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Moments in ArtThe Fakes that Embarrassed the Met, Part 3: A Noble Resolution
by Lawrence Jeppson
After the Metropolitan Museum of Art received the first of its extraordinary Etruscan terracotta statues, the Old Warrior, curator Gisela Richter wanted to publish a paper about it. John Marshall, the Met’s agent in Rome who had procured the statue, warned her not to publish.
His veto had nothing to do with authenticity. He had heard there might be another important piece that the grave robbers might offer for sale, and he did not want to alert competitive agents, informants, and spies of the secret big-time Etruscan artifacts.
When a museum publishes a work of art in an official paper or exhibition catalog, it puts the museum’s reputation on the line certifying the authenticity and importance of that art. Just putting the piece of art on show is at least a half-measure of that certitude.
On 15 November 1915, Marshall wrote Richter about “the biggest T. C. [terracotta] you or any reasonable being ever saw.” Ten weeks later the pieces arrived in crates in New York City, ready for Richter and others on the antiquities staff to reassemble and study.
By then, Marshall and Edward P. Warren, a friend who usually represented the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had begun working on the statue’s provenance problem. Where, exactly, had the statue been dug up? Who were the finders? Middlemen were involved. There was no trail they could follow.
Then Marshall was offered the Gigantic Head. Same murky provenance. But the statue was breathtaking and unique. He bought, and in 1916, it was on its way to New York.
Shortly after the Great War [WW I] ended, Marshall began hearing rumors about an even more fabulous Etruscan statue. Being astute cons, the fakers, fanning the market, were floating fancies before they had finished building, baking, and breaking their new creation. A 1919 telegram suggests Marshall had seen it, but two years would pass before he was able to complete the purchase of the Big Warrior.
As I wrote last week, twelve years would pass before the Met put the three Etruscan treasures on public view.
Why the wait?
There was still the possibility that another comparable masterpiece might surface; no point in alerting competitors by reporting what already had been secreted off to New York. There was a rumor of a high-relief slab 6.5 by 20 feet with about twenty figures in combat, some said to be carrying round and oval shields, and there was a rumor of another large head whose helmet crest alone was nearly a meter high.
More importantly, the Met’s curators, scholars, and managers wanted to be sure of what they had. There still were no reliable provenances. Marshall continued to study every large-scale Etruscan terracotta that he could find between Rome and London. He repeatedly tried to visit the dig near Orvieto, but every time the excavators were either sick or had some other excuse. Month after month, then years, dragged by.
The museum did not rely only on its own staff. Some visiting experts were allowed to inspect and evaluate the hidden statuary.
In 1933, the Met finally put the three Etruscan terracottas on display. They were an instant public success.
Gisela Richter wrote her paper, Etruscan Terracotta Warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Met would not let her publish it until 1937, more than 20 years after she had written her suppressed paper on the Tall Warrior. It was only the sixth time in its history that the museum had published a definitive study of anything.
The paper was only one mark of Gisela’s distinguished career. She published her first book when she was 27, the last when she was 80.
Publication officially recognized the three Etruscan terracottas as genuine works of art. They enjoyed that status for 24 years.
The Met had made a mistake, as every museum of any consequence does occasionally. Publication brought a simmering conflict into the open. There were plenty of people willing to pounce on what they claimed was the Met’s error, and most of the pouncers were Italians.
A group of Italian scholars proclaimed Italian preeminence in matters Etruscan. Only they could tell. Professor Giulio Rizzo, however, declared the Colossal Head of indisputable authenticity. Young archaeologist Massino Pallottino dismissed all three pieces as forgeries. For his temerity he was summoned to Rizzo’s apartment for an angry tongue-lashing.
World War II muffled the outcries from Italy — temporarily. In 1950, a so-called expert, Michelangelo Cagiano, asserted that the craquelure on the glaze had been caused by an aging varnish. He had not seen the terracottas. They had no varnish.
An art restorer advance the theory that the black glaze on the warriors was only casein paint, a theory that was quickly disproved.
Another “authority” suggested that the grog used in the statues’ clay came from broken up Peroni beer bottles.
Gisela Richter retired and moved to Rome. In 1955, Christine Alexander, her successor, went to Florence to visit Amedeo Riccardi, the last survivor of the Riccardi cousins (and a non-member of the ring). He promised he would talk to the old people of Orvieto and look for anything that might be helpful. For the next five years, all he produced were red herrings.
In 1959, Dietrich von Bothmer (1918-2009) succeeded Miss Alexander as chief curator of Greek and Roman art. Von Bothmer was showing Cagiano through the museum. Cagiano, smarting perhaps because of his foolish assertion about varnish, refused to take even a second glance at the warriors.
“How can I,” he asked, “when I know the man who made them?”
Clearly, the time had come for the Met to make a new and thorough investigation. The task would fall to two men. Von Bothmer would concentrate upon esthetics, historical data, and provenance. Joseph Veach Noble (1920-2007), the vice chairman of the museum, would take care of the scientific analysis. Noble had begun working for the museum in 1956.
