The label says “artist unknown” and a date of “about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.” What is it? A Greek statue of a young man, or kouros. It’s a statue, purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, and the center of an international controversy. Was one of the richest museums in the world hoodwinked by paying a cool nine million for the statue in 1985? Or does the Getty possess one of the best-preserved examples in existence of Archaic Greek sculpture?
Nobody knows. After art historians examined it and pronounced it a pastiche of sculptural styles and “too good to be true,” the statue was whisked off display for further tests. After geologists typed the marble and dissected the patina on the statue’s surface, scholars from all over the world gathered in Athens, Greece, to debate the kouros’ authenticity. The verdict was surprising: experts were split down the middle, half of them deeming the statue an original Greek sculpture, half believing it is a forgery produced in Rome. Unlike many museums that hide suspect art in their storerooms, the Getty had the good sense to put the statue back on display with all the art historical and scientific argument so the viewers can absorb the evidence and decide for themselves.
The Getty kouros story fascinated me because it’s such a great example of how art historians and scientists can work intensively together and still not produce a conclusive or desired result. It also inspired my latest novel, Burnt Siena (Five Star, June 2015). In this book, the beginning of a new series, young conservator Flora Garibaldi takes her first professional job with a renowned firm of painting conservators in Siena, Italy. But instead of doing the advanced repairs and in-painting she’s been trained for, Flora finds herself doing menial tasks such as mixing gesso for picture frame touchups. Then, her colleague and roommate Ernst Mann is found dead in the street below their apartment balcony. The Italian police, after ruling Flora innocent of murder, persuade her to spy on her employers. Flora is trapped between the competing demands of the Carabinieri and the Lorenzettis: genial Beppe, sulky Pietro, and hunky and amorous Marco. Flora thinks Marco is being used by his family to divert police attention and generate income by replicating Greek sculpture. Will Marco’s statue be sold as a legitimate, museum-grade copy, or as a Greek “masterpiece?” Flora’s emotional turmoil grows as she works to protect Marco, avenge Ernst, and fight her growing attraction to policeman Vittorio Bernini.
At the heart of the story is the age-old dilemma of what market value to place on a “priceless” antiquity or a first-class forgery. Private buyers will pay enormous sums to purchase something they believe enhances their own prestige or that of their collections. Major museums all over the world have bought art works of dubious provenance that turn out to be stolen or faked. And the most peculiar aspect of the art market is how supply and demand works: as long as people continue to pay ridiculous for hijacked antiquities or classy forgeries, unscrupulous men will continue to rob archaeological sites and fake masterpieces.