Did you know that most fine-art forgers are queer? That’s just one of the facts playwright Kate Cayley uncovered while researching her play The Bakelite Masterpiece, opening at Tarragon Theatre.
“I find the forger to be a queer figure,” Cayley says. “When you pass, you’re making a statement, and when you don’t pass, you’re making a statement. And historically speaking, most people have passed, which is, in a way, an act of forgery.”
Cayley’s play is inspired by the true story of Han van Meegeren, who probably wasn’t queer but definitely was one of history’s great forgers. When the Dutch artist was arrested at the end of the Second World War for selling a priceless Vermeer to Hermann Goering, he claimed it was actually a skilled copy he’d painted to humiliate the Nazi leader, making van Meegeren a folk hero in Holland.
Cayley first discovered van Meegeren several years ago thanks to a New Yorker article. “I got completely fascinated by his story. He had forged this Vermeer painting, and Vermeer is one of the most technically accomplished painters who ever lived. I don’t know how you pull that off!” As Cayley developed her script, she turned her focus from a more historical approach to a fictional standoff between van Meegeren and a prosecutor who demands he prove the Vermeer was a fake by painting a second one. “The World War II drama has been done. Even the story about the forgery has been done. And the thing that became most interesting was the idea of the bargain between him and the prosecutor. And I realized that it was actually meant to be a two-hander, because those two had the most interesting relationship.”
While the act of committing a forgery is obviously a crime, the skill required to pull it off successfully is something Cayley can’t help but be impressed by. “Everyone loves a con man,” she says. “A forger is a profiteer; they’re a liar, they’re using people. But I gained a respect for the forger and the way that the forger is doing what an artist is already doing.”