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What Makes Art Authentic? Addison Thompson on the Getty Kouros

And now for something more scholastic, we invited Addison Thompson to weigh in on the botched authentication of the Kouros at the Getty Museum.

What Makes Art Authentic?

Franz Boas in his 1927 book Primitive Art writes, “Although the artisan works without copying, his imagination never rises beyond the level of a copyist, for he merely uses familiar motives composed in customary ways….It is interesting to hear the opinions of individuals who create new designs….They call designs of this kind “dream designs”.…There is little doubt but that this is merely another term for invention. It expresses a strong power of visualization which manifests itself when the person is alone and at rest, when he can give free play to the imagination.”

GK white

 

I.

The botched authentication of the Getty Kouros (hereafter GK) was initiated when art experts offered spontaneous subjective opinions of the authenticity of the statue. Art authentication, up to the 20th Century, was the province of the art connoisseur; but there was controversy when the Metropolitan Museum of Art invited the Rembrandt Research Project to examine their Rembrandt’s in 1987. The Dutch scholars used the Morellian method, formulated 100 years ago by an Italian art historian, according to which the study of minute and apparently insignificant details in a painting can reveal the presence of an unmistakable ”handwriting.” The following year, in a colloquium in Boston, American art experts formed a phalanx, to deny the validity of the Dutch teams methodic analyses; subscribing to connoisseurship as the basis of their concerted subjective opinion.

Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, dissed the GK because it looked “too fresh” and the form, by comparison, “too stiff”. A Greek tragedy venerated in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell thinks genius happens “in the blink of an eye” of the connoisseur’s first subconscious impression. Two geologists studied the stone and surface patina of the GK. Geologist number one identified the Cycladic island of Thasos as the source of the white Greek marble. Geologist number two did an analysis of the surface of the GK. To confound the evaluation of the two geologists, a scientist was able to instigate patina with chemicals in a laboratory, but under a microscope, the lab synthesized patina doesn’t look like real patina. The Getty included artist Peter Rockwell in their authentication colloquium, a sculptor living in Roman who pointed to “….four techniques characteristic of Archaic technology and alien to both modern technology and most medieval and ancient technology.” Based purely on subjective criteria, Hoving created a false opinion; blind to the objective scientific evidence of authenticity of the GK.

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The symbolic form of the archaic Getty kouros is another characteristic which is confused by comparison to later more representational Greek sculpture. The Greeks referred to the reliance on visual observation as mimesis. Figurative art is based upon a tacit understanding of abstracted shapes: the sculpture of Greek antiquity was not naturalistic, for its forms were idealized and geometric. Ernst Gombrich referred to the strictures of this schematic imagery, as the adherence to that which was already known, rather than that which is seen, as the “Egyptian method”, an allusion to the memory-based clarity of imagery in Egyptian Art. Eventually idealization gave way to observation, and a figurative art which balanced ideal geometry with greater realism was seen in Classical sculpture by 480 B.C.

The museum label on the GK says it may be “a modern reproduction?” In the Getty colloquium, Hoving’s subjective opinion was compounded by the opinions of Greek archaic sculpture experts. I believe they suspected, but couldn’t prove, the GK was taken out of Greece. The 1970 UNESCO Convention would have made repatriation possible if there was any evidence of the GK having been recently removed from Greece. No such evidence exists. 21st Century art authentication begins with scientific analysis of materials and pigments. The most direct means to the denial of the authenticity of an artwork is proving the materials and pigments are a chronological impossibility. The authenticity of the Getty kouros is in the thin layer of geochemical alteration of its marble surface. In his paper delivered at the Getty kouros colloquium in Greece, Frank Preusser, reiterates, “….not a single piece of evidence has turned up that would indicate that the surface alteration is of modern origin and has been produced by artificial patina.”

II.

