2 of Museum's Major Sculptures Challenged : Fake Artwork: High Stakes for the Getty

Times Staff Writer

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, the curator of the ancient art collection was asked recently to show a visitor two Greek sculptures. Both sculptures are publicly displayed in the marbled galleries of the Getty and have served for years as major attractions of its famous collection. But the curator hesitated.

"Don't you want to see something else?" she asked. No amount of prodding could get the curator even to enter the galleries where the two sculptures are on view.

Other officials at the Getty also refuse to discuss the two works, a circa 300 BC marble head attributed to the Greek sculptor Skopas and the fragment of a grave monument from the 6th Century BC. The museum staff will not say where the sculptures came from or what prices were paid or why the museum believes they are Greek. One of the pieces, the grave monument, has even disappeared from the museum handbook sold at its bookstore.

There is a reason for this unusual behavior. Both works of art are suspected of being fakes, and the Getty museum has begun the long and painful process of discovering whether two of its most prized possessions are something other than what they seem. Meanwhile, officials have decided that the less they say, the better.

"We might be in the position of returning these pieces to the sellers," said Marion True, the ancient art curator. "If we talk about our doubts now, we would be telegraphing our arguments in advance, and we don't want to do that."

For the museum, the stakes are very high. A person with close ties to the Getty placed the purchase price of the two pieces at more than $1 million each, and other published reports have put their combined cost at $5 million. The Getty is the richest museum in the world with an endowment valued at $2.8 billion and could afford the loss. But the issue is not money alone. The sculpture, titled the Head of Achilles, and the carved relief were regarded as extremely rare finds at the time of their acquisition; it is unlikely they could be replaced at any price.

And there is also the matter of wounded pride. "I think the hardest thing for a museum to do is admit it was fooled on a major piece," said the curator at another museum who asked to remain anonymous. "Every curator fears that he will have to face this at some point in his career, and most will."

There is some consolation for the Getty; this spring, forgeries have been popping up with regularity at other museums across the country. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced recently that its Egyptian bronze cat, one of the most popular pieces of sculpture at the museum, is probably a modern fake. The cat, acquired in 1958, drew such attention that the museum put it on a special poster sold in the bookstore. The cat has now been taken off display.

Last month, the Dallas Museum of Art and the St. Louis Art Museum disclosed that several of their major pre-Columbian sculptures are forgeries. All the faked pieces appear to have come from the same group of statuary imported from Mexico in the 1950s, a discovery that has led other museums to begin investigating their holdings from the group.

In fact, the museum world's preoccupation with forgery appears to be escalating. Over the last decade, prices for artwork have risen dramatically, and decisions over one acquisition can involve millions of dollars. The potential rewards to the forger have increased proportionally.

Jerome Eisenberg, an art dealer in Beverly Hills and New York, said he has noticed a steady increase in the quality of many fakes over the last few years. "A Greek vase may now go for $50,000," he said. "A forger will make a much better vase for $50,000 than he would when the same vase was selling for $1,000."

Rise in Technical Skills

The war with forgers has been accompanied by a rise in technical skills on both sides. At the institutions, scientific techniques to detect fakes have grown ever more subtle, often supplanting the critical eye of the art connoisseur. In response, forgers themselves have become technicians, sometimes incorporating features designed to foil scientific tests.

"Every time you publish the results of your work in a scientific journal, you know the forgers have it in their hands," said one scientist who has worked with the Getty. "Of course, there are always nuances that don't get into any article; it's the only thing that gives me comfort."

At the Getty, the controversy surrounding the two Greek sculptures is a revealing example of what happens when reputable scholars raise questions about an artwork's authenticity. In this case, there is no question about the importance of the two works: Both have been promoted by the museum as centerpieces of its internationally recognized collection of ancient art. In the bookstore, the Getty still sells separate books on each sculpture that describe them in superlatives.

A Tender Scene

The carved relief depicts a tender scene on a broken fragment of marble. Supposedly the fragment is part of a larger monument that once marked the grave of a young man in Greece around 500 BC. The scene shows the head and shoulders of two warriors; one young man is bandaging the head of another who has been mortally wounded in battle. In its book on the relief, the Getty calls the sculpture "an exceptional masterpiece." Although the name of the sculptor is not known, the book says the artist deserves to be ranked "among the greatest Athenian masters, among the greatest creators of archaic Greek art."

