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Almost Too Good

By Jonathon Keats

Italian sculptor Alceo Dossena was so skilled he could fake anything—except art-world success.

Mino da Fiesole

Dossena's marble tomb attributed to Mino da Fiesole, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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In the Duomo of Pisa stands an octagonal pulpit sculpted in marble by Giovanni Pisano. Amid vivid depictions of angels and prophets can be found a Latin inscription, chiseled in 1310, crediting Giovanni as an artist “skilled above all men in the art of pure sculpture, who carved, in fitting fashion, glorious works in stone and gilded wood.” Though Giovanni’s skill with stone is preserved in the pulpit itself, evidence of his glorious woodwork was nowhere to be found by the early 20th century, when the pulpit was discovered in church storage and restored, renewing interest in Pisano’s early-Renaissance expressionism. The inscription posed a problem for art historians. Lacking examples of Giovanni’s wood carving in Pisa and beyond, their scholarship seemed vexingly incomplete. So in 1924 a pair of enterprising Italian art dealers, Alfredo Fasoli and Romano Palesi, came up with an unsolicited fix. They commissioned a wooden Pisano statue of their own.

Of course, Giovanni was long gone, but the tradition of craftsmanship to which he belonged—learned from his father, Nicola, and taught to his pupils—had not altogether perished. In the early 1920s, there was a man with the technical skills, if not the fame, of a Renaissance master, working in the Lungotevere district of Rome. His name was Alceo Dossena.

Proposing an appropriate subject—a life-size polychrome Madonna and Child—Fasoli and Palesi supplied Dossena with the raw materials: an anonymous 17th-century wooden sculpture of approximately the right dimensions and some antique frames and reliefs from which to scavenge gold leaf and polychrome paint. After several months, they collected the finished statue and hauled it to a secluded convent chapel in the town of Montefiascone. Then they started spreading rumors about it.

Harold Parsons, Italian agent for the Cleveland Museum of Art, heard of the Madonna at a dinner party. Arrangements were made for him to view it in secrecy and to buy it—pungent with incense—for $18,000. By March 1925, the Madonna was safely in Ohio, and the discovery was triumphantly announced by curator William Milliken in the Cleveland Museum’s Bulletin, which cited the Duomo pulpit’s inscription and noted the longstanding gap in Pisano’s oeuvre. “Certainly no exact attribution can be made,” Milliken acknowledged, but careful stylistic comparison to Giovanni’s marbles in Pisa, Siena and Pistoia supported a bold conclusion. “It is no school piece,” he wrote, “and at this moment there is no known artist to whom it could be logically ascribed if not to Giovanni.”

Two years later there was no known artist to whom it could be logically ascribed, including Giovanni. A series of x-rays taken in June 1927, prompted by the doubts of independent scholars, revealed that parts of the sculpture were internally joined with 20th-century nails. The Madonna was quietly returned to Europe, disappointment mitigated by an exciting new purchase from the Continent: For $120,000, the museum had just bought a life-size marble statue of Athena, excavated under enigmatic circumstances, believed to have been produced in Magna Graecia in the fifth century B.C. It was favorably compared with the famous Apollo of Veii.

The curators were two and a half millennia off the mark on the date. The Athena’s origin was traced to Dossena’s Lungotevere studio when the forger was publicly exposed in 1928.

Alceo Dossena has often been credited as the most versatile art forger in history. Shortly after the Athena scandal made worldwide headlines, amidst revelations of several dozen more spurious attributions, the German documentary filmmaker Hans Cürlis sought to film him at work in order to grasp what scholars had missed. Dossena obliged, humming popular tunes as he sculpted clay and chiseled marble. “The abnormality of his work became so natural that it only later occurred to us that we had witnessed the reincarnation of a Renaissance master and an Attic sculptor,” Cürlis observed in retrospect. “One of the fundamental laws governing our attitude to all art seems to have lost its meaning, the law according to which a work of art can only originate once, at the point where certain temporally determinate causes intersect.” For this challenge to art history, Dossena himself gave a simple explanation: “Even as a boy in the industrial art school at Cremona, I grew to be perfectly familiar with the various styles of the past,” he said. “I could not assimilate them in any other way.”

Though hardly the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, the trade school Dossena attended, the Istituto Ala Ponzone Cimino, taught him the rudiments of painting and sculpture, exposing him to classical models he could copy while also emancipating him from the sort of book learning he abhorred. He trusted his own hands, placing more faith in his creative abilities than in his teachers’ knowledge. According to a story a relative of Dossena told a BBC journalist in the 1980s, Dossena was so offended when an instructor criticized a Venus he’d sculpted that he broke off the arms and buried it. Local children soon found it and brought it to the school, where the statue was carefully cleaned and placed on exhibit as an ancient artifact. Dossena was expelled, according to the account, when he gleefully exposed his own ruse.

