by Roderick Conway Morris

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Masters of the art of forgery

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 31 July 2004
Metropolitan, New York
Madonna and Child by Icilio Federico Joni,
late 19th to early 20th century



A curious but, until recently, never systematically investigated spin-off of the 19th-century Gothic Revival was a thriving industry in fake pictures and sculptures.

The epicenter of this activity was Siena, as the products of the workshops here ended up in just about every major museum, gallery and private collection in the world.

The story of these fakes and their creators now unfolds in an immaculately researched and visually sumptuous exhibition curated by the Sienese art historian Gianni Mazzoni, 'Falsi d'autore' (Fakes by Master Artists), which continues at Santa Maria della Scala until October 3. The show coincides with the reissue of the autobiography of Siena's most celebrated faker, Icilio Federico Joni. Originally published in 1932, it is for the first time being printed with a full English parallel text, 'Le memorie di un pittore di quadri antichi' (Memoirs of a Painter of Old Pictures).

The unification of Italy in the second half of the 19th century led to the closure and downsizing of many religious institutions, which resulted in the dispersal of thousands of art works dating from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. There were also numerous sales of private collections and family heirlooms by aristocratic and bourgeois families struggling to pay off debts and make ends meet. This influx of goods into the antiques market provided a great deal of work for Italy's restorers and craftsmen, since many of these pieces were in need of cleaning, repair, and in keeping with the interventionist tastes of the times, radical restoration, before they could be sold on, often to foreign buyers.

But so fashionable did these Italian 'primitives' become that demand was soon outstripping supply, giving rise to a new type of artist-craftsman capable of turning out from scratch increasingly convincing reproductions, imitations and out-and-out fakes.

Siena became the capital of this cottage industry, above all because of the extraordinary continuity in traditional craft skills there - painting in tempera, for example, and gilding. With this technical expertise handed down from generation to generation, all that was required were artists with real flair and a genuine love and understanding of antique Sienese art. Late 19th-century Siena seems to have abounded in them, and it is these artist-craftsmen - Icilio Federico Joni, Igino Gottardi, Alceo Dossena, Fulvio Corsini, Umberto Giunti, Bruno Marzi and others - who are the stars of 'Falsi d'autore.'

As Joni's memoirs and Gianni Mazzoni's excellent commentary in both show and catalog make clear, at the supply end these artists operated so openly that it would be hard to represent their activities as clandestine. When most of the works were delivered to dealers in Florence, Venice, Rome and elsewhere, they were sold for what they were: modern imitations of early old masters. Typically, it was only later that the dealers sold them to their clients as the real thing.

One of the many rich documentary sources Mazzoni has drawn upon are the records of Siena's 'Office for the Export of Art Objects,' which was located close to the Fine Arts Academy. It was to this office that the producers of 'antique' pictures and carvings had to repair to obtain export licenses, which they could only do by proving that the work was not an original but, in fact, a fake.

According to Joni, Bernard Berenson was at first fooled by Joni's imitations when he started buying them in Florence, but eventually realized that they were painted by the hand of a modern master. Berenson duly journeyed to Siena and tracked him down in no time. Afterward, Berenson appears to have divested himself of these pictures by Joni, offering them as genuine, but keeping a couple for himself as reminders of his own youthful inexperience, and also, it seems, as a means of testing the expertise of his rivals.

In the early 1930s Joni revealed his intention to publish his life story; a group of Italian antique dealers got together and offered him a substantial sum to desist, but he went ahead regardless. When the English version, entitled 'The Affairs of a Painter,' came out in 1936, it was cut in several places, and Berenson's name did not once appear in the text. The book vanished with remarkable rapidity from sale, very likely, according to Mazzoni, because Berenson's colleague Joseph Duveen managed to purchase and destroy most of the copies.

Joni and his fellow 'fakers' were sometimes quite legitimately called upon to apply their skills to make faithful copies of genuine works - for instance, when an owner wished to sell an original but keep a less valuable version. The existence of such copies has led to a considerable degree of confusion, and Mazzoni displays some fascinating examples of copies that came to be regarded as originals and vice versa. In some cases there is no doubt that the making of a copy provided the opportunity of spiriting away the original undetected, and leaving in its place the copy.

However, only a relatively small part of Joni's production consisted of direct copies, his 'original' fakes being harder to detect. Indeed, he took some pride in the idea that he was making something new. In contrast to a counterfeiter of bank notes or coins, he writes in his memoirs that an artist 'who creates a work of art of his own, in imitation of the style of an old master, is not a forger; he is at worst an imitator, and he is creating something of his own.'

Some of Joni's works were so admired - whether with or without the knowledge that they were fakes is unclear - that they were assiduously copied by other artists, creating a subgenre of fakes of fakes.

Increasingly sophisticated scientific techniques have made it easier to separate the sheep from the goats, but as more than one expert contributor to the catalog emphasizes, the application of science alone cannot always give a definitive answer. Although the use of X-rays certainly proved decisive when a panel painting purporting to be an antique likeness of the 15th-century ruler Sigismondo Malatesta turned out to have been painted over a portrait of the 19th-century revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Whereas microscopic examination of wood can, for example, reveal that a wooden panel has had the worm holes filled in on the painted side before being reused, or that it is held together with modern machine-made nails, when dealing with sculptures carved in stone, the challenges can be much greater.

Had Alceo Dossena, the brilliant imitator of the 14th-century sculptor Giovanni Pisano, stuck to one artist, for example, it is possible he would never have been detected. So convincing was his touch that Dossena even managed to sell sculptures attributed to the painter Simone Martini, who as far as is known never carved a sculpture in his life. As it was, Dossena's fakes were only exposed by their maker. After a 'Donatello' he had made was sold by an Italian merchant to a London dealer in 1927 for 3 million lire, Dossena, who received a fraction of the sum, fell on hard times. The Italian middleman refused him a loan to pay for his companion's funeral expenses, and in revenge Dossena blew the whistle on himself.

There were also cases of fakers exposing their own works out of professional vanity, having been accused of lacking the talent to produce work of such high quality. Berenson intensely irritated Joni when the artist pointed out one of the pictures on the critic's wall as his handiwork, and Berenson refused to believe him.

Mazzoni argues that it is time for the works of the great fakers to take their place in the general history of 19th- and 20th-century Italian art. Given the undeniable beauty of some of the works by these master imitators, it is not surprising that there is a burgeoning market in the best of these pieces. They now have a rarity value of their own, with collectors willing to pay substantial sums for the 'genuine article.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024