This analysis stems from my own authentication of a 6 inch Greek Cycladic figure. I bought it on eBay for $25. From the former boomerang expert at the Smithsonian Institution, who retired and decided to sell some of his collection. It was bought, as a reproduction, from a farmer on the Greek island of Paros in 1970 for $100. The equivalent of $537 in 2014; a year’s salary for a Greek farmer on the Island of Paros. An expensive museum replica, which doesn’t replicate any of the known, illustrated Cycladic figures. It is mistaken for a reproduction because it is pure white; with subtle patina. My daughter and I made a trip to compare other Cycladic figures at the Metropolitan Museum in New York NY. The pure white surface of my figure caused her to question its authenticity. Christie’s sold an ancient Anatolian Stargazer of the Kiliya Type in 2005. A late Neolithic figure from the region of Turkey, with very little patina and mineralization.

Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, points to the fact that late realistic Greek sculpture, like the figures from the Parthenon at the British Museum, were painted in acid bright colors. Brinkmann uses ultraviolet and raking light to illuminate otherwise invisible features and patterns on the surface. On dissolution, the paint leaves a shadow or trace. In her paper: Painted Ladies of the early Bronze Age, Elizabeth Hendrix discovered paint, and a term she coined “paint ghosts”, on Greek Cycladic figures. The action of the elements in the air, soil and ground water, is evident in patina, mineralization and erosion on ancient stone artifacts. The effects of patina and age depend upon environment, exposure and time. The Getty published Marble: Art Historical and Scientific Perspectives on Ancient Sculpture by Marion True and Jerry Podany. A comprehensive study of marble patina, with a warning that nothing should be assumed by those who do not understand the history of marble restoration techniques or who do not understand that in some cases, as defined by deposits, patina does not occur. When marble lacks patina, it is natural to assume that it’s not that old. The lack of patina on the Getty kouros was a major factor that lead to its authenticity being questioned.

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Ms. Hendrix reflects “The examination of the figures in the collection of the Metropolitan and in other museums makes it clear that most, if not all, of them were covered with strong colors in patterns that are not always comprehensible to viewers today. When recognizable anatomical features were painted in locations that make sense to us (such as the mouth centered below the nose), we are prepared to see the traces of the painting in those areas. It is a greater challenge to accept similar evidence for asymmetrical designs or familiar shapes in the “wrong” locations (such as several eyelike almond shapes on one side of the face).” All I had to do, to prove it’s authenticity was find the paint ghosts on the Getty kouros. The GK does not have paint ghosts. His original paint may have washed off, prior to the formation of patina. Paint ghosts form by the paints’ resistance to dissolution. The vulnerability of the paint depends upon its binder, probably egg white or wax. As the paint dissolves, the patina may encapsulate a nearly invisible layer of pigment. UV light makes original paint visible, while raking light and transmitted light, illuminate the subtle modulation in density of paint ghosts. Podany notes, “there are fake Greek sculptures with fake paint ghosts”. But, these can only imitate real patina which forms on the surface over a long time.

The Paleolithic tradition of corpulent female figures began to diminish in the late Neolithic. This places my figure in the late Neolithic just prior to the transition to thinner Cycladic figures. Whether they represent pregnant women or fat girls is still a mystery. Fat girls look fertile and statuesque; without being pregnant. One of the Greek experts from the Getty colloquium thought the GK was a reproduction because “he looks too gay”. Early Balkan and Cycladic examples share the elbows out, hands touching their breasts, arms in a straight line which evolved into the later classical Greek Spedos type folded-arm over arm. Grief, in ancient Egypt, was symbolized by a woman holding her hands to her breast. Greek sculpture was influenced by precedents set by technical familiarity with Egyptian sculpture, including the specific stance and placement of the hips, of the GK.

I took my figure to show one of the foremost experts on Cycladic Art: author Pat Getz-Gentile, in New Haven CT. She liked the form of the figure, but the lack of patina caused her to question its authenticity. Following Elizabeth Hendrix’s instructions, under UV and raking light, I was able to photograph the paint ghosts on my Cycladic figure. (see illustrations) The nose, thighs and ends of the breasts all show definite “paint ghosts”. I see multiple eyes and other painted areas, in slight relief, on the face and body; details, otherwise, not evident on its pure white marble surface.

