: How could anyone, for an instant, have taken “Emmaus” to be a work by Vermeer? I remember being stupefied, many years ago, when, ignorant of van Meegeren, I came upon the painting in the Boijmans. It seemed not only unlike Vermeer but unlike anything this side of a thrift shop. I missed stylistic cues that both Lopez and Dolnick describe, mainly the borrowed composition of a 1606 “Emmaus” by Caravaggio. This planted secret thrilled scholars who had been debating possible Italian influences on Vermeer, one writer having gone so far as to wonder if a lost work might be found to prove the connection. Vermeer was known to have painted one Biblical scene—“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” (1654-55)—why not another? He was, and still is, suspected of having been a closet Catholic, embracing a faith, his wife’s, that was banned in Delft. Both the character and the obscure provenance of “Emmaus” made sense if it had been created for one of Delft’s clandestine Catholic churches. But that does not explain the enthusiasm of credulous aesthetes for a dismal painting. Lopez deduces a blind spot in our art-historical knowledge and, indeed, in our larger comprehension of European culture between the World Wars. We may easily peg the party-girl mien in “The Lacemaker” and the longueur of another van Meegeren triumph, “The Girl with a Blue Hat,” bought by the major collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, which merits its sobriquet, “The Greta Garbo Vermeer.” But the period accent of “Emmaus” escapes us.

It’s Volksgeist, Lopez argues. “Folk spirit” has a long genealogy of relatively benign synonyms, such as “national character.” Hegel promoted it as a force in history. But the idea generated new, dark energies in the prewar period. Styles of heavily expressive, soulful celebrations of common people were prevalent in Germany. Unlike the better-known socialist realism, with its crisp paeans to the proletariat, Volkisch art cultivated painterly effects to stir both Christian and pagan mystical associations, favoring peasant scenes and such themes as familial devotion and earth-mother fecundity. Besides tapping that vogue, van Meegeren pandered to an eagerness, among rightist critics, to winkle out Germanic roots of classical Dutch art. He seems to have modelled the head of Christ, in his “Emmaus,” on a self-portrait by Dürer—a recondite proof of influence that he could count on experts to notice. Lopez argues that the determined suppression, after the war, of anything with a Nazi odor—and a chronic lack of appetite for the material ever since—leaves us blinking at hints of a style that was second nature in Europe seventy years ago. The contemporary resonance surely startled viewers at the time, but, rather than raise eyebrows, it enlarged the sense of Vermeer’s greatness. It seemed more than conceivable that a genius of his calibre could foreshadow future sensibilities as, say, Leonardo da Vinci is routinely credited with having done. Lopez’s exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry is hard to absorb, without nausea, in the way that Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” is hard to watch. But an empathetic grasp of that time’s susceptibility to van Meegeren’s bait brings the climactic scene of his trial, in Amsterdam, in October, 1947, to life.

Apparently, by 1947, the Dutch were not only tired of the war but tired of being tired of it, too. After a paroxysm of angry revenge on collaborators, they craved a carnival. Van Meegeren became a giddy nation’s “Lord of Misrule,” Lopez writes. Brushed aside were treasonous commissions for the Occupation and dealings with the vilest of local quislings—mainly the art commissioner Ed Gerdes, a zealous anti-Semite—and with Alois Miedl, a Bavarian banker who became Göring’s man in the Dutch art world, energetically plundering Jewish collections. Van Meegeren’s humiliation of so many stuffed shirts, Nazi and otherwise, was too pricelessly funny to be marred by stale grudges. The trial took place in a courtroom hung with “Emmaus” and other van Meegeren hoaxes. Superfluously, the artist having confessed, technical experts presented charts, graphs, and slides of a new test that proved the works’ recent manufacture. Van Meegeren fulsomely congratulated the men on their ingenuity. The faking of Old Masters would henceforth be impossible, he said. Courtroom onlookers clapped and whistled. I imagine, extrapolating from Lopez, that their pleasure went beyond jolly Schadenfreude. Seeing the celebrated paintings exposed as fraudulent may have enabled a purge of formerly impressive symbols. The auratic Christ and the wonderstruck disciples turned farcical. The slim, silver-haired van Meegeren, dapper in a blue serge suit, seems to have read the mood (whatever it was) perfectly and to have milked it for advantage.

He had done the Vermeers only to prove himself, he testified, hewing to what Lopez calls “the master-forger-as-misunderstood-genius storyline,” which the prosecution failed to deflate. At one point, the judge hazarded a skeptical note: “You do admit, though, that you sold these pictures for very high prices?” Van Meegeren’s answer cracked up the room: “I could hardly have done otherwise. Had I sold them for low prices, it would have been obvious they were fake.” He could get away with anything: “I didn’t do it for the money, which brought me nothing but trouble and unhappiness.” Just one witness, an art historian who had been active in the Resistance, hinted at shady aspects of van Meegeren’s wartime conduct. The artist countered with a mocking, nonsensical cross-examination, to the audience’s delight. The witness, Lopez writes, “smiled in a self-deprecating way and then wisely dropped the subject. Clearly, the day belonged to the master forger.” Cheering fans greeted van Meegeren when he emerged from the court. He was sentenced to a year in prison and forfeiture of his wealth (except for a sizable chunk that he had settled on Johanna by the legal stratagem of divorcing her). He died two months later, of heart failure—probably, Lopez reports, as a complication of syphilis. He was fifty-eight years old. Lopez, though intent on proving van Meegeren a skunk, can’t deny him a parting note of admiration: “To give him his due, he was indeed a truly brilliant fraud.”

Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes, except by its victims—the identity of those victims being more than exculpatory, for many people. Art is unique among universally esteemed creative fields in its aloofness from a public audience. Its economic base is a club of the wealthy, who share power to impose or repress value with professional and academic élites. Lopez’s muckraking of van Meegeren scants a fact that Dolnick merrily exploits: the forger gratifies class resentment precisely because he is a pariah. Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general. The spectre of forgery chills the receptiveness—the will to believe—without which the experience of art cannot occur. Faith in authorship matters. We read the qualities of a work as the forthright decisions of a particular mind, wanting to let it commandeer our own minds, and we are disappointed when it doesn’t. If we are disappointed enough, when the named artist is familiar, we get suspicious. But we can never be certain in every case that someone—a veiled mind—isn’t playing us for suckers. Art lovers are people who brave that possible chagrin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Boston Globe Review: 'Vanished Smile' by R.A. Scotti and 'The Crimes of Paris' by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

The lady vanishes

The tale of an unsophisticated criminal convicted of single-handedly stealing the Mona Lisa

Former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested in Florence two years following the theft of the ''Mona Lisa'' from the Paris museum. He claimed he stole the masterpiece in order to return it to Italy, the land of Leonardo's birth, though he had tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting several times. The brazen theft is attracting renewed interest as its 100th anniversary approaches. Former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested in Florence two years following the theft of the ''Mona Lisa'' from the Paris museum. He claimed he stole the masterpiece in order to return it to Italy, the land of Leonardo's birth, though he had tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting several times. The brazen theft is attracting renewed interest as its 100th anniversary approaches. (Paris Prefecture De Police Museum)
By Jonathan Lopez / The Boston Globe

On Aug. 21, 1911, a journeyman laborer named Vincenzo Peruggia surreptitiously unhooked Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" from the walls of the Louvre and headed off to a service stairwell. A former museum employee, Peruggia said he had hidden himself in a seldom-used broom closet the previous afternoon, waiting until Monday morning when the galleries were closed to the public and lightly guarded. Making his getaway through a side exit, he left a worldwide press uproar and a police dragnet in his wake.

Arrested two years after the theft in Florence, Peruggia claimed patriotism as his primary motive, asserting that he had only wanted to return the "Mona Lisa" to the land of Leonardo's birth - a story that made him immensely popular in Italy, never mind that he had made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the painting while still in France.

Once the masterpiece was given back to the Louvre by the Italian government, French authorities opted to treat Peruggia with leniency. He would serve only a few months in jail, after being deemed "mentally deficient" by the courts. Certainly anyone who believed that it would be easy to find a fence or buyer for the world's most recognizable artwork could not have been the brightest light on the chandelier.

As the 100th anniversary of Peruggia's audacious robbery approaches, the "Mona Lisa" theft has sparked renewed attention. The filmmaker Joe Madeiros is at work on a feature-length documentary, based on previously unknown archival documents, that will cast fresh light on Peruggia's motives, or so Madeiros says.

In the meantime, two noteworthy books have taken up the subject. "Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa" re-spins the tale as a kind of real-life detective story, while "The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection," looks at the event more subtly, as the starting point for an exploration of crime in turn-of-the-century Paris.

In "Vanished Smile," veteran author R.A. Scotti follows the trail of the missing masterpiece with the same zestful sense of adventure that she brought to "Basilica," her 2006 book about the construction of the Vatican. An unabashed literary diva, Scotti commands attention from page one. "Mona Lisa only has eyes for me," she observes. "There is no other. No one more interesting, more intelligent, more compelling. And what is extraordinary, if a dozen others crowd into this room, each one will feel the same."

Scotti's playful narrative style may not be to everyone's taste - "The first gulp of Tuesday August 22," she writes, "was as unsurprising as a glass of vin ordinaire" - but dynamism and a gentle sense of humor forgive a multitude of sins, among them Scotti's sometimes wandering focus. Star struck, she devotes an inordinate amount of space to the lives and habits of Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, both of whom were briefly detained by the police in connection with the theft, although neither had anything to do with it. (The painter and the poet came under suspicion because they had previously purchased several Iberian statuettes pilfered from the Louvre's archaeological collections.) A far more successful digression, however, is the elegant and erudite chapter that Scotti devotes to Leonardo himself, usefully underscoring the importance to civilization of the painting at the center of the drama.

In "The Crimes of Paris" the husband-and-wife writing team of Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler quickly establish the outlines of Peruggia's adventures, using them as a framing device to begin a wide-ranging account of belle époque mayhem and misdeeds in the City of Light. The Hooblers, who won an Edgar award for their 2004 murder mystery "In Darkness Death," introduce us to a fascinating array of historical villains and heroes, from François-Eugène Vidocq, the one-time thief who became the founding director of the Sûreté National, to the members of the anarchist Bonnot gang, who were the first to employ a getaway car in escaping the scene of a crime.

Arguing that Paris, as a modern city and nexus of communication, was in thrall to the spectacle of criminality, the Hooblers attempt, with only partial success, to bring thematic coherence to what is ultimately a stubbornly disorganized, if immensely entertaining, series of anecdotes. It is unclear what connection there could be, for instance, between the story of Marguerite Steinheil, a society beauty whose friends and lovers had a habit of winding up dead, and the culturally terrifying art theft perpetrated by Peruggia. Unlike Steinheil, the woman in the picture Peruggia stole has, over the centuries, captured the imaginations of Goethe, Pater, Nat King Cole, and a seemingly endless stream of tourists who flock each year to the Louvre. Envisioning an empty space on the patch of wall where her portrait hangs would be to conjure up an entirely different and profoundly diminished world.

Jonathan Lopez is the author of "The Man Who Made Vermeers," a biography of the art forger Han van Meegeren.