The Modern Roman Master


On Christmas Eve of 1916 Alceo Dossena walked down a street in Rome known for
its peddlers. The 38 year-old Italian soldier carried with him a marble
sculpture of the Madonna. Dossena was short of funds and hoped to sell the
artwork so that he could buy his family presents for Christmas. An owner
of a jewelry shop in the Piazza di Spagna offered him 100 lire ($15) for the
piece of art. The jeweler had suspected that it was a stolen Renaissance
masterpiece because the beautifully-crafted Madonna looked hundreds of years
old. But when he took it home and examined it more carefully, he realized that
it was a modern work.

A few days after Christmas, the jeweler ran into Dossena again and
invited him to dinner. After dinner Dossena told his host that he had created
the Madonna himself and artificially aged it to make it look like a
masterpiece. After World War I Dossena kept a studio in Rome just behind
the Vatican creating small pieces of art out of terra cotta. He would take his
sculptures-usually Madonnas or saints-to the bars and cafes frequented by art
dealers. These works earned Dossena a modest income.

The Roman jeweler, whose name was Alfredo Fasoli, kept in contact with the
sculptor and one day offered him a job creating sattues for an American church
which was being built in the Renaissance style. Dossena set to work on the
statues with much enthusiasm. What Fasoli was actually doing with the statues,
however, was selling them to art dealers as Renaissance masterpieces for large
sums of money. The story about the American church was simply a lie to get
Dossena to work for him.

The art dealers in the cafes, after getting to know Dossena's abilities, also
started to take advantage of his artistic talents. He was given orders to
execute certain carvings in the manner of this or that artist. Dossena saw
nothing wrong with the instructions to imitate the work of several great
artists, so he searched museums and books for examples of the artists' works to
be imitated. Then he would produce a new work in the style, spirit and technique
of whichever artist had been requested.

Dossena was so talented that the art dealers were able to pass off Dossena's
work for the work of Renaissance artists such as Pisano, Martini, Vecchietta,
and Donatello, thus making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of
these items, without Dossena's knowledge. These fake masterpieces
eventually ended up in some well-known museums in both Europe and the United
States such as the Fogg Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the
Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Art dealers were consistently fooled and continued
to pay huge sums of money for the sculptures Dossena was creating for only a few

By 1926, it was rumored in the inner circles of the art world that a master
Roman forger had been creating some Renaissance pieces which had made their way
into American museums. It was not until 1928 that the full story was
exposed. Interestingly enough, it was Dossena himself who exposed his own
forgeries. In May of 1928, Dossena's wife died of an illness. Since he had
spent all his earned money on her doctor bills, he approached Fasoli claiming
that he was owed $7,500 for a statue that had been sold to a London art dealer
for $150,000. He wished to use the money to give his wife an honorable burial.
But Fasoli wouldn't pay the $7,500. This so angered Dossena that he took the
photos of his works to a magistrate and sued Fasoli for back-payments due to

Dossena had unwittingly exposed himself as the master Roman forger, but not
before his works had sold to art museums for a total of $30 million. From
1929 on, Dossena's artistic genius was realized and appreciated. He enjoyed a
few years of attention throughout Europe, not only for his own genius, but for
the fact that his work was so good it embarrassed the most well-educated art
dealers who had purchased his work and attributed them to great Renaissance


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