The tale is perhaps too apt to be believed, given Dossena’s later achievements, but his expulsion was real, and a school report scoffed that he had “all the characteristics of an enfant terrible.” Instead of seeking formal education elsewhere, he went to work for art restorers in Cremona and Milan, fixing countless marble and wooden fittings in churches throughout Northern Italy. Those apprenticeships gave him practice in the traditional crafts, as well as a thorough knowledge of how to artificially age materials. Equally important, it put him in physical contact with the work of masters from Pisano to Mino da Fiesole to Simone Martini, all of whom would later be spuriously credited with Dossena’s own creations.

Dossena never became a master restorer himself and seems not to have thought of conservation as his métier. It was a way to make a living, supporting his wife and young son and paying for raw materials to sculpt in his free hours. Then the First World War intervened and offered him a break in the person of Fasoli.

By most accounts, they met in 1916, while Dossena was in Rome, a soldier on leave for Christmas seeking some money for gifts. Carrying a small bas-relief of the Madonna and Child, which he’d sculpted in terra cotta and patinated in an army urinal, Dossena stopped for a drink at Vinoteca Frascati—or Caffè Felicetto, depending on who’s telling the story, but by all accounts a dive bar in the underbelly of the Eternal City. He offered his artwork to the proprietor, who called for Fasoli, a neighbor with a small antique store. Fasoli liked what he saw. Reckoning that it had been pilfered from a church, he bought it for 100 lire, approximately 12 dollars. But Fasoli was not long deceived, nor was he disappointed when he realized what had happened: While a thief might stock his shop once, a forger could supply him indefinitely. After the war was over, Fasoli set up a studio for Dossena aand made arrangements with his well-connected colleague Romano Palesi—familiarly known as the wormwood king—to buy as much as Dossena could make.

And what did Dossena make of Palesi and Fasoli? The historical record, already undependable with respect to the Christmas story, here falters completely. A decade later, Dossena would claim that he had no idea what the dealers were doing and that he was innocent of their crimes. He was at least ignorant of the size of their spoils—an estimated $2,000,000 over 10 years that they barely shared with him. The bas-relief was resold as a Donatello for a four- or five-figure sum. And for the $120,000 Athena, Dossena was probably paid about $7,500—a good wage for an accomplished stonemason.

Dossena had plenty of work between 1918 and 1928. Commissions were regularly given to him by Fasoli, who together with Palesi decided in advance what might be marketable through their network of middlemen, some crooked, some gullible. They benefited from the harsh economic conditions following World War I, which fostered a black market in genuine masterpieces illicitly sold by impoverished European institutions to the wealthy patrons of ambitious American museums. Rumors were rife and alluring. Even the Vatican was said to be furtively selling off hidden treasures.

In this environment, there was no reason why a wooden Madonna by Giovanni Pisano shouldn’t appear for the first time in 600 years. Indeed, it was hardly worth mentioning compared to another Dossena masterpiece sold in 1924, a Simone Martini Annunciation that Helen Clay Frick purchased for $225,000.

“Absolutely wonderful.” “Unbelievably rare.” Those were the words with which Frick’s European agents described it to her, proposing that she purchase it for her family’s namesake museum. The agents were not exaggerating. A Sienese master of the early 14th century and a favorite of Petrarch, Simone was especially famous for an Annunciation in the Uffizi Gallery, which Tsar Nicholas II had ordered copied by the painter Nicholas Lochoff. Following the Russian Revolution, Lochoff’s copy was sold to Frick as a fine reproduction and hung at the entrance of Helen’s museum in lieu of an original. Frick could scarcely have more visibly advertised that she wanted a Simone Martini painting in her collection. Through a freelance scholar-dealer named Elia Volpi, her agents had discovered something even more spectacular.

Simone was known to have been influenced by French gothic art, and the shapeliness of his figures suggested that he had especially learned from 12th- and 13th-century French statuary. Yet no sculptures by him were known, a fact noted in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari, who lamented in his Lives of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi that paintings “cannot have that eternal life which castings in bronze and works in marble give to sculpture.” The unbelievable rarity Frick’s agents had found was a pair of life-size marble statues strikingly similar to the Virgin and Angel in the Uffizi panel. Volpi proposed that Simone Martini had made them. Frick accepted his judgment and wired him the money. The statues were placed across from the Lochoff copy in the Frick lobby, figures captured in mid-gesture waiting to be written into art history.

