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


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.

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