The problem of forged art, always a complicated one, has been made immeasurably more complicated in this century because of two factors. One, the appreciation of tribal art in its many varieties has coincided with the gradual disappearance of tribal living worldwide; thus some of the most vexing problems of authenticity in the art world today beset the market in African ceremonial art, where demand outstrips supply at an ever-increasing rate. Similarly, the phenomenal growth of science as a global discipline has spurred a global interest in archaeology and ancient artifacts, their reserves at least as limited as those of tribal artists. Many of the tribal artists, after all, are still alive and able to produce. Ancient civilizations, like old masters, no longer have that option.

Aside from the obvious economic issue of value for money, forged art is problematic because art itself, the world over, has had so intimate a connection with the spiritual component of human nature: a Greek kouros, an African mask, a Raphael Madonna, and a Haida totem pole all speak in their disparate ways primarily about communion between this world and another. To interrupt such a communion, or to ape it for material gain, sits hard with our humanity. People have been turned into pillars of salt for lesser offenses than these.

Because of this lingering association with spiritual missions betrayed, the forger of art differs from the purveyor of snake oil in ministering falsely to an elusive psychic need rather than to a physical ailment. The damage incurred by taking in the phony goods may therefore be less tangible, but our palpable need as human beings for art—think of the profound effects wrought upon practical America by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—suggests that forged art might still be significantly invidious. This is why, presumably, we make it a crime.

On the other hand, forgery has also occurred for a variety of reasons over the millennia—not always, that is, with P.T. Barnum’s intent to fulfill the destiny of suckers by means of spectacular sham. Born as they are of misdirected “higher” impulses, the motives for the forgery of art have on occasion been exemplary. They have also been shortsighted, waggish, bigoted, and base. A brief panoramic exhibit of these motivations, in the spirit of the divine Barnum, may help to demonstrate what I mean.

In Phidias’ workshop, in Renaissance artists’ studios, and in modern architects’ offices, the right of authorship for designs executed by master and workshop alike belongs in principle to the master (that is, the head of the firm) and not to the association’s individual members. The painting of a courtesan in the Barberini Gallery in Rome (the so-called “Fornarina”) has been taken by many viewers as an authentic work of Raphael because the naked sitter wears an armband signed with Raphael’s name. The work’s clumsy draftsmanship leaves other viewers with lingering doubts that so accomplished an artist would ever have put his name to that amorphous lap and that awkwardly splayed, pudgy right hand. However, even if the painting is not actually from the hand of Raphael, the signed armband might mark it appropriately as a legitimate product of his workshop. Rather than a portrait of his beloved, then, the painting could be one of the many courtesan portraits ascribed to Raphael by his biographer Giorgio Vasari, in which case the signature would serve as an over-insistent protestation of authenticity for a commission of secondary importance assigned to an assistant. What separates a “Fornarina” from a forgery is the contract binding the artist’s assistant to the artist’s workshop, the concept of “work for hire,” which still governs the administration of copyright law.

Anselmo Spannocchi, a banker of Siena, wished to give Lorenzo de Medici a special present in 1472, for in that year Lorenzo had helped tame the political climate between the quarreling rival cities of Florence and Siena—thus making the world safe for Spannocchi’s business interests. What could a private citizen possibly give a public figure like Lorenzo? The clever Anselmo settled on an Etruscan urn, to remind the Florentine magnate of their common tie to the land of Tuscany and their presumptive shared descent from its ancient people. Etruscan urns had been emerging from Tuscan soil for centuries, inscribed in a backward-facing alphabet whose interpretation was an utter mystery until the 1490’s. And thus it was that Anselmo Spannocchi presented Lorenzo instead with an “Etruscan” urn labeled in Latin, in Latin poetry no less, and due to this Latin inscription Lorenzo was able to appreciate the fact that his new urn contained the ashes of the most famous Etruscan of them all, Lars Porsenna, a warlord who assailed the Romans in the late fifth century B.C. and, according to at least one Roman historian and nearly all modern scholars, conquered the city.

