When art historians disagree over an artwork, sometimes scientific analysis of the object’s material can definitively date the piece. But it isn’t always so simple. Scientific analysis initially confirmed the Getty Kouros as an ancient object prior to the museum’s purchase, primarily because researchers found evidence of a chemical process that (they thought) could only occur naturally over centuries. Only later did scientists realize this process could be replicated in a lab. Skilled forgers are known to use age-appropriate materials to create fakes, and the forger in this instance artificially aged the marble.
The kouros' provenance is also murky. It appeared on the market in 1983 when dealer Gianfranco Becchina offered the work for sale. (Becchina later became infamous for dealing in looted works.) He provided documentation that purportedly traced the statue’s excavation back to Greece in the early 20th century. But there is no site of origin or excavation documentation to validate this claim, and provenance documents from the dealer turned out to be fabricated.
Until recently, however, the statue remained on view, next to a wall label
reading “Greek, about 530 B.C. or modern forgery.” It was only in April, after major renovations at the Getty Villa, that the kouros disappeared from view and was placed in storage. “It’s fake, so it’s not helpful to show it along with authentic material,” Timothy Potts, the museum’s director, told
the New York Times
This is not the first time a museum has wrestled with the authenticity of a work in its collection. Collectors have been duped for millennia, and the forging of antiquities actually dates back to antiquity itself. The number of forgeries grew during the Renaissance, when collectors began aggressively acquiring ancient art.