When I met Noble, he doubled as the silent partner of a Fifth Avenue company called Film Counselors, which was making a short film for me. The firm produced educational motion pictures, including a long one each year for the American Petroleum Institute.
Film Counselors’ president was the charismatic Will Parker, and despite his profane tongue, we became good friends. My friendship with Will carried over to Joe.
I was astonished when Noble, 36, was appointed the number two person at the Met, the person who ran the day-to-day management of one of the greatest museums in the world. Then I learned why.
Coupled with his administrative genius, Joe was one of the world’s leading authorities on Greek ceramics. A self-taught expert on Greek vases, he had an insatiable curiosity about discovering the lost techniques of ancient Attic craftsmen. In a potter’s studio in his home he searched for the secrets in making indistinguishable replicas.
As the preamble to my book The Fabulous Frauds, I quoted a passage from his book, The Technique of Painted Attic Pottery:
In order to detect forgery, it is best to remember that every object made by man carries within it the evidence of the time and place of its manufacture. It is a challenge to the trained eye of the art historian and to the technical examination of the scientific analyst to penetrate beneath the surface appearance and to discover the truth.
This is a parallel to what I wrote a few weeks ago in my column about Edmond Locard, the real Sherlock Holmes: “Every crime scene investigator, anywhere, uses what is known as Locard’s Exchange Principle, the transfer of evidence between objects: every contact leaves a trace.”
In a characteristic moment of modesty, Joe told The New York Times, “One day I walked around the derrière of one of the warriors and took a penknife and, yes, took off a piece about the size of a pin.”
As Joe pursued his interest in classical antiquities, he built one of the largest private collections of Attic vases in the United States — genuine Attic vases, though he was capable of producing replicas that could not be detected through ordinary appraisal.
Among the many lost techniques of ancient craftsmen was the means by which the Greeks (and by extensions the Etruscans) obtained the colors for decorating their ceramic ware. In 1942, a German scientist discovered that the iron oxide present in Attic clay turned red if fired in an atmosphere permitting abundant oxygen but black in an atmosphere starved of oxygen. Because of the war his discoveries were little noticed, and he died before he could develop them further.
Noble bought Attic clay, which contains ferric oxide, from Greece. He extracted the finest particles and used them with water to make a slip, the smooth material painted for glaze and decoration on the body of vases. When he allowed plenty of air into his kiln during the firing of a completed vase, the kiln became filled with inactive carbon dioxide. Because of the ferric oxide, both body and glaze turned red.
When Noble threw green wood or moist sawdust on the fire, then closed the kiln to outside air, the resulting incomplete combustion filled the kiln with highly active carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide exerts such a strong pull for oxygen atoms that it takes them right out of the clay. The chemical composition of the clay changes from ferric oxide to ferrous oxide, and the color of the clay turns from red to black.
But Attic and Etruscan vases have red bodies and black decorations. Noble discovered that if he next opened a hole in the kiln and let fresh air come rushing back, the body of the vase — but only the body — would turn red again.
Because the vases had been decorated with the slip, the fine particles of quartz in the slip had fused: the glazed areas had become impervious, and the fresh oxygen atoms could not penetrate. These areas remained black, providing care was taken to keep the firing temperature above 1000 degrees C.
That is the secret of Attic black, and none of the Riccardis or Fioravanti or anyone else living knew it when the Etruscan fakes were fabricated. The forgers had used an anachronistic process to get their colors, and modern science eventually unmasked it.
Noble took samples from the warriors to a laboratory for spectrographic analysis and found the presence of manganese, a coloring agent unknown in Etruscan times.
Von Bothmer and Noble, traveling separately, examined large-scale terracottas from Greece, Cyprus, and Etruria in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, France, England, and Denmark.
While Joe was doing his spectrographic studies, von Bothmer learned that Harold Parsons, who had been living in Rome since 1953, was gathering evidence on the modern origin of the terracottas. For 20 years he had made no secret of his suspicions.
When the Old Warrior was made, Fioravanti had broken off and kept its thumb. On 5 January 1961, Parsons brought Fioravanti to the American Consul in Rome, where the old man made and signed a full confession.
The next day von Bothmer arrived in Rome to interview Fioravanti and go over the ground in Orvieto. Von Bothmer brought with him a plaster cast of the hand of the Old Warrior. Without hesitation, the old forger took out the thumb he had kept for fifty years. The fit was perfect.
This did not prove that the warrior was fake. Fioravanti, or someone else, could have found or stolen the authentic thumb. But the old faker filled in so many details that there was no doubting his story.
So, on Valentine’s Day, 1961, New Yorkers and others around the world picked up their morning papers and learned that the Metropolitan’s astounding Etruscan warriors were fabulous frauds.
As an addendum to this story, the more politically powerful Walter Hoving (see the first of these three columns) edged Joseph Noble to become the director of the Met. Joe left to become the distinguished director of the Museum of the City of New York. His collection of some 150 genuine Attic vases was acquired by the Tampa Museum.
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