Because of problems with her vision and memory, Ms. Getz-Gentile couldn’t interpret this information and sadly she wasn’t able to acknowledge that the figure had been painted. However, the paint ghosts are clearly visible in my photographs and their physical evidence can be scientifically verified.

Finally, this summer my daughter encountered a larger later Cycladic figure in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute with pure white marble. If the CAI Cycladic figure was properly illuminated the paint evidence should be present. In a final search of Google for “paint ghosts” the CAI had invited Elizabeth Hendrix to examine their Cycladic figure and she made one of her characteristic diagrammatic drawings of the, otherwise invisible, paint ghosts on the figure in Chicago.

III.

 

In recent years, scientific investigation into the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, the Beltracchi painting scandal, and the Knoedler/Ann Friedman Abstract Expressionist paintings, to name a few, have provided objective evidence that these artworks were made too late to be authentic. What Abraham Lincoln said applies equally to art authentication, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” If it were actually possible to fake art, no art could be authentic.

Using the literature and photographic reproductions, an art scholar synthesizes an understanding of the artist and their methodology; while an art expert uses his or her experience of viewing, handling, collecting and selling art, as the basis for determining authenticity. The goal is to establish rational objective criteria for authenticating art. A metaphor for an objective vs. a subjective opinion: one art authenticator holds a sword and the other a magic wand. The sword is sharp and cuts both ways, you can’t be careless when pick it up or you might cut yourself. When the sword of objectivity comes down with some degree of fact it cuts clean with a definite division. When the magic wand of subjectivity is waved over art, it may cover the surface with fairy dust; but like fake patina, it washes off because it has not formed on the surface over a long time.

In 2014, the NY Bar Association proposed legislation which would require anyone bringing a lawsuit against an authenticator to present “clear and convincing” evidence that the art expert acted in bad faith when rendering an opinion. That is a higher standard of proof than “preponderance of evidence,” which is often used in civil courts, but not at the same level as “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a 95-99 % probability, as is required in many criminal cases. Under the current law a claimant could bring as a witness another expert to make the case that an artwork identified by the defendant as not authentic is genuine, and it would be up to the courts to determine which expert is more believable. Under a bill proposed by NY Senator Little and NY Assemblywoman Rosenthal, the claimant would need to show that “my expert is clearly right and there is no realistic possibility that the other expert is anything but wrong.” Along with the requirement that an unsuccessful claimant pay the authenticator’s legal costs, the bill “tells people not to bring a case unless they’re absolutely sure they’re right.”

New York Federal and State Courts avoid art authenticity disputes because of the purported subjective nature of art expertise. They believe that the art market will self-correct on issues of art authentication. If expert witness testimony is permissible in a medical malpractice case about a gall bladder surgery or an intellectual property case involving, who did what, in the invention of a computer language; how could an art authentication dispute be any more complex?

 

In Seltzer vs. Morton, an art expert countersued a client because they didn’t like his authentication opinion. Seltzer supported his determination with affidavits from nine art experts. (He would have only needed one expert, because the eight others would be redundant in a court of law.) The jury agreed and awarded $21.4 Million to Seltzer in actual and punitive damages. On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court upheld $9.9 Million of the jury’s punitive damage award against the law firm and accused the firm of engaging in “legal thuggery”. This case was adjudicated on the preponderance of the evidence, or a 51 % probability of whose opinion is more believable. Where is the tipping point between fake and real? The Getty kouros would be clearly authentic by a preponderance of the evidence. Why is the authenticity of the GK questioned by negative opinions based in subjective criteria? Why are verifiable objective criteria ignored, which prove the GK is authentic?

 

 

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Addison Thompson is an East Village NYC based photographer and private art dealer. His color photographic composite murals of the Palisades cliffs and the campsite of an archaic man, who makes boats out of Styrofoam, plastic rope and driftwood; to float on the Hudson River: are on permanent view at the Peter Cooper post office, 11th Street and 4th Avenue. His editorial photography work has appeared in most major publications devoted to art and design; including: Metropolis, New York Times Magazine, and New York Magazine.

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