Showcasing Shams

At the Museum of Fakes, what's not real is still art

Filing cabinets full of fakes at the Museum of Fakes (Dina Modianot-Fox)

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A show in 2004 at Siena's Santa Maria della Scala in Italy honored gifted counterfeiters of the 19th and 20th centuries, regarded as the golden age of forgery. Those featured included Icilio Federico Joni (1866 – 1946), known as the prince of Sienese fakers. After turning out exquisite but phony Renaissance religious paintings, Joni outed himself in a 1932 autobiography, gleefully describing how he managed to fool the experts.

"The forger is generally a talented person who has not made it in his own right and avenges himself by hiding behind works of successful artists," says art historian Gianni Mazzoni of the University of Siena and the exhibit's curator. "He takes particular pleasure when art critics and experts are taken in."

The forger who most impressed Casillo was Alceo Dossena (1873 – 1937), whose works were also featured in Siena. The Italian sculptor is often described as the greatest counterfeiter of them all. Dossena rocked the art world in 1928 by revealing that he was behind some of the most prized works in prestigious collections and museums, including the Metropolitan and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He blew the whistle on the corrupt dealers who had been selling his sculptures as the work of Donatello and other revered Renaissance artists after the merchants refused him money to bury his wife.

So, are fakes real art? Mazzoni says that for master counterfeiters like Dossena and Eric Hebborn (1934 – 1996), whose book, The Art Forger's Handbook, gives detailed instructions on creating "old masters," talent trumps forgery, making their pieces true "works of art."

Which brings us back to the Museum of Fakes. "Through the most beautiful fakes," Casillo says "we want to keep alive the memory of a history of art, which, although perverse, is often fascinating."

Dina Modianot-Fox, a regular contributor, reported this story from Salerno, Italy.


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