Getty Conservators Are On the Case : Art: The museum staff painstakingly determines the authenticity of Cycladic art before it is installed.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum’s new installation of Cycladic art appears to be a simple accomplishment. All you do is buy great art and put it up, right?

Not if you run a first-rate museum in earthquake country and not if you are acutely aware of the vagaries and problems involved with authenticating and conserving ancient treasures. “We can’t just plop the objects on shelves,” assistant curator Karen Manchester said, noting that the Cycladic gallery is the product of extensive behind-the-scenes effort by curators, conservators and mount-makers.

In the case of sculpture acquired from the Paul and Marianne Steiner collection, for example, antiquities conservator Jerry Podany spared no effort. Marion True, the Getty’s chief curator of antiquities, was particularly thrilled with the acquisition of three extraordinarily refined statues, but she and Podany take nothing for granted.


“My first impression about the Cycladic idols was that they were fine,” Podany said. “But I always try to ignore my first impression or disprove it.”

Dismissing style and form, which are a curator’s concern, Podany concentrated on the material, its surface, how it had aged and weathered. Cycladic idols, made from stones that were quarried or found on the beach, were originally brightly painted, but their simple forms generally have been eroded into off-white figures with incised limbs and rudimentary facial features.

Podany first observed the sculptures with the naked eye, then shifted to a microscope, using progressively greater magnification. “I looked at the pieces under ultraviolet light and a raking light, and then went back and forth, zooming in on inconsistencies or anything that looked suspicious,” he said.

He examined encrustations--a key element in antiquities, when they haven’t been removed by misguided conservators. These accumulations of minerals can be loaded with problems. “If there is an encrustation, I look at the nature of it, how it’s attached to the surface of the sculpture, if it’s consistent with what is normally found on an antiquity,” Podany said.

“If it is loose or glued on, or if a common solvent dissolves it, flags go up. But that alone wouldn’t condemn it,” he said. “Antiquities are often overcleaned and people try to fix such mistakes by making the works look old.” What he found was a “porous, tan-colored crust” that was “consistent” with 4,500-year-old marble sculptures.

Tool marks are another indicator of age and authenticity. Authentic Cycladic sculpture has “subtle, round, soft marks probably made by using various grades of abrasives, like coarse sand paper,” Podany said. “There are scratches left by fairly large pieces of abrasive. Then the piece is finished with finer abrasive that leaves a rounded series of scratches.”


Marks of modern chisels would have triggered suspicions. Repetitive spirals of machine tooling--or any other marks too perfect to have been done by hand--would have indicated a fake. But if modern tool marks had been discovered, Podany would have tried to determine if these tools were used to create a fake or merely to touch up a genuinely old piece.

The conservator found only typical marks of abrasion, so he went on to examine fragments of pigment that remain on one statue. Two rows of tiny red dots run across the figure’s forehead and lower cheeks. A larger dot corresponds to the nose, a short line may represent the figure’s mouth and solid circles appear at the ears. Blue pigment probably used on the eyes and hair is gone, but hints of red still cling to crevices around the neck and spine.

The paint, which makes this figure particularly important to scholars, is visible to the naked eye. Viewed under a raking light, Podany could see that the dots were slightly raised above the eroded surface around them.

Podany was also concerned with the marble itself. Cycladic fakes abound--largely because the nude idols were in vogue in the ‘60s--and one of the first tip-offs is the wrong kind of marble.

“If the stone is fine-grained gray- or blue-white Carrara marble, it is easy to condemn,” Podany said, because that stone is not native to the Cyclades. Larger-grained marble found on Naxos and Paros was sufficiently plentiful that artists had no need to import stone.

Everything was in order in Podany’s investigation. “There were no surprises,” he said, so he left the sculptures completely intact. If doubts had arisen, he might have taken samples for analysis by scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute.


Specialists talk of a working “triangle” composed of curators, conservators and scientists when studying such objects as Cycladic sculpture. Experts acknowledge risks in collaboration, however. “You have to accept that you can be wrong,” Getty scientist Frank Preusser said.

But the system also provides safeguards. “If you don’t get technical support for your arguments, you can get into trouble,” True said.

When the Cycladic objects passed muster in the museum’s conservation lab, they moved on to a workshop where mount-makers designed and constructed form-fitted plexiglass devices that run up the backs of the objects and are attached with transparent plastic cord. The mounts are inserted into fabric-covered blocks which, in turn, are attached to display cases. Finally, the cases are fixed to walls so that an earthquake will not send them skidding across the gallery or allow them to crash into each other.

All this engineering would be difficult enough in itself, but it is made more complicated in that it must be nearly invisible. “We don’t want visitors to be more interested in earthquake-proofing than they are in the artworks,” Manchester noted.