Thursday 28 August 2008

The Getty Kouros: "The moral is, never ever buy a piece without a provenance"

In the wake of the 1992 Athens conference to discuss the Getty kouros (85.AA.40), one of the delegates, a "distinguished" American museum curator, was quoted ("Greek sculpture; the age-old question", The Economist June 20, 1992):
The moral is, never ever buy a piece without a provenance.

The recent discussions about the return of antiquities from North American museums to Italy and Greece may seem far removed from the acquisition of what appears to be a forged archaic Greek sculpture in the 1980s. However, there are some surprising overlaps.

The statue arrived at the Getty on September 18, 1983 in seven pieces. True (1993: 11) subsequently asked two questions:
Where was it found? As it was said to have been in a Swiss private collection for fifty years, why had it never been reassembled, though it was virtually complete?
A similar statue surfacing in the 1930s
A decision was taken to acquire the kouros in 1985. The official Getty line at the time (and reported in Russell 1986) was that the statue had "left Greece a half century ago" (i.e. 1930s) and was then "sent for sale from a private collection in Switzerland". The 1930s is an interesting decade as it coincides with the 1937 surfacing (and seizure) of the "Anavysos kouros" in Paris, and its return to Greece (where it is now displayed in the National Museum NM 3851). So if the "Anavysos kouros" had been smuggled out of Greece in the 1930s, why not another similar statue?

Documentation and Old Collections
The evidence that the Getty kouros had been known in the 1930s was based on supposed documentary evidence. Kimmelman (1991) presented the documentation:
The documents traced the work to the collection of a Geneva physician, Jean Lauffenberger, who had purportedly bought it around 1930 from a Greek dealer. A letter in German, dated March 12, 1952, to Lauffenberger from the late Ernst Langlotz, an eminent scholar of archaic sculpture, linked the kouros stylistically to the so-called Anavysos youth, a famous archaic sculpture in the National Museum in Athens. A second letter to Lauffenberger, in French, dated March 20, 1952, is from a Herman Rosenberg, who writes that Langlotz had repeated to him that the kouros was "a masterpiece of Greek archaic sculpture of the greatest rarity." Yet another letter, dated 1955, was from a Basel artisan named A. E. Bigenwald, whom Lauffenberger supposedly consulted about repairs on the kouros.
Only photocopies were made available to the Getty (True 1993: 13).
Then, when these photocopies were subject to the scrutiny of a German expert in typewriters, postal codes and other means of verification, they proved to be cleverly manufactured composites. The Langlotz letter in particular could be shown to be a forgery because, though the letter is dated 1952, the postal code on the letter head did not come into existence until 1972. The association with the Lauffenberger collections thus appears to have been a clever hoax, and the real modern history of the statue prior to 1983 remains a mystery.
Moreover the bank account printed on the (1955) letter head relating to Bigenwald was not opened until 1963 (noted in Kimmelman 1991).

The use of the "Lauffenbruger collection" is not dissimilar to the attribution of some of the pieces returned to Italy to "old" collections (Gill and Chippindale 2006: 314; Gill and Chippindale 2007: 216). Here are four examples:
  • Formerly Boston, MFA 1979.40. Attic red-figured pelike, attributed to the Nausicaa painter. Phineus with the sons of Boreas. Collecting history: said to have been in the Karl Haug collection, Basel since 1936; by 1971 with Palladion Antike Kunst, Basel; sold 1979. Bibl. Gill and Chippindale 2006: 325, appendix 1, no. 7.
  • Formerly Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum 79.AE.139. Attic red-figured amphora. Herakles and Apollo struggle for the tripod. Collecting history: said to have been in the Rycroft collection, England in 1890; sold by "a company owned by Gianfranco Becchina"; purchased in 1979 from Palladion Antike Kunst, Basel. Bibl. Watson and Todeschini 2006: 345-46.
  • Formerly Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum 83.AE.203. Collecting history: said to be from the S. Schweitzer collection in 1940; gift of Vasek Polak, Canada. Etruscan red-figured plastic duck askos. Bibl. Gill and Chippindale 2007: 229, no. 23.
  • Rome Villa Guilia 121110; formerly Malibu, the J. Paul Getty Museum 83.AE.362, 84.AE.8, 85.AE.385. Attic red-figured cup, Onesimos; Euphronios as "potter". Ilioupersis. Collecting history: tondo said by Frida Tchacos-Nussberger of Galerie Nefer, Zurich, to have been acquired from Nino Savoca, Munich; other fragments said to have come from the S. Schweitzer collection, Arlesheim; other fragments said by Christian Boursaud to have been in the Zbinden collection and acquired in 1985 from the Hydra Gallery; cup returned to Italy in 1999; two further fragments donated by Giacomo Medici in 2005; new fragment seized at Cerveteri in 2008. Bibl. Gill, review of Getty Masterpieces in BMCR (1998); Watson and Todeschini 2006: 94-95.
These four examples suggest that from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s it was possible for acquisitions to be "falsely historied". Such "old" collections were believable even if there does not appear to have been reliable documentation. And such fabrications continue, such as the "Silverton Park" history for the "Amarna Princess" acquired by the Bolton Museum.

The Dealer
The Getty kouros is reported to have been purchased from the Sicilian Gianfranco Becchina based in Basel (Kimmelman 1991). Papers relating to the sale were reviewed by a court in Rome in April 2006 (see Povoledo 2006).
Mr. Putrino also testified about documents related to the sale of a marble kouros, or naked youth, by Mr. Becchina to the Getty for $10 million in 1983, when Jiri Frel was curator of antiquities.
Becchina's Basel Gallery, run by his wife "Rosie", is Palladion Antike Kunst (Watson and Todeschini 2006: 290-91). Three of the pieces returned from Boston to Italy came from this gallery (Gill and Chippindale 2006: 317-319, 324-25, nos. 3, 7, and 10).

The Fragmentary Kouros
The authenticity of the Getty kouros was brought into sharp focus in early 1990. Jeffrey Spier was given access to photographic evidence of a companion piece (Spier 1990: 630):
Early in 1990 I was shown a photograph of a fragmentary kouros; the head, one hand, and both legs below the knee were missing. It rested on a wooden pallet and was said to be in storage in Switzerland. The resemblance to the Getty kouros was striking, and after making this observation, I was told that the piece was indeed its 'brother', made by the same workshop in Rome in the early 1980s. Elaborate stories followed about how an ancient marble block was taken from a Sicilian site to Rome, cut into two pieces (one larger than the other) and carved into two kouroi, the larger going to the Getty Museum and the smaller to Switzerland.
Spier and Marion True went to inspect the torso in Basel and drew the conclusion that it was indeed a fake (True 1993: 13-14). It was purchased by the Getty in August 1990 "for study purposes".

The missing head from the torso was donated to the Getty by "a dealer in Geneva" (True 1993: 14). This second "kouros" is said "to have been made in Rome around 1984-1985, reportedly by a man named Fernando Onore". The helpful Geneva dealer is reported to have been Giacomo Medici (Watson and Todeschini 2006: 99, 198).

The Desire to Acquire
Any museum that wished to develop its archaeological holdings in the late 20th century (or now in the early 21st century) was faced with the issue of establishing the history (or "provenance") of the object. Chippindale (1996) asked this question in his review of the volume that emerged from the Getty kouros conference in Athens.
Where is the stuff to come from? Not from existing great museums because they do not sell. Not from Greece or Turkey, because those countries of origin feel the acquisitive museums do not have a record of honorable behavior; so they are in no mood to relax their frontiers. That leaves the Getty to fish in the shrinking private pool. In it there swim, alongside the pieces known to have left their Mediterranean countries of origin long ago, alluring items that have simply "surfaced" in dealers' hands or in private possession; some of these will be "good," emerging silently from old collections, others may be recently looted or fakes.
In the past some archaeological material has reached museums through the system of partage. Think of the material from the British excavations at Phylakopi on Melos in university museums such as the Ashmolean or Fitzwilliam. However, pieces that are offered for sale either have no disclosed recorded history or are stated to come from old collections; it is rare, but not unknown, for excavated pieces to appear on the market.

This is where "due diligence" steps in. Can the museum establish that the proposed acquisition was known prior to 1970? Is such an "old collection" known? Is there any reason to be suspicious?

In the case of the Getty kouros, the statue appeared to have documentation that suggested that it had been known in the 1930s.

The Acquisition that is "Too Good To Be True"
The case of the Getty kouros is not unlike the acquisition of the "Fitzwilliam Goddess", which was said to have been found in the 1920s near Knossos (see Butcher and Gill 1993), the "Amarna Princess", or the "James Ossuary". Chippindale concluded his review relating to the Getty kouros with the following statement about the intellectual consequences (and try replacing "Archaic Greece" with "Bronze Age Crete" or "First Century CE Jerusalem"):
If he is fake, he has wrongly altered our perception of Archaic Greece. If he is genuine, then his murky story prevents our vision of Archaic Greece being informed by full acknowledgment of a supreme sculpture.
The acquisition of unhistoried antiquities (is that better than "unprovenanced"?), whether they are ancient or of modern manufacture, has an intellectual consequence.

Butcher, K., and D. W. J. Gill. 1993. "The director, the dealer, the goddess and her champions: the acquisition of the Fitzwilliam goddess." American Journal of Archaeology 97: 383-401. [JSTOR]
Chippindale, C. 1996. Review of The Getty kouros colloquium: Athens, 25-27 May 1992: 11-15 (Athens: Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation / Museum of Cycladic Art) in American Journal of Archaeology 100, 1 (1996) 185 [JSTOR]
Gill, D. W. J., and C. Chippindale. 2006. "From Boston to Rome: reflections on returning antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 13: 311-31. [link]
—. 2007. "From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities." International Journal of Cultural Property 14: 205-40. [link]
Kimmelman, M. 1991. "Absolutely real? Absolutely fake?" New York Times August 4, 1991: 1.
Povoledo, E. 2006. "Focus in Getty trial shifts to a Sicilian antiquities dealer." New York Times April 27, 2006: 3.
Russell, J. 1986. "Disputed Greek statue to go on exhibition." New York Times August 12, 1986: 1.
Spier, J. 1990. "Blinded with science: the abuse of science in the detection of false antiquities." Burlington Magazine 132: 623-31. [JSTOR]
True, M. 1987. "A kouros at the Getty Museum." Burlington Magazine 129: 3-11. [JSTOR]
True, M. 1993. "The Getty kouros: background on the problem." In The Getty kouros colloquium: Athens, 25-27 May 1992: 11-15. Athens: Nicholas P. Goulandris Foundation / Museum of Cycladic Art.

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