BMCR 1998.06.08

98.6.08, Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum: Antiquities

J. Paul Getty Museum., Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Antiquities.. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997. 127 pages : color illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 9780892364206 $34.95.

This is a beautifully prepared volume, designed and produced by Thames and Hudson, of just over 100 of the most striking Cypriot, Greek, Etruscan, South Italian, and Roman antiquities in the J. Paul Getty Museum. The book is clearly aimed as a memento for the interested visitor, and is also available in French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish editions. The plates are full colour throughout and show the objects to their full advantage.

The text, written by Elana Towne-Markus, consists of short, generalised essays giving an elementary background to each of the five periods covered: The Bronze Age and Geometric Period; Archaic and Classical Periods; Hellenistic Period; Etruria and South Italy in the Pre-Roman Period; Republican and Imperial Roman Periods. There is also an introductory foreword by John Walsh. There is neither a bibliography nor a reading list. The book is intended to provide illustrations and a brief description of the piece; the interested scholar must look in more specialised volumes from the J. Paul Getty Museum for further information. There are some minor errors (e.g. Boreads painter; cf. C.M. Stibbe, in Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum 5 [1991] 5-12), including apparently incorrect inventory numbers (e.g. the “Comic actor Seated on an Altar” [p. 109] is cited as 87.AC.143, but is elsewhere cited as 87.AB.143 [ Small Bronze Sculpture from the Ancient World (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990); The Gods Delight (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1988) no. 54).

A catalogue like this raises the fundamental question, what is a masterpiece? These are objects which have survived from antiquity to be collected, displayed, and, yes, enjoyed today. They are masterpieces in that they are outstanding examples of the detritus of antiquity. Yet we should not confuse the masterpieces of antiquity with the masterpieces which have survived from antiquity. Take, for example, the painted Etruscan terracotta “Antefix in the Form of a Maenad and Silenos Dancing” (96.AD.33) (p. 78). What is in effect a humble medium has gained the status of art by being (re)valued by the antiquities market; as Jerome Eisenberg interestingly observed at the time, this antefix “realised a well-deserved $396,000″ (italics mine) when sold in the dissolution of the Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt collection which had formerly been “marketed” as the Wealth of the Ancient World (Fort Worth, 1983).

Many of the pieces selected for this publication have already started to appear in standard handbooks of ancient “art”. Yet few of the pieces have reliable provenances. There are intellectual consequences for allowing such unprovenanced pieces to enter the corpus (see D. Gill & C. Chippindale, “Material and intellectual consequences of contemporary collecting”, in preparation). For example the bronze Lysippan “Statue of Victorious Youth” (77.AB.30) (p. 57) is allegedly from a shipwreck, possibly even Medieval, which was discovered in the Adriatic in 1969 (see J. Frel, The Getty Bronze [Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1982; A. Stewart, Greek Sculpture: an Exploration [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990] 315, pl. 618). If it was indeed from a Medieval shipwreck, what does it have to say about Medieval taste for the antique? Even the date is not secure, with some suggesting that it could belong to the third century B.C. (R.R.R. Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture: a handbook [London: Thames & Hudson, 1991] fig. 49) rather than the “last quarter of fourth century B.C.”. The acrolithic statue of a goddess at 2.2 m (just over 7 ft) high has been widely interpreted as a cult statue from Sicily, yet without a context little can be said about it with conviction (J. Boardman [ed.], Oxford History of Classical Art [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993] col. pl. xi, no. 125; J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: the Late Classical Period [London: Thames & Hudson, 1995] fig. 192 [possibly as Demeter]). The statue, the subject of an Interpol inquiry (“‘Aphrodite’ inquiry by Interpol”, Daily Telegraph [London] 4 August 1988; cf. Editorial, “Don’t let’s be beastly to the Getty”, Apollo [October 1988] 231-33), is suspected of being excavated by “night-time archaeologists” at Morgantina in eastern Sicily; its “official history” begins in Switzerland. Its acquisition led the Getty to present its policy to the public ( J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 17 [1989]):

When the statue turned up in the hands of a dealer, it presented an opportunity we had hardly dreamt of, but one that had to be approached prudently. Besides taking all the usual precautions to verify the authenticity of the piece, we were obliged by the Museum’s acquisition policy to send photographs and information to the governments of the countries from which it might have come and ask whether they had any knowledge of it. The Italian response was negative. After we had made the purchase, however, a journalist published a rumor (still unsubstantiated and highly unlikely) that it had been found at Morgantina, a site in central Sicily, and illegally removed. This led to a furor in the press until the local investigating magistrate conceded that there was no evidence for the claim. The controversy at least gave us the chance to make our acquisitions policy better known.

This “astonishing statue” was hailed as “the most important discovery in the field of Greek art since the Getty Museum’s kouros in 1983”. The Getty kouros itself has failed to make its appearance here as a masterpiece of ancient art (see further, C. Chippindale, AJA 100 [1996] 185).

