Antiquities & Archaeology

The Getty Kouros: The masterpiece versus fake debate continues

Perhaps it is better to journey than to arrive, as the authentication process of this work has encouraged significant research into kouroi sculpture

The conference co-sponsored by the Getty Museum and the Goulandris Foundation (the host organisation) at the end of May on the Getty Kouros concluded without a consensus of opinion over whether the statue is a fake or not. This was no surprise to Marion True, the Getty Museum’s Curator of Antiquities. Acquired by the Getty Museum in 1985 (supposedly for a sum of nearly $9 million) the statue has been the subject of extensive scientific tests and scholarly debate ever since. Indeed, it could be said, that even if the Kouros does turn out to be a fake, it will have generated more detailed research into Greek sculpture than any other work in existence. The recent conference brought together an international gathering of 130 art historians, archaeologists, conservators and scientists working in the field of archaic Greek sculpture. Reports by staff of the Getty conservation institute centred round the process of “dedolomitisation” which the surface millimetres of marble have undergone. This is an alteration of the crystalline structure of the stone through the through the action of acid leaching of magnesium from the calcium magnesium carbonate. The conservators have so far been unable to recreate this process using chemicals in the lab, but this is an inconclusive argument for assuming this to be an ageing process. There are no marks of modern tools on any part of the sculpture, which is carved from hard dolomitic Thasian marble, but this could again point to a very sophisticated forgery. When the scholars were invited to comment on the style and technique of the Kouros similar arguments and points were made both for and against. It was generally agreed that there was nothing wrong with the proportions, but this could indicate the work of a skilful forger. A search for discrepancies was agreed to be the best avenue of research and one of the more convincing arguements put forward for the work not to be genuine was that the Kouros combines stylistic elements that run from early to late sixth century BC. A word of warning was however sounded by Professor John Boardman of Oxford University, in talking to The Art Newspaper, who pointed out that most kouroi are eclectic works. None of the Greek scholars present considered the Kouros to be a genuine piece while most of the rest were uneasy and expressed reservations about the criteria employed. The main value of the conference was to pinpoint gaps in reasearch into Archaic kouroi: incomplete photographic resources; a lack of methodology to determine authenticity; the absence of databases to store and compare information on the changes in composition of ancient stone. Meanwhile the Getty Museum will continue its study of the Kouros and is mounting an exhibition at the Museum in January 1993 which will incorporate much of the debate from the recent conference. The Kouros remains on display at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art until 1 August.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'It is better to journey than to arrive: the masterpiece versus fake debate continues over the Getty Kouros'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 20 July 1992