"It's unique in the world," Marion True said with the authority of someone who knows when an artwork is one-of-a-kind. A late 5th-Century BC classical Greek statue, recently acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum and now on view, is quite simply the only one like it, according to the Getty curator of antiquities.
"I couldn't believe it when I first saw (the sculpture) in Europe," she said. "It's the only surviving cult figure of the period."
The 7 1/2-foot-tall, marble and limestone figure, probably representing Aphrodite, is "a critical addition" to the Getty's acclaimed collection of antiquities, True said. It provides a spectacular focus for the classical period in much the same way that the Getty's archaic collection revolves around a rare "Kouros" figure and the 4th-Century BC collection centers on a bronze "Victorious Athlete."
The addition of a major classical piece is particularly welcome, the curator said, because the Getty, "like all American museums, is weak in that period" in which examples are extremely rare.
In keeping with Getty policy, no details of the purchase have been revealed. Museum officials will only say that they bought the work at an undisclosed price from a European dealer, acting on behalf of a private collector. Public sale records of similar artworks do not exist, and experts are reluctant to guess the price but generally agree that the Getty must have paid well over $1 million. The J. Paul Getty Trust, which operates the museum, currently has a market value of about $3 billion.
The sculpture, probably personifying the goddess of love, fertility and beauty, was made as a cult figure for a temple, but now it is the centerpiece of the museum's Magna Grecia gallery. It is making its Malibu debut through Sept. 30, when it will be removed for several months for conservation treatment.
One foot and one arm have been lost, but conservators will reattach the other arm, fill the most disfiguring cracks and build an earthquake-resistant base for the sculpture. Much work must done but, according to True, the fact that the figure exists at all is almost miraculous.
The Getty's "Aphrodite" is an akrolith, a composite of different kinds of stone. The head, arms, hands and feet are marble, while the draped body is made of limestone. This segmented style and mixed-stone technique place the sculpture's origin in the Greek colonies of Southern Italy or Sicily. These colonies had no local source of marble suitable for carving, so they imported stones "for the best parts" of figural sculpture, True said.
If provincial artists worked at a material disadvantage, they also found that the relatively soft limestone allowed them to fashion elaborate drapery in the "wet style" that reveals the body under veils of stone resembling sheer fabric. The limestone was painted after carving, so its surface did not detract from the marble "flesh."
The Getty sculpture has traces of pink, blue and vermilion pigment on its drapery, proving that "Aphrodite's" gown was once brightly painted. She also probably had separately carved limestone hair and a mantle of drapery that billowed over her head. The surviving foot indicates that she wore thong sandals, perhaps of bronze.
Experts say there are about 30 akrolithic heads in collections around the world--two are currently on display at the Getty--but the exact nature of the bodies originally attached to them has been a mystery. The discovery of the Getty's statue (long hidden in a private collection) introduces "a totally new chapter" in scholarship, True said.
But if the sculpture is so rare, how can its authenticity be proved?
It's not a trivial question to the Getty--or any museum that collects antiquities. After insistent challenges, the Getty is having final tests performed on two of its most prized works--a marble head of Achilles (circa 300 BC), attributed to Greek sculptor Skopas, and an archaic relief originally thought to be a 6th-Century BC grave monument.
When an artwork appears with "no history," it presents special problems, True said. The Getty has made extensive inquiries and investigations including formal requests for information to government authorities of "the most probable countries of origin." No information has been received.
Tests have been conducted to date the work and confirm that the various parts belong to the same figure. Among the revelations was a hole in the stone bored by a snail that is now extinct. The imprint of fabric indicates that the figure was wrapped and buried for many years. One test in progress will date encrustations and help determine when the figure was laid to rest.
True said she anticipates no serious challenges to the sculpture's authenticity, partly because "it is the only one. If this were a copy, the forger would have had to have something to copy." She said that no scholar who has seen the sculpture has questioned its authenticity; instead, they have leaped ahead to new questions about the missing or detached parts.
Though the sculpture may seem to exist in a vacuum, True said that is not the case. Akrolithic heads have been studied for years, and the Getty "Aphrodite" corresponds to other major classical Greek works.
The "wet" drapery is similar to that on relief figures of the Nike Balustrade in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, while the drapery's windblown effect is like that of the Nike of Paionios in Olympia. The sculpture's massive proportions recall figures on the Parthenon's pediment, now in the British Museum. But the closest corollary, True said, is the late 5th-Century BC headless "Aphrodite" found in Athens' Agora and now displayed in the Stoa of Attalos.
"When I realized that the sculpture is being compared to the greatest works of Greek art, I knew how important it was," True said.