The Anatomy of a Controversy : Authenticity of Getty's Kouros Will Be the Subject of Scholars in Greece

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The J. Paul Getty Museum's archaic Greek kouros is in the spotlight again.

The authenticity of the 6-foot, 8-inch-tall marble sculpture of a nude young man has been questioned since 1985, when the museum bought the kouros for an undisclosed sum, variously reported at up to $12 million. When the Getty removed the sculpture from view two years ago--after discovering a fake archaic Greek torso that bears disturbing similarities to the kouros--skeptical critics predicted that it would simply fade away into the annals of expensive embarrassments.

But now the massive stone figure is leaving the seclusion of the museum's conservation laboratory in Malibu for the bright lights of its ostensible homeland. Meticulously packed in a metal cage inside a specially constructed crate, the sculpture is awaiting a flight to Athens, where it will undergo the scrutiny of impressively credentialed scholars.

Eighty art historians, archeologists and scientists from 13 countries will convene on May 26-27 at the Nicholas P. Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art to consider the lingering question of whether the kouros is the honest work of a late 6th-Century BC Greek sculptor or an extraordinary forgery. The Greek public and an international array of tourists also will have an opportunity to see the kouros, which will remain on view at the Goulandris Museum through Aug. 1.

There are obvious risks in inviting yet more discussion about what is already "the most scrutinized sculpture in the history of the scientific study of objects," as Getty scientist Frank Preusser terms it.

But new information has emerged from the last two years of study, and the Getty is eager to share it with the scholarly community. While no answer has been found to prove the kouros case either way, Getty Museum director John Walsh and antiquities curator Marion True have decided that presenting the facts in a new context may help clear the air. "This will be the first time specialists will be able to compare our kouros to other kouroi in nearby Athens museums. Interesting observations may well emerge out of this process," Walsh said in a press release announcing the colloquium.

"This sculpture has bedeviled us for six years," True said in an interview at the museum. "It has been tried in the press. There have been irresponsible condemnations of it with no supporting evidence. We think it's time to discuss the current state of research and provide a forum for debate."

Although a steady stream of American scholars have visited the Getty and offered opinions on the true-or-false dilemma, relatively few European and Greek experts have seen the kouros. "This is the first time a problem piece has been brought to Greece for an international forum. It's a very important event," said Vassilis Lambrinoudakis of the University of Athens.

Indeed, the kouros's visit has been noted in a flurry of articles in Greek newspapers. And the colloquium is "the hottest ticket in Athens," True said of the invitational event.

Nineteen scholars representing a wide range of opinion are scheduled to give brief talks on stylistic, technical and scientific issues of the kouros. True believers, doubters and fence-sitters will face each other in discussions with the audience of experts. The idea is to confront questions and lay all known facts on the table so that judgments can be based on a complete reading of currently available information.

No consensus is expected to emerge from the colloquium. "We do hope, however, that it will at least establish what can and cannot accurately be said about the statue at this time," True said.

"We can only try to come a millimeter closer to the truth," said Preusser, associate director of the Getty Conservation Institute. He and Getty antiquities conservator Jerry Podanyhave co-directed an extensive battery of tests on the sculpture during the last six years.

In presenting the colloquium the Getty is, in a sense, admitting failure. "From the moment we removed the kouros from the galleries, we set out to prove that it is a fake. We wanted to find the flaw that proved it, but we haven't been able to find it," True said.

"You can't prove authenticity; you can prove a forgery," Preusser said. But the kouros is no blatant fraud; the complexity of the case has led scientists and conservators down one blind alley after another and caused them to despair of ever finding an answer to the problem.

Podany likens his six years with the kouros to opening a series of nested boxes. "Every time we open one box and answer a question, we find a smaller box with more questions inside," he said.

All the resources, technical expertise, scientific methods and connoisseurship that the museum and the Getty Conservation Institute can muster have failed to produce a single piece of evidence that condemns the kouros. And the tests are not simply the desired results of Getty people who have a vested interest in the sculpture's authenticity. Scientists from many other institutions have been enlisted in the project and all tests done in Getty labs are duplicated independently, Preusser said.

The failure to prove a forgery on scientific grounds bolsters arguments for authenticity, but there are no absolute answers, Preusser said. Data is definite, but interpretations vary, and the study of ancient sculpture is largely uncharted territory.

When the fake torso emerged two years ago, it was rumored to have been the work of the same Roman forger who might have carved the two pieces from the same quarry--possibly even from the same block of marble. But the identity of the forger remains a mystery. Meanwhile, scientists have determined that the two sculptures did not come from the same block of stone. They probably didn't even come from the same quarry, although both appear to have originated on the island of Thasos.

"We will probably never be able to narrow down where the stone came from," Preusser said. "So many ancient quarries have been destroyed or covered over. We could sink millions of dollars into a search and still not find the quarry. If we are lucky, it might turn up over time.

"That leaves us with the surface of the stone. We have only a thin shell to work with, and we have to ask what it tells us, but again there are no absolutes," he said. Nothing is known of the sculpture's history--where and when it might have been buried and excavated, if it is ancient, and what might have been done to its surface in recent times.

Upon purchasing the kouros, Getty officials were persuaded of the sculpture's authenticity by a test indicating that the surface crust had occurred through de-dolomitization,a natural process that leaves a calcite crust after magnesium is leached out of stone. Scientists thought this process couldn't be faked, so the sculpture must be ancient.

A potential breakthrough came last year when the process was replicated in a laboratory. But further tests revealed that the kouros' surface had been misidentified; it is actually calcium oxalate, which can be produced by an acid wash or by biological processes. Getty scientists subsequently have replicated calcium oxalate with an acid wash but they haven't come close to reproducing a surface as complex as the kouros's crust, which appears to be the result of natural processes, Podany said.

While the stone is known to be ancient, the age of the surface remains a question. Carbon dating is unreliable on the sculpture's crust because there is no way to determine where surface deposits came from, Preusser said. (In one famous case that points out the limitations of carbon dating, a test on a frog that had lived in an ancient well determined he was 14,000 years old when he died.)

As for examination of tool marks, conservators have found evidence of power tools on the torso, but nothing inconsistent with ancient workmanship has turned up on the kouros, Podany said.

"We have learned a lot," Podany said, but none of it has cracked the kouros case. The only consolation is that the studies have made a significant contribution to the field of ancient sculpture.

Another result of the frustrating project is that it has provided art historians and scientists with an opportunity to resolve their traditional differences. Connoisseurship has long been known as a vague discipline that is largely in the eye of the beholder, while science has been considered far more exacting. But in this case, the uncertainties of both areas are painfully apparent.

"I feel we have more or less exhausted the short-term possibilities in our work with the kouros. What is left is long-term research and luck," Preusser said. "In the end, the decision will be up to the art historians."

The next opportunity for the Getty's Los Angeles audience to see the sculpture will occur in January, when the museum plans an exhibition of the kouros and complete documentation of the studies.

A Perplexing Past

1983: Basel art dealer Gianfranco Bacchina offers a statue of a nude youth, or kouros, to the Getty. The sculpture--the first complete archaic Greek figure to come on the market since 1930--is said to be the property of Geneva physician Jean Lauffenburger, who had bought it from a Greek dealer in 1930. The sculpture is sent to the Getty for study.

January, 1985: The Getty buys the kouros after scientific tests and a majority of scholarly opinion support the likelihood that the kouros is genuine--carved by a late 6th-Century BC Greek sculptor.

November, 1986: The museum puts the kouros on view, to mixed reviews.

April, 1990: An independent scholar in London, Jeffrey Spier, notices that a fake marble torso has the same stylistic anomalies as the kouros and notifies Getty curator Marion True who goes to Basel to examine the torso with conservator Jerry Podany.

June, 1990: True and Podany return to Basel with small plaster castings of the kouros to compare to the torso. Podany takes a sample of the stone from the torso.

July, 1990: After months of study, the Getty buys the fake torso and brings it to Malibu. Shortly thereafter, the museum removes the kouros from the galleries and launches an intensive study.

May, 1992: The Getty puts the kouros on view in Athens and presents its findings at a scholarly colloquium.

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