Tempting as it may be to take Frick for a fool, she wasn’t one to spend her fortune indiscriminately. As early as 1921, she’d rejected another absolute wonder created by Dossena and peddled by Fasoli and Palesi: a complete marble sarcophagus said to have been sculpted by the 15th-century Tuscan master Mino da Fiesole for the aristocratic Savelli family.

The tomb was first shown to Volpi in a ruined Sienese church, where miraculously a receipt in Mino’s hand was also preserved. When Volpi failed to interest Frick, Fiesole and Palesi had it moved to a cemetery in Florence where they showed it to the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum curator Leo Planiscag. He also rejected it, and convinced the Kunsthistorisches Hofmuseum in Vienna to return it when he learned that they’d acquired it. In 1924, finally, a dealer named Carlo Balboni bought it and sold it for $100,000 to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

There were several obvious reasons to be skeptical of the tomb’s authenticity. On the front of the sarcophagus, above the recumbent figure of a woman in low relief, were two identical Savelli coats of arms, an inexplicable redundancy. Even more nonsensical was the inscription chiseled beneath the body: Obiit enim praefata Maria Catharina de Sabello anno Christi MCCCCXXX. In Latin, the word praefata means “aforesaid” suggesting that the inscription had been copied verbatim from the last paragraph of a longer document. Most damning of all, in 1430, the year Maria Catharina died, Mino was just one year old.

Challenged on all these grounds, and rattled by the exposure of Dossena, the Boston Museum removed the tomb from public view in 1928 but refused to acknowledge that it was new. The sarcophagus was still in basement purgatory in 1935, when George Edgell was made museum director and decided to put it back on view. Inconsistencies detected by laboratory examination were attributed to extensive restoration, a subject on which Edgell elaborated in the December 1937 issue of the museum’s Bulletin. He proposed that a restorer “in rebuilding the tomb had used an old slab which did not belong to the original. Since this slab had the Savelli coat-of-arms, it might then have occurred to the restorer to repeat it for a damaged or missing slab on the other side, thus accounting for a second coat-of-arms on a slab of marble which microscopic investigation revealed to be modern though artificially aged. Having the Savelli coat-of-arms, it would be necessary also to re-cut, or cut anew, the inscription so that it would apply to a member of the Savelli family. This could account for a modern inscription of inappropriate Latinity and a date which seemed too early for the style of the monument.” Only after all these suppositions and justifications did he get to the point. “In any case,” he wrote in third-person imperious, “the Director would like to emphasize in conclusion the fact that the tomb is put on exhibition because it is a beautiful object.”

That sentiment was echoed by other institutions more willing to acknowledge that they’d been duped. A 1928 article in the New York Times records the Cleveland Art Museum curators calling Dossena “among the greatest sculptors of the day.” And in a 1931 interview with the Times, Frick trustee J. Horace Harding paid tribute to his “creative art,” saying that “Dossena deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest sculptors the world has known. In my opinion, his sculptures which have found their way into American collections are treasures that are cheap at any price.”

Naturally there’s a dose of retroactive self-justification in such assertions, but the praise goes well beyond mere rationalization, and helps to explain why experts and connoisseurs were willing to overlook the historical unlikelihood of sculpture by Martini, or the manifold problems with the Savelli tomb. To early 20th-century viewers, these objects were almost preternaturally charismatic. For all Fasoli and Palesi’s antics—often clever, sometimes ludicrous—what animated the artifacts was Dossena’s mallet.

Dossena once told the art historian Walter Bombe that he had no formal training save for 10 anatomy lessons. Though this claim conveniently overlooked his aborted trade school education and serial apprenticeships with restorers, it was essentially legitimate. Dossena’s sculptures were without theoretical foundation. The anatomy lessons had taught him to begin with observation.

When Fasoli commissioned a sculpture, he supplied the artist with photographs that supplemented Dossena’s direct experience of the masters’ artwork in situ. In the case of Simone Martini, Dossena referred to pictures of the Uffizi Annunciation. For the Savelli sarcophagus, he was given photos of Mino da Fiesole’s 1480 Tomb of Francesco Tornabuoni in Rome to inspire the architecture, and Bernardo Rossellino’s 1451 Tomb of the Beata Villana in Florence to suggest the dead woman’s recumbent pose. Dossena relied on these for historical facts such as period dress, as shown by another gaffe in the Mino sarcophagus: One of Maria Catharina’s slippers lacks a sole because the sole of the Beata Villana’s shoe was not visible in his photograph of Rossellino’s tomb.