The marble Head of Achilles attributed to the Greek sculptor Skopas is regarded as at least equally important. One of the greatest sculptors of the 4th Century BC, Skopas was commissioned to provide statuary for some of Greece's finest temples. Few of his works have survived, and the discovery of a carved head from the ruined temple at Tegea represented a major find for the Getty in 1979. In describing the importance of the head, the Getty book concludes that it may have been carved by Skopas himself or by one of his students. In either case, the book says, the statue's "quality and power suffice to place it at the forefront of all surviving architectural marbles . . . hardly less than a work of genius."

These claims are extraordinary, and behind them lie some very tricky judgments. The difference between a Greek original and a Roman copy of a Greek original--both in monetary and artistic terms--can be very great. But with marble sculpture there are often few technical clues to reveal the truth. So the debate usually revolves around fine points of style: Is this the way Skopas would have carved a head? Are the eyes and hands on the grave relief correct for 500 BC?

No Sure Answers

But the answers to even those questions are not known with certainty. Ancient artists lived so long ago that only the crudest information is available about their lives and work. Some scholars, for example, contend that Skopas' style cannot be described with certainty because none of the works attributed to Skopas can be proved unarguably to be his.

Because of these uncertainties and because reputations depend on the outcome, the debate at times can become testy. And so it has for the two Getty pieces.

Criticism of the Head of Achilles first came from Europe in the form of a long piece in a German scholarly journal, Antike Welt. Archeology professor German Hafner of the University of Mainz maintained that the Getty sculpture most likely was a copy of a genuine head on display at the National Museum in Athens. Hafner referred to the Getty piece, contemptuously, as probably the "work of a student" of the Beaux Arts school in 19th Century.

Hafner's argument focused on one feature of the Getty head: the shape of the visor that runs across the figure's forehead. The curve of the visor is smooth, without feature. This shape first appears to be identical to that of the head in Athens. And that, Hafner argued, is just the problem.

Visor Rebuilt

Originally the Athens head sported a different style of visor, Hafner wrote, one that contained a small peak extending downward toward the nose. Sometime in antiquity the Athens head suffered massive damage that obliterated the peak. After it was acquired by the Athens museum, the damage was repaired by a restorer who did not know about the peak and rebuilt the visor in a smooth arc. A copier then made the head that is at the Getty, Hafner concluded, and copied the wrong visor along with everything else.

On a spring day recently at the University of California, Berkeley, Andrew Stewart pulled the Hafner article from his file, tossed it on a table, and looked at it with some distaste. "Hafner has never seen the head; he's only seen photographs," Stewart said. "He condemned this piece from a very great distance."

Stewart, a professor of art history, believes wholeheartedly in the Getty's head and wrote the book that is sold in the museum's bookstore. Hafner is wrong, Stewart said, because his assumption about the Athens head is wrong. Just returned from a trip to Greece where he reinspected the Athens head, Stewart said it never had the peaked visor that Hafner claims. "The damage to the head would not have cut off the entire peak; you should be able to see the beginning of a curve," Stewart said. "And you can't see it because it's not there."

Opinions Shifting

Nonetheless, the tide of opinion appears to be turning against the Getty. Olga Palagia, antiquities professor at the University of Athens in Greece, has pointed out the overall "striking resemblance" between the Getty head and the Athens figure. Greek sculptors were not in the habit of making figures that looked so much alike, she noted in a scholarly review, and concluded there is a "daunting bulk of negative evidence" against the head.

Carolyn Houser, art history professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., said the amazingly pristine condition of the Getty acquisition also leaves her feeling uneasy. "You have these two heads almost identical in form and supposedly from the same site. Yet one (the Athens head) is all weathered and battered, and the other (the Getty head) is in remarkably fine condition." Houser said she believes the Getty piece is a fake, probably made in the 19th or early 20th Century.

The wave of doubts about the Skopas head has turned to an avalanche with the grave relief. It is difficult to find an art expert who believes the scene depicting two warriors was made at any point in antiquity. Houser said she sometimes tests her undergraduate students' savvy by showing them photographs of genuine and forged ancient artwork. Then she asks them which they would buy and which they would reject.

"I've never had a student who didn't say, 'No, thank you,' to the relief," Houser said.

Suspicious Patterns

The criticisms of the relief center on its unrealistically pristine condition and on the pattern of breaks that left the most poignant part of the scene neatly framed. One break actually follows the curve of one warrior's arm but never impinges on the arm itself.

Other experts have difficulty fitting the fragment into an overall scene. "If you try to picture what the whole thing looked like, it's very hard," said Brunilde Ridgway, an expert on ancient art at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

In its book on the relief, the Getty printed a drawing that offered one possible design; it is an awkward scene. "I do believe it is a forgery," Ridgway said. "None of the details are right."

The Getty's refusal to reveal details about the history of either piece has exacerbated the debate and raised suspicions further. It will say only that the Head of Achilles was acquired from a Paris collector, Michel de Bry. No other information about either piece has been forthcoming in spite of requests by a number of journalists and scholars.

No Evidence Offered

All museums occasionally decide to keep this information--known as the provenance of an object--from the public, either to protect the privacy of the seller or to hide an unsavory history of illicit excavation. In either case, the Getty has found itself in the position of making extraordinary claims for two objects and then offering no historical evidence to support its claims.

"When a provenance isn't given, the whole thing becomes obscure, and it's hard to even get a start (on an evaluation)," said Evelyn Harrison, art history professor at New York University.

What the Getty's secrecy has started is a wealth of rumors about the source of the pieces. Several persons familiar with the world art market say the grave relief was purchased from Nikolas Koutoulakis, an art dealer in Basel, Switzerland. The elder Koutoulakis could not be reached, but his son was contacted in Paris.

The son, Emmanuel, would neither confirm nor deny that the transaction was made with his father. However, he said he was familiar with the piece and contended that "it is authentic without any problem." He attributed criticisms of the work to "jealousy."

Acquired by Former Curator

As for the Head of Achilles, one authority close to the museum showed a reporter a document that appears to contain some of the background on the work. The document briefly describes a planned article on the head by the Getty's former curator of antiquities, Jiri Frel. Frel was responsible for acquisition of the head and the grave relief; he left his position under a cloud of scandal in 1984 when the Getty found that he had violated the museum's rules governing charitable donations.

It is not known whether Frel actually wrote the complete article. In the document, the Skopas head is described as being held for many years in the collection of a wealthy French industrialist, Julien Bessonneau. After Bessonneau's death, the piece was acquired in 1925 by Saint Clement de la Place, a small museum in Angers, France. When displayed at the museum, the description says the sculpture was identified as the Head of Mars.

Saint Clement de la Place is no longer listed in museum guides, and officials at other museums in Angers said the institution has closed.

Getty officials will not say whether they are on the verge of throwing in the towel with either the Achilles head or the grave relief. However, it has been learned that the museum is considering a battery of scientific tests on both pieces. Such testing is relatively new for marble statuary, and the results are not necessarily conclusive. But the evidence from the tests, along with expert opinion, may allow the museum to take a stand on the authenticity of the pieces.

What if the Getty decides one or both of the pieces are fake? Most curators outside the Getty say the works should be taken off display, for a variety of reasons.

'Sense of Trust'

"People come to a museum with a sense of trust," said Ellen Reeder, curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. "They admit that their eye is not as well-trained as ours. They don't know what Greek sculpture looks like, and they allow us to teach them. It's a tremendous responsibility. If the curator is displaying a forgery, the whole experience has been degraded."

Others argue that relics of past civilizations have more to teach than art sensibility. They represent one of the few windows into the civilization itself, and a fake gives false information about the people and their lives.

"An authentic representative of Greek sculpture can tell you many things, whether or not you think it is beautiful, " said Ridgway at Bryn Mawr. "It tells you how they carved, what they used statues for, how they saw themselves. This sculpture is answering questions we have. A fake, on the other hand, is giving you the wrong answers."

If the museum takes the pieces off display, it may also try to retrieve its money. Depending on the deal made at the time and the assurances given by the seller, a refund may or may not be possible. One person close to the museum said a refund might be possible for the Skopas head, but not for the grave relief. The person would not elaborate.

Final Decision Uncertain

All of which assumes that a final decision will be made about the authenticity of the two works. But that may not be the case. In the past, major artworks have occasionally lingered in a kind of half-life for many years while experts argued over their authenticity. Some have even been declared real, then fake, then real again.

The arguments persist because, ironically, fakes of recent origin often are the most difficult for art experts to detect. Such fakes make a subtle, contemporary appeal that is difficult to resist or even detect until artistic styles begin to change. "Twenty or 30 years later it will seem obvious, but not at the time they are made," Ridgway said.

Dietrich von Bothmer, for many years the curator of ancient art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said there is another reason museums are reluctant to dispose of such questions quickly.

"Once an object has been declared a fake, it is besmirched forever," Von Bothmer said. "So curators tend to defend their pieces. Anybody is capable of accepting a forgery as the real thing; it does not mean you are certifiably insane. But no scholar should ever call a real work of art a forgery. That is a crime."

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