The ingenious forger

Most forgers of fine art are masters of one particular style or material. A forger who fakes a passable Matisse would usually not fare much better imitating medieval art or any other artist for that matter. But not Alceo Dossena.

Dossena was a very talented stonemason and sculptor who displayed extraordinary skill in duplicating classical Roman, Greek, Gothic, medieval and Renaissance artistic styles and artists such as Giovanni Pisano, Simone Martini and Donatello.

In 1916, he turned his remarkable talents to forgery, producing fake sculptures from wood, stone, bronze and terracotta.

Image Source: Galleria Recta

His works seemed so authentic that his dealer Alfredo Fasoli could easily sell them to museums and collectors as antiques. One of them included a sculptured tomb attributed to Mino da Fiesole that was sold to Boston Museum of Fine Arts. So prodigious were his talents that art critics and connoisseurs often found his imitations superior to the genuine article!

Dossena’s imitations of the style of Simone Martini (c. 1283-1344) were particularly remarkable. Martini was a painter, and was never, so far as was known, a sculptor. Dossena studied Martini’s painting of ‘The Annunciation’ and translated the portrait into a seated Madonna in wood. As a result, impressed art historians modified their lectures hastily. Stunned experts praised it as a major discovery.

Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus

Part of Dossena’s triumph was due to his skill in finding authentic materials and in ageing his pieves. Genuine Gothic wood sculptures, for instance, were gilded or painted. To reproduce this, Dossena soaked the paint from old but relatively useless statuary or picture frames. He used the wood to sculpt new statues and carefully re-applied the flecks of paint.

As for his ‘ancient’ marble sculptures, the appearance of authentic antiquity was achieved by action of an acid formula whose composition was kept secret. This produced a discoloration and hardness in depth which completely deceived the museum experts.

During the 1920s, Dossena’s fakes were displayed in the greatest art museums and galleries in the Western world.

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

Two of Dossena’s sculptures are on permanent display in the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh. They were intended to appear as if they had been mounted on a Renaissance church, carved by Simone Martini. The subject matter is the Virgin Mary and angel Gabriel.

Alceo Dossena statues at the University of Pittsburgh.

Naturally, there was growing suspicion due to the sheer number of newly discovered masterpieces. But no one suspected that all this was the brainchild of a single artist.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, for instance, owned a wooden ‘Madonna and Child’ in the style of Giovanni Pisano (c. 1245-1314) which had been carved by Dossena. In 1927, X-ray revealed 20th-century nails inside, causing it to be immediately removed from display. Then, in the very same month, another Dossena fake, a marble ‘Athena’ was bought by the same museum for $120,000!

The following year, Dossena noticed something unusual. Most of his works were in large collections as ancient, and yet here he was receiving only about $200 per sale. His dealers had been keeping most of the money. Disgusted by their tactics, Dossena sued his dealers. In court, he finally confessed to forging several famous sculptures, but defended himself against forgery charges by claiming that he had been unaware that others were selling his work under false pretenses. A trial cleared him and he was awarded $66,000 in compensation.

Subsequently, he tried to exhibit his forged works in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be a failure. When a forgery of his sold at a peak price of $150,000, the Italian government auctioned 39 of his works in 1933 for $9,000.

Four years later, he died a poor man.

When Dossena confessed to forging several famous works of art, many refused to believe him. In fact, even today, there are some of his works in galleries and collections which are still attributed to the Old Masters.

Images source: Artnet

Featured header image source: Cambi Casa d’Aste

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