Forging a work of art isn’t simply a matter of putting brush to canvas. Below, learn about some of the historical art forging methods that inspired The Paris Deception!
A CONTEMPORARY CON-MAN
“Legality might be a fluid concept at present, Sophie, but it won’t stay that way—not for long, God willing. Can you promise me that our actions will fall on the right side of history, when all is said and done?”
Sophie, Dietrich, Fabienne and Gerhardt Hausler are all fictional creations, as is their mission in The Paris Deception. However, there was a real-life forger who sold a fake Vermeer to Hermann Göring during the Second World War: Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who, depending on your point of view, was either a hero, a reprobate, a criminal or a war profiteer.
Han van Meegeren was a middling artist at best, better known for his prowess as an art dealer and for his rowdy parties than his skill with a paintbrush. But that all changed at the end of the war, when he was hauled up in front of a commission to answer for the crime of selling a priceless, recently rediscovered Vermeer – Woman Taken in Adultery – to Hermann Göring in exchange for 137 looted paintings.
Van Meegeren stood calmly in front of the irate commissioners and smiled. “I didn’t sell him a Vermeer,” he said. “I sold him a Van Meegeren.”
Over the length of the court case, Van Meegeren explained that he’d painted several Vermeer forgeries over the years, using an ingenious method of mixing his paint with bakelite – an early form of plastic – and then baking it in order to harden the layers. Under orders from the court, Van Meegeren even painted another Vermeer in front of the astonished tribunal.
Ironically, none of Van Meegeren’s paintings even remotely resembled Vermeer’s masterful work, but given the scarcity of Vermeers on the market (fewer than 35), art connoisseurs and critics were only too willing to see what they wanted to believe. After the trial concluded, the tribunal sentenced Van Meegeren to one year in prison, on charges of forgery and fraud.
HOW TO FORGE A WORK OF ART
After Sophie’s departure, Fabienne had stared at the Kirchner for hours, and while she was confident that she could replicate his practiced strokes, she knew that the true test of a forgery lay not in the top layer of paint but in the countless brushstrokes beneath: the slowly built-up layers of impasto that gave a painting its depth.
The challenge in forging a work of art goes beyond the obvious need for artistic skill: not only does the painting need to look convincing, it also needs to act like a painting of its time and place. This means not only making the right brushstrokes – it means having the right canvas, supports, and indications of wear and tear to make the entire illusion convincing.
In Van Meegeren’s case, he used authentic 17th century canvases for his paintings and, where possible, mixed his own pigments using materials that Vermeer would have used, including white lead and lapis lazuli. He then mixed those pigments with acrylic resin – Bakelite – so that the paint would harden to the point of resembling a 300 year old painting: and so that it would pass the dreaded "alcohol swab" test used by critics to test for forgeries. Then he would crack the painting over a table edge or cylinder to create convincing craquelure on the canvas. He would rub India ink and vacuum cleaner dust – the “dust of ages” – in the cracks to give it that added level of authenticity.
A NEW KIND OF PAINT
Sophie tapped her glass against Fabienne’s. “I’ve mixed the pigments in a solution of acrylic resin and petroleum. It will look and feel similar to oil paint, but its drying time is much quicker.” She sighed, drumming her fingers against the glass. “It won’t be perfect, but you’ll be able to paint multiple layers in a matter of hours. It ought to withstand some basic scrutiny.”
Had I borrowed Van Meegeren’s Bakelite method for the modern works in The Paris Deception, the paint would have hardened too much: remember, the paintings Sophie and Fabienne were forging were only twenty to thirty years old at the time of the war. Instead, I took inspiration from the development of acrylic paint.
Acrylic resin was first developed in 1934 by German chemist Otto Röhm, who used it to create synthetic paint for industrial uses—the painting of houses and airplanes, for instance. Thanks to its versatility and ability to mimic the qualities of oil or watercolor paints, artists began to use acrylic paint for artistic purposes in the late 1940s, most notably in South America. Diego Rivera, for instance, was an early adopter of the medium. In 1947, a mineral spirit–based (that is, acrylic) paint, Magna Plastic Colors, was developed by Bocour Artist Colors; a similar formulation, MSA Conservation Color, was developed by Golden Artist Colors and is used by painting conservators today. These formulations were the inspiration for Sophie’s petroleum-based acrylics in The Paris Deception.
Want to learn more about the art of forgery? Check out these excellent textbooks… strictly for research purposes, of course! The Last Vermeer: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, by Jonathan Lopez; The Art Forger’s Handbook, by Eric Hebborn; and The Art of Forgery: the Minds, Motives, and Methods of Master Forgers, by Noah Charney.
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Latest Novel
“A tense and thrilling tale of wartime art thefts, the bond of friendship and lost loves. 1940s Paris is as exquisitely rendered as the stunning paintings Sophie and Fabienne risk their lives to protect. The stakes are high and the plot crackling – and the two women at the centre of the story have the kind of heart, courage and compassion that makes you cheer for them and worry for them in equal measure as they try to outwit the Nazis and save dozens of priceless paintings. You won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.”
New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Orphan