Van der Waals forces are among the weakest, yet most decisive interactions governing condensation and aggregation processes and the phase behaviour of atomic and molecular matter. Understanding the resulting structural motifs and patterns has become increasingly important in studies of the nanoscale regime. Here we measure the paradigmatic van der Waals interactions represented by the noble gas atom pairs Ar–Xe, Kr–Xe and Xe–Xe with a Xe-functionalized tip of an atomic force microscope at low temperature. Individual rare gas atoms were fixed at node sites of a surface-confined two-dimensional metal–organic framework. We found that the magnitude of the measured force increased with the atomic radius, yet detailed simulation by density functional theory revealed that the adsorption induced charge redistribution strengthened the van der Waals forces by a factor of up to two, thus demonstrating the limits of a purely atomic description of the interaction in these representative systems.