By Ann Natanson
October 08, 1984 12:00 PM

When the project began in July, it had the makings of a treasure hunt. That was when dredging started in the fosso reale (“royal ditch”), a junk-strewn canal in Livorno, Italy. Commissioned by the city council at a cost of $35,000, the dredge was sifting through seven feet of mud, in search of several sculpted stone heads. As legend told it, the heads had been deep-sixed 75 years ago by a hometown boy, the artist Amedeo Modigliani, in a fit of pique over his friends’ criticism of the works. As events unfolded, however, the situation became as murky as the canal’s polluted waters, and when the silt settled there was chagrin enough for all.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Back to the dredging, a lifelong dream of Vera Durbé, 60, curator of Livorno’s Progressive Museum of Contemporary Art. “I had known the story of the statues in the canal since I was a child,” she says. “Everybody spoke about it, but nobody did anything.” Durbé maintained her interest in the “lost Modiglianis” through her years as a language student in Venice and her marriage to a high school physics teacher (they are now separated). Yet it wasn’t until she joined the Livorno museum, in 1970, that she seriously pursued the idea of retrieving the sunken sculptures. “By then my children were grown and I had time to waste arguing,” she explains. Even the loss of a leg in a 1981 traffic accident didn’t stop her efforts to convert the skeptics. “A lot of people think I’m a pain in the neck, others think I’m mad,” she adds.

In her favor was the fact that only 26 Modigliani sculptures are known to exist. That is the more surprising because Modigliani, most readily recognized for his portraits of languid, long-nosed women, loved sculpting above all else. III health (he died in 1920 at 35 of tuberculosis and the effects of alcohol and hashish) forced him to trade his chisel for a brush. Thus the unearthing of additional sculptures would be a major event in the international art world. It would be especially important to Italy, which possesses few of his paintings and not one of his sculptures.

Durbé’s goal was to find the works in time for the 100th anniversary of Modigliani’s birth this year. Many problems had to be solved. For instance, might the dredge’s metal claws harm the sculptures? (The answer: rubber covering over the tips.) Work finally got underway on July 17. As hundreds looked on, the canal began to surrender an array of artifacts: several guns, a rocking horse, bicycles and fittings for a complete bathroom. At 9 a.m. on July 24 the first carving was found, then, eight hours later, a second. A third was retrieved August 9. Slightly smaller than the others, it measured 15 by 11 inches. When Durbé saw them, she wept.

Art experts rushed to Livorno. Critic Cesare Brandi called the find “very important and certainly Modiglianis.” Jean Leymarie, director of the noted French Academy in Rome, pronounced them “a resurrection.” The sculptures, dubbed Modi 1, 2 and 3, were disinfected and cleaned. Numbers 1 and 2 were promptly added to the show Durbé had mounted in the Livorno museum for the Modigliani centenary. The works were reputedly insured for nearly $1.5 million. The city was euphoric.

The joy, alas, was short-lived. Six weeks later the Italian weekly Panorama ran an article entitled The Livorno Hoax, in which three university students confessed to carving Modi 2 and throwing it into the canal. They said they made it in two afternoons, using a chisel, a screwdriver and a Black & Decker electric drill, copying the design from an illustration in Durbé’s museum catalogue. They had chips of stone and photos to prove it. The boys claimed it was just a prank. “We thought, ‘Why not help them find something?’ ” explained one. “It’s not our fault so many people made a mistake.”

Durbé was incredulous. She called the students “puppets being manipulated by someone,” perhaps the Mafia or a political group. The critics supported her. The boys disputed that notion in a three-hour television special during which they created yet another fake “masterpiece.”

Oh, well, the canal had yielded two other Modiglianis, right? Wrong. Last month a Livorno dockworker(and ex-art student) named Angelo Froglia revealed himself to be the perpetrator of Modis 1 and 3. His purpose: “To reveal the false values of art critics and mass media.” Compounding the insult, Froglia not only had a videotape of himself at work on the carvings but also provided a recipe for faking a Modigliani head: Find an old paving stone. Chip it about a bit, then marinate in Livorno mud, scouring powder and hydrochloric acid. Cook the stone slowly on a hot grill. Throw it in the Livorno canal late at night. Leave stone—and art critics—to stew until ready.

Feeling well roasted, the critics admitted they had been carried away by the euphoria in Livorno. “We love Modigliani too much,” said one. “This led us to betray ourselves.” In the end the embattled museum curator salvaged only one small consolation. Because of the controversy, the exhibit attracted more than 40,000 visitors during its 10-week run, earning the museum and the city a $35,000 profit over the cost of dredging. “I don’t feel at all diminished by this affair,” Durbé says bravely. “I fought for this and I would do it again.”