Did Lorenzo know that the urn of Porsenna was a forgery? He had a private museum filled with genuine Etruscan artifacts and the perceptive eye to know good contemporary art from bad. If pressed, he would certainly have admitted his doubts. Yet an excessive display of such pedantic knowledge would not only have spoiled his enjoyment of Anselmo Spannocchi’s present, it would have destroyed the intricate symbolism of the gift. Anselmo was giving him not so much a falsified Etruscan urn as an improved Etruscan urn, improved by its exalted contents, the mortal remains of noble Porsenna, and by the legibility of its Latin inscription, by which everyone would know Porsenna’s urn for what it was. Forgeries are very often of this sort, deceptions in the way that fiction is deceptive, tellers, to use Donald Spence’s felicitous phrase, of “narrative truth” at the expense of historical truth.

In the mid-1980’s, dredging work began on a drainage canal that flows through the outskirts of the Italian port of Livorno. This channel passes temptingly close to the site of the former studio of Livorno’s great local artist, Amedeo Modigliani, back in the days before he joined the throngs of expatriate modernists in Paris. Could the venerable ditch, like an archaeological excavation, somehow have preserved some offscouring of Modigliani’s work as a sculptor, a tangible trace of the brilliant career that was yet to be?

Shortly after this lovely possibility was bruited about by the good citizens of Livorno, a series of partially carved stone heads was raised from the channel’s muddy waters. Rapturous critics praised their stark modernity, their blend of primitive vigor and sophisticated composition. Art critics around the country staked their reputations on their ability to discern, on these mud-spawned carvings, the fine young hand of Modigliani himself. Even when four local boys confessed that they, and not the great Amedeo, were the real sculptors, and that they had worked only yesterday rather than three-quarters of a century earlier, the art world flatly refused to believe it. In the first place, the boys claimed to have produced the stone heads with a standard hammer and a screwdriver, hardly appropriate sculptor’s equipment. How, moreover, could they, in the late 1980’s, have the aesthetic insight to emulate the style of early modernism with such rich sensitivity? For, looming insurmountably, there was the matter of the works’ indisputable artistic quality, authenticated many times over by expert professional opinion.

In the end, the boys proved their authorship by an odd combination of the medieval trial-by-ordeal and the all-American People’s Court. Asked to produce a new Modigliani on national television, using their same nonstandard equipment, they were promised the gift of credibility if they succeeded. In 11 minutes flat, they made their Modigliani and, in so doing, caused several art critics to lose their jobs.

Triumphant as forgers, however, the four boys from Livorno now became a nice juridical problem. In a certain sense, of course, they had falsified Modigliani sculptures, at least until they clamored for recognition in their own right. In an even more real sense, and this, indeed, is the charm of the tale, they were highly successful social critics. Throughout the whole incident, they never pretended to be anything but four boys from Livorno. It was the critics who had made the screwdriver-carved heads into Great Art, and it was up to the critics to decide, knowing how these heads had originated, whether the boys, by virtue of having produced Great Art, were or were not Great Artists. The critics, several of them suddenly jobless and all of them publicly exposed as chumps in the homeland of bella figura, were unwilling to go that far. They had played all too clearly into the widespread popular suspicion that an average wag with a couple of household tools could indeed produce passable modern art so long as a critic were present to perform a rite of consecration. It was not a good moment for the reputation of modern art or of modern art criticism.

In this country, in a different language, and endowed with a set of egos structured somewhat differently, the four boys from Livorno might have styled themselves “performance artists who deal with issues of authenticity.” And by this simple expedient they might have gained legitimate inclusion among the company of artists to which Modigliani himself belonged. As it happened, the boys had more modest aims; their flicker of televised fame assured, they took up their tools and went home to their bemused mammas.

The story of the four boys from Livorno shows vividly how shifty a border divides forgery from practical jokes. An even finer line may need to be drawn between forgery as imitation and forgery as parody. The Piltdown man, discovered in 1908, was an early hominid whose remains emerged from a Sussex gravel bed just when the science of physical anthropology had entered a period of fervid activity. He was finally exposed as fake in 1950. The salient elements of the Piltdown hoax were a human skull, a monkey jaw, and a large artifact shaped like a cricket bat, each designed with diabolical wit to further a particular theory of human evolution. The apelike jaw taken in conjunction with the humanoid head suggested to scientists that development of the brain must have been the crucial element in making humanity fully human. (We have since determined that the course of our ontogeny proceeded the other way around.) The cricket bat, its identification contingent upon the Piltdown Man’s full exposure, poses a more ambiguous question. Was it intended to prove that the first impulses toward civilization necessarily emerged from English man, or only that English man was the proverbial missing link? In any case, it was a deliciously nasty touch.

