February 19, 2013

Jonathan Keats' FORGED: Alceo Dossena (1878-1937)

Madonna and Child, marble
Alceo Dossena, 1930
San Diego Museum of Art

Artist and critic Jonathan Keats highlighted Italian forger Alceo Dossena in his book, FORGED: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age. A version of the chapter on Dossena was previously published in Art & Antiques Magazine ("Almost Too Good") in November 2011.

In 1925, the Cleveland Museum of Art paid $18,000 for a painted wood statue of a life-size Madonna and Child from a convent chapel in the town of Montefiascone near Lake Bosena north of Rome. Two years later, a series of X-rays revealed that the sculpture was not by Giovanni Pisano or any known Renaissance or medieval artist due to the presence of 20-th century nails used in the construction.  The Ohio museum returned the work to Europe before paying $120,000 for an ancient marble statue of Athena.  In 1928 AlceoDossena, angry that his fraudulent associates had made significantly more money than they had paid him for his forgeries, confessed he had made both works in his studio in Rome.

In his hometown of Cremona in Lombardy, Dossena learned painting and sculpture at a trade school then apprenticed for art restorers in Cremona and Milan, which 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 (Dossena would later create works that he would attribute to these artists).

Madonna and Child, wood, early 20th century
Alceo Dossena, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Dossena, who later claimed not to have intended to defraud anyone with his creations, was peddling artificially aged works in dive bars during World War I when he met two antique and art dealers who set him up in a studio after the war. It’s estimated that Dossena operated in his forgery studio from 1918 to 1928, providing product worth $2 million on the art market. Keats writes:

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 addition to the wooden Madonna in the style of Pisano, Dossena created dozens of works: an Annunciation in marble (Simone Martini) sold to Helen Clay Frick for $225,000; a marble sarcophagus (Mino da Fiesole) sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $100,000; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased ‘a genuine piece of archaic Greek sculpture’ that went straight to the basement.

Immediately after Dossena exposed his work as forgeries in 1928, the Cleveland Art Museum called Dossena “among the greatest sculptors of the day” (this institution does not include any works by this artist in their collection online") . But when Dossena’s works were sold under his own name at auction in New York City in 1933, 39 pieces sold for a total of $9,125.  Critics then dismissed Dossena’s artistic talent in the seven years before his death. Keats writes:

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.  Modern viewers deem authenticity a prerequisite for an artifact to be a work of art.  Dossena presented people with an authentic paradox.