January 20, 2010

Master Forger

In William Wyler’s film Roman Holiday, of 1953, the reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) tells Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) his address is Via Margutta 51. It is a real address, but how the location came to be used, no one seems to remember. Via Margutta 51 was next door to the last studio of one of the ablest art forger of all time, Alceo Dossena. In an early scene in the film, Peck uses the phone of a busy sculpture studio that is just below his flat. This could have been Dossena’s last workroom, and appropriately, Wyler filled it with hardworking sculptors.

Alceo Dossena died in 1937, leaving a vast legacy of statuary and reliefs that fooled many of the world’s art experts and museum buyers. At one time or another, his output was shown in major museums in Boston, New York, St. Louis, and Cleveland, to name but a few. Most of those works were documented in a slim volume, Alceo Dossena, Scultore, which was published in Rome in 1955, complete with photographs. At the time of his death, the total amount for “Dossenas” by Americans was estimated at between $1 million and $3 million-a figure that in today’s dollars would be very impressive.

Dossena was not the usual art forger. He made little money from his efforts, and none of his works were copies. He was in love with the past. “I am not a forger,” he once insisted, “(or) a swindler. I never copied works. I simply reconstructed them.” So convincing were his reconstructions, however, that dealers often could not resist selling them as the real thing. Dossena did his part in the deceptions. He excelled in giving an aged appearance to his works, never satisfied until each piece was just right. Sometimes, he used authentic materials. In creating Renaissance-style works in wood, for instance, Dossena reworked ancient polychrome painstakingly removed from old statues and picture frames. Up to the time of his death, he experimented with various methods of patination on stone, and, as one observer has exclaimed, “For some, Dossena may not have been a master artist, but there’s no doubt he was a master chemist.”

Dossena’s eye for detail was sometime his undoing. As inspiration for a “Renaissance tomb by the sculpture Mino da Fiesole,” he used among other things a print of Rossellino’s tomb of Beata Villana, in Florence, showing her sandal straps but not the soles. The feet of Dossena’s Maria Caterine Savelli are carved in just this way, with straps that attach to nothing.

The dealers added a blunder of their own, an inscription that read like an entry from a schoolboy Latin text: “At last the above-mentioned Maria Caterina Savelli died.” And the date of her death? 1430. Mino, the supposed artist for the tomb, was not born until 1429!

Why did Dossena make the fakes? There is no easy answer. Perhaps Dossena’s reward lay in hearing that experts attributed his works to Donatello, Vecchietta, or Mino da Fiesole. They were the fools, Dossena thought; he had never suggested such attributions.

Clive, here is MY favorite sight on Via Margutta.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich