An Art World Detective Story: the Getty’s ‘Head of Achilles’

Times Art Writer

Breaking a three-month silence, officials of the J. Paul Getty Museum have revealed that a marble “Head of Achilles”--once prized as a 4th-Century B.C. work by Greek sculptor Skopas but recently declared a fake--is probably an early 20th-Century creation.

The unknown artist, possibly a gifted student working from a plaster cast, appears to have faithfully copied a Skopas head on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, according to Marion True, Getty curator of antiquities.

News of the Getty’s conclusion reveals startling new information about a controversial artwork and yields rare insight into the meticulous process of determining the true identity of an ancient piece of art. The case of the “Achilles Head” is a fascinating detective story that began with an intuition but soon boiled down to hard facts, precise measurements and geological testing.


Finally going public with its research, the Getty bases its revised assessment of the marble head on three major findings:

--The accidental discovery of correspondence indicating that the Getty’s “Achilles Head” had been offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the early ‘30s but was rejected as a modern copy. The correspondence further indicated that the head had been in England and not in a French collection, as the Getty had been led to believe.

--Comparative measurements proving that the Getty head and the Athens head are so nearly identical that the Getty work must be a copy of the Athens piece, long established as an original.

--An analysis of the stone showing that the Getty head is made from an entirely different kind of marble than the Skopas head in Athens and that the two probably wouldn’t have been produced for the same Greek temple.

Headlines cried “fake” last August when the Getty initially announced that the head was not what it had been cracked up to be. Museum officials were reportedly offended by journalists’ use of the art world’s dreaded F word but refused to divulge details that would lead to a more precise description.

Was the head an intentionally deceitful fake or just an innocently executed copy that was mistaken for an original? If it was a copy, was it ancient or modern? Who actually carved the piece and why? Did Parisian art dealer Michel de Bry, who in 1979 sold the piece to the Getty at an undisclosed price, knowingly mislead the Getty or did he unwittingly pass on incorrect information?

In the hope of returning the head to De Bry and reaching a private settlement with him, the Getty left such questions unanswered. Citing policy, the museum has also declined to reveal the price of the sculpture, but some published reports place the value at around $2.5 million.

To this day, the Getty steadfastly maintains its silence on legal aspects of the matter except to say that De Bry has been notified of the museum’s findings.

Repeated attempts by The Times to reach De Bry have been unsuccessful.

But if any possible settlement remains in the dark, the Getty’s latest announcement sheds important new light on the sculpture. Finally revealing results of extensive investigations of the marble head, specialists at the institution are persuaded that they have solved a scholarly puzzle that has stretched over at least four nations and more than half a century.

“The head has always been a problem, but it’s one thing to say a thing is false and quite another to prove it. If you condemn something, you have to support your argument,” said True, who took charge of the troublesome head in June, 1986, when she became the Getty’s curator of antiquities.

The marble sculpture came to the museum during the tenure of former curator Jiri Frel, a widely revered scholar who retired in 1984 in the wake of disclosures that he had traded inflated appraisals for donated antiquities. Believing that the head came from Skopas’ temple of Athena Alea at Tegea (in the province of Arcadia in the Peloponnesus), Frel persuaded Getty trustees to buy it.

According to the Getty, De Bry claimed that the sculpture had been in the collection of French industrialist Julien Bessonneau until his death in 1925 and that it later belonged to a small museum in Angers, France, which had closed.

(It is not known whether De Bry was aware of the actual history of the head at the time of the sale. In any case, however, it appears unlikely that he will face any criminal charges as a result of the discovery, unless the Getty can prove that the dealer knowingly misrepresented the sculpture.)

The acquisition was greeted with excitement in the press, and the museum soon listed the head among its most prized possessions. The Getty’s current handbook calls the head “one of the few original Greek sculptures in Western European or American collections that can be placed within the context of a specific monument.”

Skopas is believed to have carved two narrative pediments on the Tegean temple, which served as a refuge for kings of Sparta. The eastern pediment depicted the mythical Calydonian boar hunt, while the western panel told the story of a battle between Telephus and Achilles during the Trojan War. Little remains of the temple today and the pediments have long since fallen. But the National Archeological Museum in Athens boasts a display of the temple’s sculptural remains, including a “Head of Achilles.”

The Athens head is well known to scholars of antiquities and though it has suffered more damage than the sculpture acquired by the Getty, similarities between the two were immediately noted by experts. A 16-page paper by French archeologist Francois Chamoux, published in 1981 by the French University Press, compares the two sculptures exhaustively and asserts, “One must conclude that the two heads come from the same studio and probably from the same hand, and naturally that they are from the same sculptural group in the same monument.”

Chamoux, Frel and many of their colleagues were persuaded that the Getty head had come from the Skopas temple, and that if the master didn’t actually carve it, a supervised assistant did. But others began to wonder why Skopas would have carved near twins and why the one in the Getty collection was in so much better shape than the head in Athens.

The first serious challenge to the authenticity of the Getty “Head of Achilles” came in 1984 in the German scholarly journal Antike Welt. Archeology professor German Hafner of the University of Mainz charged that the Getty head was probably a 19th-Century copy executed by a student of the Beaux Arts school. Hafner based his argument on identical visors that run across the foreheads of the sculptures. He maintained that the visor on the Athens head was originally pointed, but that a faulty restoration had rounded off the peak. The copyist, Hafner thought, had only reproduced the error.

Art historian Andrew Stewart of UC Berkeley, who wrote a book on the head for the Getty, discounted Hafner’s challenge, noting that the German scholar had not seen the Getty piece and was working from photographs. But several art historians contacted by The Times last year during an investigation also voiced doubts about the sculpture.

