Cautionary Tales – The Art Forger, the Nazi, and “The Pope”

12th March, 2021

Being clever doesn’t protect us from scams… sometimes knowledge helps us fall for an intricate deception.

“The Pope” was a revered Dutch art expert – and yet he fell for a not very convincing forgery of a “lost” Vermeer masterpiece. The forger had duped other art connoisseurs too – including the high ranking Nazi Hermann Göring. But perhaps Han van Meegeren’s biggest con was to convince the Dutch public that he was a cheeky resistance hero.

We assume knowledge and intelligence can protect us from being duped – but often they are not enough to save us from the fraudster’s greatest ally – our own wishful thinking.

Cautionary Tales is written by me, Tim Harford, with Andrew Wright. It is produced by Ryan Dilley and Marilyn Rust.

The sound design and original music is the work of Pascal Wyse. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the team at Pushkin Industries, Mia Lobel, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fain, Jon Schnaars, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostek, Maggie Taylor, Daniella Lakhan and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

I discussed the story of the fake Vermeers in my new book The Data Detective (US/Canada) / How To Make The World Add Up (UK / International).

Key sources include Jonathan Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers – which is particularly strong on Van Meegeren’s Nazi connections – and Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell.

Other Van Meegeren biographies inlude John Godley’s The Master Forger and Van Meegeren: A Case Study, and Frank Wynne’s I Was Vermeer. The case is covered by BBC TV program Fake or Fortune (Series 1, Program 3, 2011), a series of blog posts by Errol Morris titled “Bamboozling Ourselves,” starting on the New York Times website, May 20, 2009; the Boijmans Museum film Van Meegeren’s Fake Vermeers (2010, available on YouTube at and the “Essential Vermeer” website

Among several academic sources cited in The Data Detective I would suggest Guy Mayraz’s Wishful Thinking and Taber and Lodge’s Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs.

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