Yet the unintended omissions are the least of the differences. Dossena’s Maria Catharina has a personality wholly distinct from the Beata Villana, more pampered, less devout. And the postures of his Virgin and angel have the same center of gravity as those of Martini, but their gestures are dissimilar, their expressions altered, as if he and Simone had captured the same characters in different moods. Even if old-fashioned, Dossena wasn’t wholly beholden to the past. He was also working from life.

“We watched Dossena modeling for a long time before we filmed him,” Cürlis later recalled of the documentary he made. “The figures were first thoroughly shaped in the nude from the living model, a pair of large wooden dividers being frequently used to measure length of limb, head, and distances on the model and transfer them to the clay figure. Then he draped the model and reproduced the robing in clay on his figures.” Dossena’s process was the same whether the subject belonged to the Renaissance or ancient Greece. “We were naturally very keen to see Dossena at work on an ancient statue,” noted Cürlis. “The goddess, too, was first modeled in the nude and then draped in her robe. The head took shape with equal fluency, and quite suddenly a smile dawned on the face of a woman to whom the Greeks had prayed two thousand five hundred years before.”

Of course female models, especially naked, weren’t common in the 1400s, and the ancient Greeks left no record of their studio techniques. That didn’t seem to bother Dossena, and the remainder of his process was even more unorthodox. Immaculately finished statues were smashed with a hammer. In the case of archaic marble works such as the Cleveland Museum’s Athena, he sandblasted the fractures to emulate erosion. Then fragments were lowered by winch into an acid bath sunk in the studio floor and soaked as many as 40 times, in between which the stone was blazed with a torch to crackle the surface. Other chemicals were intermittently applied to produce chalky deposits.

Dossena declined to reveal his exact formula. “The patina is a secret of mine,” he told the Giornale d’Italia in 1931, “and also a torment to me. If this light of mine gave luster to my creations it was never an end in itself. It was part of the amalgam that made of the object something worthy.”

More broadly, Dossena was emphatic that he never intended to deceive people with his sculptures. Interviewed by Art News in 1929, he spoke with frustration of “the mistaken supposition that I meant to make false representations. The truth is that I have never made any but original things, modeling them from nature in an antique character and style.”

There are many reasons to doubt him, from his pretense of carving the Savelli coat of arms into the Boston sarcophagus, to the troubles he took to make his patina penetrate beneath the surface of his Athena. There are also good grounds to believe Dossena, such as his predilection for working freely from life rather than focusing purely on antiquarian sources, to say nothing of his low wages. His undeniable fakery would seem to be incompatible with his evident sincerity. Following his exposure, people felt compelled to take one side or the other.

There is another option. Can it be that the issue of authenticity, foremost in experts’ minds, didn’t really matter to him?

“In the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art stands a little statue, smiling,” reported the New York Times on December 5, 1928. “Perhaps it smiles because it slipped into America’s greatest museum, past all the barriers raised to keep apocryphal works out. It was bought for the museum several years ago as a genuine piece of archaic Greek sculpture. Now it is known to be just another example of the work of that gifted imitator of ancient sculptural styles, Alceo Dossena of Rome.”

The statue in the Metropolitan basement was a three-foot-tall kore, acquired in 1926 by the Met’s European agent John Marshall as an artifact from the sixth century B.C. Marshall began to doubt the kore’s legitimacy on stylistic grounds shortly after shipping it to the United States. He requested that it not be exhibited.

Several months later, Marshall was shown fragments of several more statues, including a standing Athena and an abducted maiden, purportedly from the same illicit excavation. These confirmed his suspicions of fraud. He partnered with a well-connected colleague, an Italian diplomat named Piero Tozzi, to discover the forger.

Fasoli must have been aware of the investigation—or must at least have heard rumors circulating in Rome about wholesale fakery—when Dossena approached him in May 1927 to collect several thousand dollars owed on a statue. Dossena needed the money urgently because his mistress had just died after months of illness, and he could not afford the medical bills or funeral expenses. Evidently expecting that Dossena would soon be exposed and would no longer be of value, Fasoli refused to pay. Dossena sought the advice of a lawyer, who seems quickly to have reckoned the sort of money Fasoli and Palesi were making by selling Dossena’s statues as antiques. Dossena sued his dealers.

Fasoli responded by reporting Dossena to the police as an enemy of the Fascist regime, accusing him of verbally slandered il Duce. To lend authority to his groundless accusation, he hired the secretary of the Rome Fascist Federation, Aldo Vecchini, as his attorney. Not to be outdone, Dossena hired Roberto Farinacci, secretary of the National Fascist Party, second in command to Mussolini. Charges against Dossena were summarily dropped, but Farinacci could not make Fasoli pay the money Dossena demanded, an ever-escalating sum stretching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. After a court-appointed appraiser valued Dossena’s sculptures at several thousand lire—the deliberate breakages being counted as damage—the case was abandoned.