Forged texts have long been the stuff of political maneuvering. The faked donations of Constantine to the papacy served as the precedent for the Pope’s temporal powers throughout the Middle Ages, until their unmasking by Lorenzo Valla in 1424. Earlier in the present century, Nazi anti-Semitism was whipped up by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a vicious pseudo-Jewish tract that still circulates in parts of Europe. Forged art has also played a role in politics, especially false archaeology, a science already at work, as we now know, in ancient Rome. Archaeology has routinely served the cause of nationalism; so, too, has archaeological fakery. In 20th-century Rome, Benito Mussolini’s excavations of ancient ruins beneath the city streets have been routinely “enhanced” by the addition of columns and marble blocks imported from the Roman site of Ostia, not distant, to be sure, but not Rome either. In like fashion, the Hephaestion in the Agora of Athens has been reconstructed in part with column drums borrowed from the nearby, and ruinous, temple of Ares. These reconstructions differ in intent and meaning from the concrete additions to the Minoan palace at Knossos on Crete because they have knowingly used archaeological material that originated elsewhere with the intent to pass it off as something else. Knossos, on the other hand, has used modern materials to imitate ancient structures, a procedure problematic in itself, but not one that introduces conscious duplicity.

Alceo Dossena was a quite competent ancient artist whose fate it was to live in the modern world (a man of exceptional versatility, he also dabbled in pseudo- Renaissance sculpture). Industrial society has dealt brutally with traditional artists by offering them a Pandora’s box of manufactured consumer treats and a professional philosophy of obsessive innovation, all the while gradually robbing them of the social milieu that nurtured their art in the first place. The two common expressive alternatives afforded such folk by the modern global village are sentimental kitsch or self-conscious eclecticism: tourist art or theory-laden revivals. Dossena’s original intention as an artist was modest in the extreme: to work without fuss in styles congenial to him. Eventually, however, he recognized that if he passed his creations off as those of long-dead artists from archaic Greece, ancient Etruria, or Renaissance Florence, he would see his work praised as pure genius rather than limp eclecticism. When Donatello and Michelangelo each pulled this same stunt at opposite ends of the 15th century, passing off their own works as works of the ancients, their reputations for artistry survived their exposure as living—and their creations’ concomitant exposure as contemporary. Dossena’s craftsmanship has begun to receive similarly sympathetic treatment.

The career of Alceo Dossena illustrates why it is that forged art lurks as a continuing specter in our museums and our auction houses, in private collections and public monuments, leading us to mistrust the eyes that delight in its perfidious beauty and the mind that spins reveries about its meretricious core. Forgeries link a bygone world with a current sense of aesthetics, just as the miniature statues of the Venus de Milo sold in the Roman Forum mimic the sylph’s body and heavy breasts of Barbie rather than the broad hips and moderate cleavage of the original sculpture. Forgeries have frequently appealed to us because they are more attractive than reality, and they are exposed as false only when our sense of beauty has altered enough to make their appearance jar. For many years, beginning in 1933, two Etruscan terra-cotta warriors graced the entrance to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because they were designed as pastiches of elements borrowed from both Greek and Etruscan art, their relatively Hellenized form seemed supremely beautiful, as stunning an improvement over what had previously been known of Etruscan work as the same museum’s genuine Euphronios crater (illegally ripped, it must be said, from an Etruscan tomb) would be for a later generation’s knowledge of that painter’s skill. The terra-cotta warriors are now amusing rather than beautiful, their author, Alfredo Adolfo Fioravanti, joining the ranks of Alceo Dossena as a testament to the vibrant tradition of Italian artistic forgery. What we have lost in losing them is the force of the fantasy they once compelled; their exposure represents the gain we have made by coming to appreciate Etruscan art on its own terms rather than the terms we have imposed upon it. Time is the most reliable revealer of forgery; human cleverness keeps up with every other expedient.