A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Evidence shows that being a great art historian may not qualify you for detective work
On Valentine's Day 1961, the Met issued the following statement:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced yesterday that, as a result of recently completed studies, its three "Etruscan" terracotta statues must be considered of doubtful authenticity. For some years there have been conflicting claims about these statues on stylistic grounds. Recently the staff of the Museum began a series of modern scientific and technical analyses. These developed convincing proof that these famous statues were not made in ancient times.
It was, according to Time Magazine, the first time in its history that "the Met had to announce that it was housing a fake." Put on display in 1933, the statues included an "old" or "life-size" warrior, a "colossal" head of a warrior, and a "big" or "heroic-size" warrior.
In his foreword to An Inquiry into the Forgery of the Etruscan Terracotta Warriors in the MMA (1961), the Met's director James J. Rorimer noted that studies by the museum's Joseph V. Noble "provided the first technical evidence of their having been made in modern times" and that "this evidence was completely corroborated on January 5, 1961, when Alfredo Fioravanti signed a sworn statement that he had help make the terracottas" (italics added). What Rorimer didn't say was that this followed years of inept investigating by the museum and that the warriors could have been spotted as fakes decades before.
There were several red flags. The preservation of the warriors was simply too good to be true. They were supposedly dug up in pieces, yet they were "still resplendent in their original colors," wrote Gisela Richter, the Met's curator who described them in the 1937 publication Etruscan Terracotta Warriors in the MMA. When reassembled, the warriors proved to have only a single vent hole, another tip off. In the 1961 report, Met curator Dietrich Von Bothmer wrote
although the warriors had each obviously been made in one piece, it would have been technically impossible to fire them whole: there had been no adequate provision for the circulation of air necessary during the drying and firing of the clay, which, in ancient terracottas, had been assured by a proper disposition of ventholes.
In the same report, Joseph V. Noble summarized results of a close inspection of the warriors:
Certain fractured areas...do not properly join; where this would have been obvious, the edges of the break have been chipped away to hide the telltale flaws. This suggested that the figures had warped and cracked in drying and probably were already in fragments before firing.
These observations all could have been made early on, exposing the warriors as fakes. How was Gisela Richter, a renowned authority on ancient sculpture, taken in? Partly because the statues fulfilled expectations. In her volume about them, she noted that ancient Latin writers had mentioned Etruscan sculptures "in terms of wonder and admiration." Well, here were statues worthy of the description. The terracottas also came via a trusted intermediary, John Marshall, who was the museum's purchasing agent. Thomas Hoving, in False Impressions, is uncharitable: "One presumes she was taken in by the suave John Marshall and then allowed curatorial greed to take over. Pride no doubt had something to do with her eagerness to acquire these largest-ever-discovered Etruscan sculptures."
Richter and Marshall both gushed about the terracottas. The old warrior, she wrote, "will be one of the most dramatic things in the museum." "I can find nothing approaching it in importance," telegraphed Marshall to Rorimer after seeing the colossal head. Richter was excited about the big warrior: "We have here a representation of a god of war--and undoubtedly the most imposing conception of such a deity which has survived from antiquity."
But in, 1936 art dealer Pietro Tozzi wrote Richter, saying he heard in Rome that the warriors were faked, and he had names: "Fioravanti--Riccardi Bros." Marshall had passed away, but Richter wrote about this "absurd story" to his secretary, Annie Rivier. "I don't propose to pay any attention to it except to ask you to find out who this Fioravanti is and what kind of things he makes." Rivier looked into it and found Fioravanti was at times a tailor, car driver, dealer in old furniture, and "he has been for many years, and still is, a taxi driver in Rome." But Tozzi was dead on. The forgers were Fioravanti and Riccardo Riccardi and his cousins Teodoro and Virgilio Angelino Riccardi.