True inherited this controversy with her new position and decided to make it a top priority. “What bothered me was that the head looked so dead. It’s such a big meat ball,” she said during an interview in the Getty’s conservation lab. But she wasn’t sure that the head was a copy, and being a specialist in Attic red-figure vase painting--rather than 4th-Century B.C. sculpture--didn’t bolster her position. Nonetheless, she decided to have another look at the Athens head while on a business trip.

After studying the “Head of Achilles” in Greece, she thought it far more lively than the Getty head. But when she expressed that impression to Chamoux, “He as much as said, ‘Who are you to say it’s not right?’,” True said.

The breakthrough came about a year ago, in the form of some 1932 and 1933 correspondence serendipitously discovered in the files of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Dietrich von Bothmer, the Met’s curator of Greek and Roman art.

While researching an entirely different matter, Von Bothmer came across three letters indicating that more than 50 years ago the “Head of Achilles” now in the Getty’s collection had been offered to the Met and rejected as a modern copy. The Times has obtained copies of the correspondence.

In a hand-written letter, dated Dec. 30, 1932, dealer Charles T. Seltman of Cambridge, England, approached Met curator Gisela M. A. Richter. Seltman told Richter that a representative of collector A. W. Fenton would be bringing her “a remarkable marble head, only recently found at Tegea” and presumed to be from the western pediment of the Skopas temple. Seltman asked the Met to perform scientific tests on the piece to determine its authenticity, offered the head to the museum and begged that the matter be treated in “utmost confidence.”

Richter’s crisp, typewritten reply, dated Jan. 28, 1933, brought bad news to the English dealer. Richter said she believed the sculpture was a copy of a helmeted head of which the Met had a cast. She also reported that “the incrustation comes off very readily and the marble is quite white underneath” and wrote that a conservator’s examination under violet-ray concluded “the head cannot be ancient.”

Seltman responded almost immediately, on Feb. 8, 1933, thanking Richter for her trouble and expressing disappointment. “The owner has been the victim of an elaborate fraud, for I feel sure that since it is false, the head must have been made outside Greece,” Seltman wrote.

The correspondence was damning, and not only on the issue of authenticity. The letters indicated that the head had been in an English collection, and not in a French chateau, as De Bry had warranted. If the provenance wasn’t right, that could only accentuate other doubts about the sculpture.

“This was the first piece of substantial evidence,” True said, and it solidified her resolve to get to the bottom of the problem “once and for all.” She would proceed with scientific tests, including comparative measurements of the two heads and analysis of the stone. If results disproved De Bry’s claims about the piece, the museum would confront him with the information and attempt to work out a settlement.

The Getty ordered a cast of the Greek-owned head from the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Katarina Romiopoulou, curator of sculpture at the Athens institution, delivered the cast last March, when she came to California for a Getty-sponsored marble symposium that attracted eminent art historians and conservators.

Jerry Podany, conservator of antiquities at the Getty, got to work on the cast right away, figuring he was in for weeks if not months of tedious measurements and comparisons. But almost immediately a startling likeness between the plaster cast and the marble head was apparent. When the heads were positioned side by side--instead of half a world apart--the resemblance was spooky.

Maintaining a scientist’s skepticism, Podany proceeded to line up reference points and plot a series of 60 cross-sections. To his amazement, the outlines of the two heads--plotted in successive slices--came within a millimeter of each other in most cases. The only substantial differences occurred in parts that had been broken off the Athens head and filled in the more complete Getty sculpture. “Once you know that, you begin to notice that the weak places in our head correspond to damaged areas in the Athens head,” Podany said.

Podany and True contend that their sculpture is not a fake intended to deceive but an astonishingly well-executed exercise done by an excellent technician who only fell down on the job when he had to fill in missing areas. “It’s an incredibly impressive copy,” Podany said.

“The most condemning evidence,” according to True, was the peculiar, sharply defined contour of the upper lip that is exactly the same on both the Getty and the Athens heads.

Plaster casts of antique sculpture were popular tools of instruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cast collections were available to students at various art schools and museums in Europe and the East Coast, so it is difficult to say where the Getty head might have been made, but True believes that the precision of the copyist’s technique indicates that it probably was done in the early 20th Century.

Once the provenance and measurements had been established, the only remaining task was an analysis of the marble. Carbon-14 dating, a process used on organic material, could not be used because there is no organic residue on the stone.

The head had neither a weathered surface nor a residue indicating that extensive acid cleaning had removed such a surface, so Podany proceeded with a test that is done only as a last resort. He drilled two tiny discs of marble from the surface of the head, a disfiguring process usually performed only when there is strong evidence against the authenticity of an antiquity. “We had found so much against the head that we felt we could justify it,” Podany said.

Geology professor Stanley Margolis of UC Davis conducted the test and determined that the head was made of Parian marble, a variety entirely different from the marble on the Athens piece. With that revelation, the Getty’s investigation was complete.

But if True and Podany are now so sure that the head is a copy, how were equally serious professionals ever persuaded that it was an original? Has technology improved that much in a decade?

“Technology hasn’t changed very much, but the application of it has,” Podany said. He and True contend that the discredited head is a typical example of approaching an antiquity with insufficient skepticism.

Frel did not make use of the scientific tests available even 10 years ago and, apparently, relied on connoisseurship.

Historically there has been a deep--and sometimes rancorous--gulf between art connoisseurs who base aesthetic judgments on the eye and scientists who rely on quantifiable tests. Such professional meetings as the Getty’s marble symposium in April and another in May in Italy have helped to merge the two strains of scholarship, True said.

“The concerns of art historians and conservators complement each other, and people are beginning to see the advantages of collaboration. If scientific tests can help prove the stylistic arguments of art historians, so much the better,” she said.