The Tomb of Maria Caterina Savelli

Dec 17, 2023 | Authentications & attributions, Fakes

In 1922, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston invested $100,000 to acquire the marble tomb of Maria Caterina Savelli, a wealthy Italian woman. The tomb was considered so captivating that the museum displayed it prominently at the entrance.

Despite the monument bearing the date 1430, and Mino da Fiesole being born in 1429, it was believed to have been sculpted by this famous Florentine artist, who worked between Florence and Rome and left, among other notable works, a funerary monument to Francesco Tornabuoni in Rome.

Mino da Fiesole, Funerary Monument to Francesco Tornabuoni, Rome, Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

However, the inauthenticity of the Boston Museum’s tomb went unnoticed until 1928 when an obscure Italian sculptor named Alceo Dossena sued the art dealer Alfredo Fasoli for $66,000. Dossena claimed that, without him knowing, Fasoli had sold the tomb and other works created by him as authentic.

Dossena was indeed able to create real masterpieces imitating renowned artists of the past, deceiving even the most experienced eyes, who were attributing them to Donatello, Simone Martini, Giovanni and Nino Pisano, Andrea del Verrocchio and others. These pieces were purchased by some of the world’s greatest museums. Often, they weren’t copies of known examples but original models created following the stylistic dictates and execution techniques of classical antiquity, the 13th-14th centuries, or the Renaissance.

Alceo Dossena was born in Cremona in 1878 and started working in a marble workshop at the age of twelve, learning to replicate styles. In the early 1900s, an encounter with Michelangelo Monti, a sculptor from Montevarchi, directed him toward Renaissance sculpture. After World War I, he moved to Rome, where he met the antique dealer Alfredo Fasoli, who allegedly led him into the forgery business. Dossena’s production of fakes mainly occurred in the 1918-1928 decade when antique dealers commissioned to him numerous sculptures, suggesting subjects and models, providing money, suitable materials, new premises, and everything needed for the production of dozens and dozens of pieces, even fake stripped sections of entire ruined cathedrals supposedly unearthed in Maremma land reclamation.

When the scandal erupted following Dossena’s denunciation, the involved antique dealers tried to buy Dossena’s silence, accusing him of anti-fascism. Cremonese fascist leader Farinacci vouched for him. The trial, held between December ’28 and January ’29, concluded with an acquittal due to lack of evidence. This led to the glorification of Dossena’s work, considering him an autonomous virtuoso, a renaissance Donatello, and he himself authenticated and signed sculptures retroactively. The notion that he had been a victim of antique dealers had taken hold. Still, it’s not certain that he was so not implicated, as around ’36, Dossena created the Diana the Huntress, which took the path to America, presented as an Etruscan piece.

In addition to his formidable technique, Dossena’s skill lay in meticulously studied patinas. Giuseppe Cellini writes: “His patina is not an overlay of materials, as found in excavated sculptures, but a tonality of color underlying the epidermis, penetrating inside gradually, fixing indelibly in the undersquares, just as it occurs in medieval and Renaissance marbles. It is not a smear given and removed after the finished work, according to the method used by other forgers: his ingenious process was to sculpt the compositions almost to completion, with planes smoothed from the gradina, and at that point, apply a liquid patina based on permanganate, rust water, and dried oak earth in the heat of a gas flame. This way, the entire surface was covered with a blackish crust; subsequently, during finishing, with flat chisels and calcagnoli, he removed the surface itself and, like peeling a fruit, uncovered the marble’s flesh, with the internal halo of patina, as in the antique.”

To unmask such a forger, as we have seen, it’s unlikely that the eye of a connoisseur alone would be enough.