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Moments in ArtThe Fakes that Embarrassed the Met: The Making of the Forgeries
by Lawrence Jeppson
Fabrication of the huge terracotta figures that embarrassed the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Valentine's Day, 1961, began with the making of a few small bits of archaeological pottery decades earlier.
I wrote about this monumental scam in considerable detail in my book The Fabulous Frauds (1970). Six years after the forgeries were unmasked, Thomas Hoving (1931-2009) became director of the Met. Later he became editor and publisher of Connoisseur magazine.
In 1997, he published his own book about fakers, False Impresssions, The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes. About the Etruscan Warriors, he said, "The story has been told numerous times, but best of all by Lawrence Jeppson in his book on art fakes." (p.89)
A recounting here must be much less detailed, and it will be split into two parts: “The Making of the Forgeries” and “The Unmasking of the Fakes.”
Etruria was an ancient civilization thriving on the northern part of the Italian boot. A loose confederation of states, it was conquered and wiped out by the Romans in the 4th Century BC. Rome was accused of sacking the city of Volsinii to obtain its 2,000 Etruscan terracotta and bronze statues. Razed, Volsinii disappeared, and the Roman town of Orvieto was built atop its remains.
Although Etruscans left no written history, they believed in burying a dead person's possessions with the body. In one locality, so many tombs were cut into the porous limestone that they were laid out along regular routes like houses on a street.
Cultural clues were left in thousands of graves, many possibly still undiscovered. All this hidden stuff led to a plague of grave-robbing, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Trafficking in legitimate archeological artifacts was not yet an international crime.
European and American scholars competed, trying to figure out the culture and history of the Etruscans from new evidence as it was dug up. Evidently the Etruscan tribes had a thriving trade with ancient Greece. It is said that more fine Grecian artifacts have been dug up in Etruscan graves than in Greece.
Scamming museums with Etruscan forgeries goes back a hundred years prior to that Valentine’s Day when the Met admitted it had egg on its face. About 1860, fragments of two magnificent Etruscan sarcophagi were dug up about 22 miles northwest of Rome.
A couple of stonecutters, the Pinelli brothers, were summoned to assemble the jigsaw puzzles. They were up to the task. One sarcophagus went to the Louvre, the other to a museum in Rome.
The Pinellis figured they were the world’s experts in assembling broken-up Etruscan caskets. Then the light dawned. If they could reconstruct, why couldn’t they construct!
They fathered and aged the Castellani Sarcophagus. Today it seems more Jean Cocteau than pre-Roman. A pair of connubial figures reclines on the lid. He is nude, his bearded head shaped much like an Easter Island tiki. He leans against a couple of pillows, while she leans, with one knee bent, upon his thigh and points her hand toward his face in a gesture more appropriate to a Bali dancer.
Until 1936, this misbegotten masterpiece of Etruscan art graced the treasure rooms of the British Museum. It had been sold through an Italian dealer, Domenico Fuschini, who was making a fortune selling pieces of broken pottery found in abandoned wells at Orvieto. When pieces could not be found to complete a vessel, they had to be made. The Pinellis could not keep up with the demand. So Fuschini hired two new brothers, Pio and Alfonso Riccardi, to make the fake pieces.
The cunning craft was about to be handed and Etruscanized to the next generation.
Pio Riccardi produced four sons: Riccardo, Amadeo, Gino, and Fausto. Alfonso had two sons, Teodoro and Virgilio. The family business would be squeezed to support six families. It had progressed from the mere manufacture of missing shards to the fabrication of complete vases, plaques, and other objects.
Old Roman histories recounted that in 509 BC, an Etruscan sculptor named Vulca had been summoned to Rome to make statues of Jupiter and Hercules of heroic size, one and a half times human proportions. A chariot sculpture was also ordered.
Firing causes pottery to shrink. Plutarch wrote that when the clay chariot was fired, the heat made it expand to such extraordinary dimensions that the roof and walls of the furnace had to be removed to retrieve the statue.
The old Roman literature referred to other huge Etruscan statuary. Scholars speculated. Where were they? What happened to them?
Italian enterprise would not permit these scholars to be disappointed. Pio and Alfonso Riccardi and their sons decided the time had come to produce an entire two-horse bronze chariot 2500 years old. In 1912, Fuschini sold it to the British Museum.
The band of fakers were turning out terracotta Etruscan plaques that were being snapped up as authentic by the world’s museums. In Rome, the Metropolitan was represented for 22 years by John Marshall, an English architect, who is rightly credited with building the museum’s eye-popping collection of antiquities.
He purchased seven of the plaques from another Italian dealer. On the American side, Marshall competed with purchasing agents for Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Kansas City museums, not to mention agents for museums in England, France, Denmark, and Germany.
Dealer Fuschini ordered Pio Riccardi and family to move to Orvieto, where they would be closer to the grave robbers. This gave their fakes more credence.
Riccardo, his two cousins, Teodoro and Virgilia, and Adolfo Fioravanti, Riccardo's friend since childhood, decided to bring the old accounts to life by creating a tall Etruscan warrior. Since they had no idea what the warrior should look like, they based their likeness on the reclining male figure on the Castellani Sarcophagus. Ironically, their forgery was based upon a forgery.
Their Old Warrior stood 6 feet 7 1/2 inches tall. Creating it caused all kinds of problems. The four conspirators argued about the placement of the right arm. Logically, it should have held a shield, but the shield added too much weight to be supported. They solved the problem with an equally logical decision: they agreed to discard the arm.
The modeling mixture consisted of a fine-grain clay sand and grog. This grog was was made from broken pieces of old pottery and gave porosity to the mixture. The grog would not contract or lose moisture during firing, and it thus served to stabilize dimensions. Without it the fired figure would have had contracted enormously — as much as 33 percent.
When finished, the Old Warrior was broken into pieces. As quietly as he could, Marshall bought the prize, and soon crates of the broken-up figure were on the way back to New York for assembly.
Gisela Richter, who had a distinguished, nearly 40-year career at the Met, wrote back to Marshall, “The Etruscan terra-cotta has arrived safely and is at present being put together. I think it is quite exciting and will be one of the most dramatic things in the museum. How beautifully the painted patterns are preserved. Do you know anything about the provenance?”
Marshall’s response: “Please delay publication.”
Why did he say that? It wasn’t doubt about the authenticity. He had heard rumors of something else, perhaps bigger, perhaps better. Italy swarmed with agents and informers. Publication of the Old Warrior might start his competitors looking closer into the gossip.
As far as is known the Old Warrior was the first monumental sculpture produced by the Riccardi ring. If there had been earlier attempts they had failed and been destroyed, serving as grog for the next try.
If the historian Pliny were to be believed, the Etruscan Jupiter and Hercules he described would be 25 feet tall. Because faking either of those was far beyond the capabilities of Riccardi and Fioravanti, they decided they could at least make a five-foot head. For inspiration they used a two-dimensional figure on a three-inch Greek vase.
On 25 July 1916, four large crates containing 178 fragments of a terracotta head arrived on the docks of New York. It was in the middle of the war, and German U-boats were taking their toll of trans-Atlantic merchantmen. One wonders that Marshall risked shipping absolutely unique, irreplaceable treasures during such a period, but Italy had entered the war, and perhaps he thought they were as safe at sea as in Rome.
The ring had an even bigger artifact afoot, and Marshall’s and the Met’s biggest triumph was still coming.
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