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

November 03, 1988|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | 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."

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