Doubts about the terracottas mounted. Just months after Richter's 1937 publication of the warriors was published, Massimo Pallotino in Roma (and later in Archeologica Classica), "dimissed all three sculptures in a masterly manner as forgeries" according to Von Bothmer. Harold Parsons, who purchased antiquities for American museums, expressed reservations about them in the early 1940s. During the 1950s several scholars challenged their authenticity.
Over the years Richter tried to find out more about the source of the terracottas. Amadeo Riccardi, brother to one of the forgers, was located and "assisted" the Met in its investigations. Asked about the Attic vase fragments said to have been found with the statues, he "could not remember anything definite." He made a map showing Boccaporca, the supposed findspot of the terracottas, but "stressed the difficulties of going to Boccaporca--the roads were bad and the locality could not be reached by car." Amadeo stayed in contact with Richter, ostensibly helping but in reality delaying and diverting her. He told Richter "the finder (scavatore) was a certain Campanella who died in 1928" and that, unfortunately, Campanella's son (as fictional as Campanella) was also dead. Richter planned to go with him "to the spot where he was told the figures were found (a fountain, however, is said to have been built there)." One of her later letters says "I have written to Riccardi since my return, but have as yet no answer. I hope he is investigating." Von Bothmer summarizes the last acts in Amadeo's charade: "with attacks of influenza, the spring plowing, and the fields under cultivation, he was not able to help more."
Harold Parsons began his own investigations in 1959. He told Time Magazine that in his conversations with dealers the name Alfredo Fioravanti kept coming up. Parsons tracked Fioravanti down and got his story. On January 12, 1961, James Rorimer received a letter from Parsons along with the translation of a deposition signed by Alfredo Fioravanti before the American Consul in Rome on January 5. Rorimer immediately sent Von Bothmer to Rome. Time describes the historic meeting: "In Parsons' apartment, Von Bothmer produced a plaster cast of one of the warrior's hands, from which the thumb was missing. Fioravanti in turn produced a thumb of baked pottery that he had been keeping for years. Placed together, thumb and hand fitted perfectly."
Fioravanti and the Riccardis were the forgers, but who else swindled the Met and Miss Richter? The official seller of the old warrior and colossal head was art dealer Pietro Stettiner. Richter checked him out with her usual investigative efficiency, "I learned now also [Stettiner] was a high official at the Post Office and a collector, not a forger. So that is that." But Stettiner was, as Hoving notes, "crooked." According to Von Bothmer, Marshall bought 15 objects from Stettiner between 1914 and 1920. One of these, the upper part of a life-size terracotta statue of a woman bought in 1916, was shown to be a fake by 1927. "The recognition that an acquisition from a dealer is a forgery often leads to a re-examination of other objects from the same source," says Von Bothmer, but that did not happen. If it had, a series of seven terracotta slabs with sea monsters bought from Stettiner in 1914 would have been exposed as well. It was only in the winter of 1960-1961 that a re-examination revealed stylistic problems, evidence several plaques had been broken before firing, and that modern coloring agents had been used. (Fioravanti confessed to making them.)
What is most damning is a bronze figurine bought by Marshall in 1919. Von Bothmer's description borders on comical: it was the top half of woman joined to the lower part of a man, with an additional mid-section attached with copper rivet, extra shanks in brass contoured into greaves, and a helmet and a beard. What was this concocted for? "This weird creation, it seems, could only have served on purpose: it was meant to unite the various unusual features of the terracotta sculptures, namely, the elongated proportions (like those of Italic statuettes) of the old warrior, who wears an "Attic" helmet with turned-up cheekpieces but a metal cuirass, and the Corinthian helmet of the colossal bearded head."
Hoving suggests that Marshall should not have been fooled by this patchwork bronze and that he was may indicate complicity. Whther that is true or not, it appears that at least five of the 15 objects bought by Marshall from Stettiner were fakes. That gives added meaning to Met director James Rorimer's final observation on the warriors: "The facts at hand, as published in this paper, should bring to a close what, alas, is not an isolated chapter in the history of collecting."