In 1945, Han van Meegeren was arrested for selling priceless artwork to a high-up Nazi official. His only defense was that he had actually sold a forgery painted so well that the police didn’t even believe him.
Johannes Vermeer was one of the most celebrated painters of the seventeenth century, well known for his painting the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Unexplained gaps of time in between his works suggested that there were still paintings yet to be found, paving the way for someone to “discover” additional Vermeer artwork.
During World War II, Han van Meegeren created Vermeer forgeries. He tricked art historians by using a pizza oven to harden the oil paint, which he mixed with small amounts of plastic, in order to visually age the painting by 300 years.
By selling these forgeries, van Meegeren made $30 million. After the war ended, he was put on trial for collaboration with Nazis. He admitted that the paintings were Vermeer forgeries and argued that by deceiving the enemy he was actually a patriot. To prove himself, he painted a “Vermeer” for the court and was sentenced to one year in prison, rather than the much longer sentence he was facing. Soon after the trial, van Meegeren suffered a fatal heart attack. He never served a single day in prison and died as a Dutch hero.