March 20, 2009

Book Review: The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick

Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell is an impeccably researched and entertaining account of the "most successful art forger of the twentieth century (xiii)." In depicting the forgery career of Han Van Meegeren, the book covers a variety of topics from the Dutch experience during World War II and the art collecting practices of Hitler and Goering to the role of connoisseurs and wealthy collectors in the art market. In this respect, Dolnick's work serves as a reference guide for those interested in pursuing further research down the many avenues of art crime.

Although his work is by no means groundbreaking, it does highlight the critical conditions necessary for the "natural disaster" that resulted in the forger's being able to capitalize on the art establishment's foolhardiness (292). Here we find that the forger's skill in selling a fake product rests as much on his ability to paint as on his identification of the perfect mark. We read how Van Meegeren's marketing of each forgery induced a first impression in experts that instantly removed any doubts in authenticity and therefore any need for scientific testing as well.

Unfortunately, at times The Forger's Spell is as verbose and repetitive as any Victorian novel. It only overcomes these soporific effects when detailing the clever processes through which Van Meegeren produced his infamous Vermeer's. Never would I have thought that mixing Bakelite with lapis lazuli would yield a blue similar to the one made famous by Vermeer's brushwork. Additionally, I would have never have known that for the thirty six paintings attributed to Vermeer there have been nearly as many misattributed to him by art experts. As Dolnick discusses, these misidentified paintings have caused the ruination of countless careers and reputations.

Dolnick's intention is not to expose the fallibility of these so-called art experts and historians, but rather to simplify how we experience art by removing any prejudices and by viewing objects with a blank slate. In the words of former Met director Thomas Hoving, the idea is to "be dumb let it [the art] do the talking (242)." In this regard, The Forger's Spell succeeds because it inspires one to appreciate "art for art's sake" and to judge art for his/herself.