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Letter From Italy

Sure, It's Real! Real Fake.

In the Edifice of Art, Copies Forge a Niche

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page D01

SALERNO -- Museum curator Salvatore Casillo eagerly awaits the arrival of hundreds of modern art masterpieces. Andy Warhol prints, color-splashed collages by Mimmo Rotella, an oil by Enrico Baj from his satiric "Generals" series and still lifes by Renato Guttuso.

It's a rare occasion and will put Casillo's museum on the art world map.


Above, the "Sunflowers" on the left, a suspected fake, was purchased for $39.5 million. The painting at right is in the Dutch van Gogh museum. The theft of "The Scream," left, and the auction of "Boy With a Pipe" have increased interest in copies. (AP Photos; Munch Painting From Reuters)

No matter that all the works are forgeries. That's what Casillo wants.

"We only collect fakes. The better the fake, the better for us," he says.

Casillo runs the Museum of Fakes, an adjunct of the University of Salerno and its Center for the Study of Forgery. The center's existence is testimony to Italy's centuries-old place in the world of not just masterpieces but frauds and the need to stay abreast of burgeoning trends in falsification.

Copies of paintings, books, music and even special foods are produced secretly in Italy and sold openly. "It's not that Italy produces more fakes than other countries," Casillo says. "It's just that we have a deep and old culture and have built up skills in creating originals and skills in making copies. We're good at both."

This summer, Italians were twice spectacularly reminded of these venerable skills. In August, a blitz of raids on warehouses, galleries and clandestine printing shops in many parts of the country netted more than 4,000 lithographs, silkscreens, drawings and other reproductions that police say were destined for the modern-art market. It was the Italian police's largest haul of fakes ever. Investigators in the southern town of Cosenza, where most of the forgeries were collected, promised to donate the haul to the Museum of Fakes.

During the same month, a museum in Siena hosted an exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century works by master counterfeiters. They produced replicas of Renaissance paintings, frescoes, statues and bas reliefs that are astoundingly close to the originals. Carefully copied cracks, grime and missing pieces provided a patina of old age. "In Italy, if you're a good enough counterfeiter, you eventually get your own show," says Casillo.

Casillo is a sociologist who digs into the technology, motivation and culture of forgery. He founded the Salerno center 14 years ago because the fakes had the potential to undermine legitimate exports. For instance, Italy controls about 20 percent of the world market for worked silver, a share threatened by a sudden upsurge of items made of alabaster and covered with plate.

"Italy makes a lot of things that can be copied by unscrupulous people in other countries. We can't be known as an open territory for cheats," he says, pulling from his desk a bottle labeled Moet & Chandon champagne that's filled with spumante wine.

The Italians' skills probably date to ancient-world faking of painting and sculpture. Romans marketed copied Greek statues because Greek sculpture was thought more precious than Roman. In the Middle Ages, demand for religious relics and icons multiplied and artisans filled the bill with genius. "There are plenty of pieces of the True Cross around and they can't all be true," Casillo says.

The next forgery boom arrived with the Renaissance, when possession of Roman imperial relics grew fashionable. Another cycle began in the 1800s, with the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii and its trove of statues, urns, mosaics and frescoes. Buyers wanted them. Contemporary artisans supplied them.

As travelers from northern Europe, especially the British, visited Italy on the Grand Tour of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, demand for Renaissance art also spiked. In the late 19th century, newly rich Americans stormed Europe looking for artwork. This influx fueled production of the fakes on display at Siena's Santa Maria della Scala museum complex.

The "Falsi d'Autore" exhibition focuses on late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian artists who created Renaissance-style madonnas, annunciations, portraits, painted boxes and sculptures, attributing the work to long-dead artists. Detailing and techniques were so true that some of the objects hung for years in museums in New York, Dublin, Warsaw, Geneva and even Siena.

Curator and art historian Gianni Mazzoni says successful forgers were like mediums capable of channeling the talent of the original artists. "They were usually failed artists who lacked the means to exhibit their own work and threw themselves into debauched practices," he says.

"The best claimed to relive the spirit of the painters," Mazzoni continues with admiration. "The experience is something you can't really learn. You really have to have it within you."

