This Is Not a Vermeer ™

Can anyone own a masterpiece? In part one in this series about artistic authenticity, five very dissimilar people share a common desire: To own a Vermeer.


1. Rex’s Vermeer


I wanted a Vermeer.

I knew this would not be easy. Johannes Vermeer, that seventeenth-century Dutch “master of light,” produced only 35 known paintings, which today are among the most valuable objects in the world. Art historians reserve a certain adjective for precisely these types of cultish obsessions, which are not beyond value, but rather are, as they say, priceless — that is, without price, simply because the marketplace has not publicly accessed numerative value.

For most of the last century, no one really had any idea what a Vermeer was worth. Most of what we call modern art — Dali’s droopy clocks, Warhol’s soupy cans, Pollock’s drippy drips, Rothko’s blurry blobs — didn’t even exist the last time a Vermeer met an auction gavel.

Nonetheless, if you decided to buy all 35 Vermeers in the world, you would need billions of dollars. (How many billions? Who knows! But significantly more than an Instagram; closer, probably, to a WhatsApp.) Humans will never see all the Vermeers together in one place, so I compiled all those pretty pictures into one mosaic:

Here are (presumably) all of Vermeer’s paintings. But they look like photo thumbnails, right? We will get to that.

Count ‘em. That’s 35. But wait, that blank spot in the lower corner — is one missing?

Maybe. A couple of decades ago, a potential 36th Vermeer entered the scene. Historians had known about this painting, but, for a long time, they deemed it inauthentic; a forgery.

That was about to change….


2. Steve’s Vermeer


Steve Wynn wanted a Vermeer.

Steve found his Vermeer, probably. Despite its dubious provenance, in 2004 Wynn dropped an unexpected $30 million — multiples over the estimated value — on the aforementioned 36th Vermeer wannabe.

As you might imagine, $30 million can have an alchemic effect on an object — fake can quickly turn to real.

Wynn’s Vermeer, “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals,” instantly flipped from possibly a Vermeer to certainly a Vermeer. Today, no one doubts the painting’s authenticity — it makes the comprehensive catalogs, it commands the prominent wall space. After all, the unbreakable logic goes, who would spend $30 million on a fake?

Indeed. So now we have 36 Vermeers. Here’s the new one:

Johannes Vermeer, “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals,” c.1670.

Meh, who am I to judge? It looks real enough to me. I’d take it!

But I can’t take it, because Steve Wynn took it, and because I don’t have $30 million. It might be a fake, or it might not be fake, but that’s irrelevant to me, a Vermeer-less philistine.

However, like any good suitor, I picked out the “Vermeer” that I wanted. It has a catchy title, “Christ and the Adulteress.” Here she is:

“Christ and the Adulteress”

Through the magic of super capital, Wynn’s Vermeer became more, shall we say, Vermeerish. But this could never happen to my Vermeer. That’s because everyone already knew my Vermeer was fake.

But we’ll get to that….


3. Tim’s Vermeer

Tim Jenison wanted a Vermeer.

Tim is an exceptionally crafty engineer who lives in San Antonio. He is also, conveniently, the subject of Tim’s Vermeer, a wonderful new documentary that speculates how exactly Vermeer created such luminous works of art.

Tim was always puzzled by Vermeer, whose masterworks were so supernaturally precise, almost beyond technical reason. After a little tinkering, Tim developed a theory, and a methodology, for how Vermeer could have painted in such a photorealistic manner.

In this revealing scene from the movie, Tim puts his theory to work, illustrating a painting technique that allows anyone to recreate the same remarkably precise verisimilitude found in a Vermeer:

Tim’s Vermeer (2013), was produced and directed by Penn and Teller, who are, of course, illusionists. This is foreshadowing!

“It’s not subjective, it’s objective,” says Tim, who is not a painter, not even an amateur one. “I am a piece of human photographic film.”

One more time, Tim; but put a little feeling into it:

I am a piece of human photographic film!

That’s better.

In this scene, Tim explains the magic of Vermeer:
“They called it ‘painting with light.’ But you can’t paint with light. You have to paint with paint.”