But the prominence of those involved, and the sensational claims, made Dossena famous by 1928, leaving no doubt about the origin of several dozen major Renaissance and Classical forgeries. In September, he was visited by Metropolitan curator Gisela Richter. With evident pride, he showed her his plaster model for the Metropolitan kore, studio photos of the Cleveland Athena, and numerous works in progress including, her secretary noted, “a Mino da Fiesole relief of a Madonna, a Gothic baptismal font, a French seventeenth century helmeted head, tempered with acid perhaps, but certainly not yet fired, etcetera.” He gave Richter a comprehensive tour of his studio. “All my own work,” he told her. “None are copies, none are imitations, I created them all—paintings, sculpture, architecture, wood carvings.”

He was equally forthcoming with others, including dealers such as Jakob Hirsch, who had sold the Athena to the Cleveland Museum and was required to refund their money. For obvious reasons, Hirsch did not want to believe Dossena’s claims and accused him of lying. Even after the sculptor showed him fingers broken off the Athena’s hand, he insisted that Dossena was just a vainglorious restorer.
Certainly Dossena wasn’t modest. That much Hirsch got right. Shortly after the Fasoli trial, Dossena boasted to the newspapers that his sculptures “really deserve to be prized as highly as those of Donatello, Verrocchio, Vecchietta or da Fiesole,” all men he’d emulated in his half-century quest to assimilate his observations of the human figure with those of the artists he deemed masters.

He did not pretend that his work was theirs, but imagined himself to be their peer, and also a contemporary of the ancients. His falsifications—the hammer blows and acid baths—gave credence to this conviction.

Between 1929 and 1931, the notorious forger Dossena had exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and Vienna. His work was shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A full room was briefly devoted to his antiquities at the Metropolitan. His fakes were also put up for sale by dealers who’d been burned, and also by Dossena himself. On March 9, 1933, National Art Galleries, Inc. organized a public auction in the ballroom of New York’s Plaza Hotel. The catalogue was prefaced with an essay by the esteemed editor-in-chief of Art News, Alfred Frankfurter, who paid tribute to the “quality of sincerity in Dossena, the almost incredible ability of the man to have worked without affectation and without malevolence in the spirit of the dead past and its masters.” In Frankfurter’s opinion, that made his work “as valuable to the collector and museum for artistic achievement as for scientific documentation.”

Buyers were more wary. The 39 pieces at the Plaza realized a mere $9,125. The highest price paid was $675 for a marble relief of the Madonna and Child in the style of Mino da Fiesole. Commentators were also growing increasingly disenchanted, particularly scorning new works executed under Dossena’s own signature. “The faker Dossena is finished,” wrote the critic Oscar Bie about Dossena’s exhibit at the Berlin Hall of Art in 1930. “But the artist Dossena does not appear.” In 1937, the critic Adolph Donath was even more dismissive in his book How Forgers Work. “Dossena’s work leaves us unmoved,” he wrote.

That was the year Dossena died, following a stroke on October 11. Posthumous judgment didn’t improve his reputation. In the classic 1948 book Fakes, the art historian Otto Kurz derisively described Dossena’s admirers as “those who expect historical sculptures to be very grand, but just the least bit stiff, a little boring, slightly empty, and above all not too outmoded.” And when Perry Rathbone became director of the Museum of Fine Arts following Edgell’s death in 1954, he buried the Savelli tomb in storage.

There is truth to Kurz’s observation, apparent in retrospect. Maria Catharina’s pretty face would have made her a good catch in the 1920s, and the figures in the Annunciation attributed to Martini are sweet enough to have been cast in the movies. Yet Frankfurter’s 1933 tribute is equally compelling. If anything, the sculptures’ sentimentality is testament to Dossena’s sincerity. The slightly empty grandeur reflected his era, and made his anachronistic art contemporary.

The schism in Dossena’s reputation reflects the problem presented by his art, that it cannot adequately be categorized as true or false. Neither the praise he garnered in the 1920s nor the condemnation that followed does his work justice. He was an original and he was a copyist, and the compulsion to take sides merely reflects society’s categorical literal-mindedness.
At least one anonymous functionary in the Italian government attempted to register what Dossena had achieved. Every sculpture bound for the 1933 National Art Galleries auction in New York needed to be documented for export. The bureaucrat issued a permit for each artwork, certifying that it was a genuine fake.

Adapted from In Praise of the Fake, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2011

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