Alceo Dossena, a forger whose work is on display in Siena, made versions of Etruscan, Greek and Renaissance art. He was found out only because he voluntarily confessed and tipped off police after his patrons refused to lend him money to cure his sick wife. He died poor in 1937.

Works of another forger, Icilio Federico Joni, were in turn copied by other counterfeiters.

Modern art is sometimes easier to forge than that of old masters, Mazzoni says. Some contemporary art is the product of mechanized processes, which can be copied by the same method. "Also, much modern art is based on ideas, and ideas are easier to imitate than Renaissance or medieval masterpieces that must be elegantly painted and aged with phony worm holes and faded and cracked to pass muster," Mazzoni says.

"I often ask myself how many fakes are yet to be exposed."

Eccentric practices of artists sometimes complicate the issue of authenticity. Giorgio De Chirico, the Italian surrealist, occasionally signed copies of his paintings for money. The signature was real, but the paintings fake.

The "Falsi d'Autore" catalogue suggests that the buyer -- and museum visitor -- be wary. It says that a Botticelli show 40 miles north in Florence contains two fake portraits of women. Curators of the Florentine exhibition say it isn't so. "Any work dating back to this period is going to have its authenticity challenged," says Luigi De Vecchi, who oversaw the exhibition at Florence's Palazzo Strozzi.

In any event, art fakes are illegal only if fraudulently sold as the original. Last week at a Rome hotel, copycat artist Daniele Donde staged a commercial exhibition of paintings made by himself and a team of 40 artists. They copy masterpieces on order for people who want to display some approximation of famous artworks but don't have the money for the real thing.

Among Donde's pieces for sale was Picasso's "Boy With a Pipe." The original sold at auction in New York last May for $104 million. Donde's version -- he calls it an interpretation -- goes for $2,500. It includes a certificate of inauthenticity.

"Picasso has been in style recently," Donde says, gesturing toward "Boy With a Pipe." "It's all about trends." He says the late-August theft of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" in Oslo made copies of the painting instantly popular. "I've had 10 requests," he says.

Donde specializes in Monet, van Gogh and Picasso. He says some clients have a fake made so they can put an original in a vault. Others buy the fakes after having been cheated. Donde himself entered the copy business in 1985 when he discovered that many canvases in a family collection were forgeries.

He says he gets many requests to copy van Gogh's "Sunflowers," a painting that some experts claim is itself a fake. In 1987, it was sold to a Japanese insurance company for $39 million. "To falsify a forgery has always been an honor for me," says Donde. "Real counterfeiters live to forge. I hate doing real art. It doesn't interest me."

August's discovery of 4,000 forgeries in Italy began when someone in Calabria, the region on the toe of Italy's peninsular boot, asked the widow of Enrico Baj to authenticate a painting. The widow knew it was false, and told the police, says Capt. Raffaele Giovinazzo, who leads the Heritage Protection Unit of the carabinieri police force in Cosenza.

The person disappeared, but informants brought word of numerous displays of fake artworks, in particular mechanically produced prints, lithos and serigraphs, and the police began raiding and confiscating.

No arrests have been made; Italian law requires suspects to be caught in the act of making or knowingly marketing fakes. Nonetheless, nine suspected manufacturers have been ordered not to leave Italy. The gallery dealers are regarded as innocent dupes, Giovinazzo says.

The Museum of Fakes may have to wait a long time to display the pictures, the police officer advised, because it can take many years for cases to weave their way through Italian courts. "That's all right," says Casillo. "I will be happy to keep them in the museum basement."

He leads a reporter to a windowless, air-conditioned room beneath the bare concrete classroom buildings of Salerno U. to show his cache of previously confiscated fakes. Inside, several forgeries of pop artist Mario Schifano are wrapped in brown paper, awaiting a court appearance. Casillo pulls out a print of a doll-like figure copied from Massimo Campigli and then some flowers supposedly by Filippo De Pisis. "It took 20 years of study to figure out this was a fake," he says of the flowers.

Other forgers are not so clever. It took only a few days during an August exhibition of modern artists in Finland for inspectors to discover that hundreds of graphics attributed to Salvador Dali were counterfeit. Several more pictures supposedly by Warhol, Picasso, Miro and Chagall were also seized on suspicion of being false. The show closed.

Researcher Stacy Meichtry contributed to this report.


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