It’s possible that Vermeer — an artist who many consider the greatest painter of all time — could paint with no more acuity than you or me. Vermeer may have been a simple technologist — but a technologist who could recreate the world with scintillating photographic intensity, centuries before photography was invented, which might actually be a bigger deal than being a good painter.

If this sounds like a stretch, you might be interested to know that even the art industry has taken steps to convince you that Vermeer was an exceptional copier, as we shall see next….


4. Felice’s Vermeer

Felice Ficherelli wanted a Vermeer.

Well, maybe.

Felice was a contemporary of Vermeer, an obscure painter whom he might have known, or might not have known — we really have no idea. This is all we know for sure:

  • Around 1640, Felice Ficherelli painted “Saint Praxedis.”
  • Around 1655, a near-exact replica of that painting appeared.

Here are the two paintings, side by side:

On the left is Ficherelli’s “Saint Praxedis” (c. 1640). On the right is, maybe, Vermeer’s “Saint Praxedis” (1655). Why would Vermeer add the cross to the saint’s hands? Who knows!

Could this second painting — the copy, the duplicate — have sprung from the hand of Vermeer? Could it be the magical #37? Yes, if you believe Christie’s Auction House, which auctioned that very painting yesterday for $10.2 million. (You just missed your chance to have your own Vermeer!)

Why would Vermeer have copied an obscure Italian painting? Copying was quite common then, not only as an act of training, but also for financial gain. So perhaps Tim’s theory was right — Vermeer was a copier.

But why would a painting — a painting that absolutely no one disputes is a copy of someone else’s painting! — fetch $10 million?

That’s a good question. Let’s see if we can solve that riddle by the end of all this….


5. Hermann’s Vermeer

Hermann Goering wanted a Vermeer.

(Godammit, raise your hand if you don’t want a Vermeer!)

However, this chap Hermann was not compelled by artistic curiosity, like other Vermeer aspirants. Competition was this German’s prime motivator: His schvitz partner, Adolf Hitler, already had two Vermeers. Goering needed to close the gap.

During their reign, the Nazis relentlessly pillaged European and Russian art objects. Goering himself stole, or sometimes bartered for, approximately 1,800 paintings, building his personal collection to a net worth of upwards of $200 million. But his favorite painter remained elusive: Vermeers were always in short supply.

Hitler, who was himself a failed artist, filched the first two:

These are the two Vermeers that Hitler stole — both considered masterpieces. On the left is “The Art of Painting” (c. 1666); on the right, “The Astronomer” (c. 1668).

Goering was desperate to catch up with mein fuhrer.

Finally, in 1942, a collector in the Netherlands, Han van Meegeren, made an announcement: A new Vermeer had been discovered!

“What we have here,” said a leading art expert at the time, “is the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer.”

Goering was thrilled. To get his Vermeer, he immediately traded 137 paintings, worth an estimated 1.7 million guilders, or $11 million today, making it the most expensive painting ever purchased — a record that would stand for 40 years.

The title: “Christ and the Adulteress.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Hitler’s right-hand man

Fast-forward a few years…. The Allies have taken back Europe, and Goering is standing trial at Nuremberg. In a few weeks, he will drop a cyanide pill to avoid sentencing, but before that can happen, he gets horrific news:

His Vermeer is a fake!
The Amsterdam courtroom during the 1947 trial of master Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren.

The Dutch dealer who sold Goering the painting, Van Meegeren, confessed in prison that he had forged it. (Van Meegeren admitted to forging a total of six Vermeers, which netted him $60 million. He was facing treason charges, punishable by death, for collaborating with the Nazis by not revealing the paintings’ true owners. But a forgery charge yielded only a year in prison, so he confessed.)

Goering — a man so despicable that the most despicable man in modern history found him grotesque — was enraged. His biographer wrote:

He looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.

That’s it, I decided: This is the Vermeer for me.

American troops unpack “Christ and the Adulteress.” Although now identified as a forgery, the painting still has a significant fan base and is on display at Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam.

Up next: In part two, I get my Vermeer! And we see how you can score your very own.