It has already been demonstrated with Cycladic marble figures how archaeological evidence has been lost in order to provide objets d’art for collectors and collections (D. Gill & C. Chippindale, “Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures”, AJA 97 [1993] 601-659). The marble Cycladic male harpist (85.AA.103) (p. 16) was “reputedly found on Amorgos” when it surfaced on the European Art Market and before it passed into an unspecified North American private collection (P. Getz-Preziosi, Early Cycladic Art in North American collections [Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1987] 268-69, no. 92). The Getty was willing to buy Cycladic pottery (91.AE.28-31) (pp. 14-15) from the Erlenmeyer collection when it was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in London (July 9, 1990, lots 99, 100, 103, 104) in spite of considerable adverse publicity in the media about the sale partly because it was alleged that some of the antiquities had been looted from sites including Keros (“Antiquities at Sotheby’s are looted says professor”, The Times [London] 30 June 1990; “Greece takes out injunction over auction of ancient art”, The Independent [London] 6 July 1990; but cf. “Bidders reassured by Sotheby’s”, The Independent 10 July 1990).

The question of provenance is well illustrated by the bronze “Statuette of a Fallen Youth” (86.AB.530) (p. 45). This is stated as being Greek, and dated to “480-460 B.C.”. The piece was displayed in the travelling exhibition The Gods Delight no. 10 (text by Marion True). A parallel for the piece (“Dead or sleeping youth”) was noted there from the Athenian Acropolis, dated to 470-460 B.C. and as a result it is suggested that the piece “is a product of an Attic workshop”. However the statuette was also the subject of a discussion by George Ortiz (“Connoisseurship and antiquity”, in Small Bronze Sculpture from the Ancient World [Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990] 275-78, fig. 28a-b) himself a private collector. There he claims that the “Dead Youth” was in fact found with a bronze Polykleitan statuette which “allegedly” comes from south-west Asia Minor ( The George Ortiz Collection, no. 146); this second statuette first surfaced in 1988 when it was on loan to the Antikenmuseum in Basel. Though these pieces do not have a secure provenance, Ortiz speculates that his statuette was of local, that is to say Anatolian, workmanship though “probably by an Athenian immigrant artist, but in any case under strong Attic influence”. Such speculation—some might call it connoisseurship—can never be proved or disproved as the context has been lost for ever.

Although the provenance may be lost, some well-informed guesses can be made about the find-spot. The huge Attic red-figured cup with an Iliupersis scene (83.AE.362) (p. 38) may be attributed to Onesimos but it has recently appeared as an illustration of the value Etruscans placed on Attic, or more precisely Greek, pottery, as it carries the Etruscan inscription, “This is the Greek cup which belongs to Ercle [Herakles]” (N. Spivey, Etruscan Art [London: Thames & Hudson, 1997] 84-85, fig. 67). We may not know from which Etruscan site these sherds were collected, or even the name of the tombarolo, but the use of bronze “staples” for repair, has suggested that while the cup “may not have been worth the equivalent of millions of dollars, neither was it an ephemeral piece of pottery” (Spivey, Etruscan Art 84).

Other questionable provenances associated with these Masterpieces, include the “reliable” dealer’s statement that the cameo glass “Flask with a Frieze of a Boy with a Garland Approaching an Altar with the God Thoth as a Baboon on Top, Another Boy before an Altar, and a Pharaoh with an Obelisk behind Him” (85.AF.84) (p. 104) was found near Eskisehir in Turkey (before passing into a Lausanne private collection; D.B. Harden, Glass of the Caesars [Milan: Olivetti, 1987] no. 36). Another cameo glass piece, a “Skyphos Showing a Young Satyr with a Syrinx before a Seated Woman” (84.AF.85) (p. 105) is “said to have been one of a pair found in a Parthian tomb in Iran” ( Glass of the Caesars no. 31). Clearly such a find spot would have been significant, but it is almost certainly worthless at least in archaeological terms. The use of possible Thasian marble for a portrait head of Caligula (72.AA.155) (p. 108) which was displayed in a city of Asia Minor might be significant if only the dealer’s provenance could be trusted (F.S. Johansen, in Ancient Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum 1 [1987] 97).

One of my favourite provenances relates to the bronze relief of “Two Togate Magistrates” (85.AB.109) (p. 115) which although without even an alleged find-spot, “traveled through the art market and [was] conceivably found with [three other bronzes]” ( The Gods Delight, no. 63). In fact two of the associated pieces are fellow Masterpieces, a Roma (or Virtus) (84.AB.671) (p. 113), and a goddess (either Venus, Ceres or Juno) (84.AB.670) (p. 112), and the third, a Victory with a Cornucopia, is now in the Cleveland Museum of Art ( The Gods Delight nos. 64-66). Perhaps scholarship will never know if these pieces were found together, or merely shared the same packing-case as they crossed an international frontier. One notes that the conveniently suitcased-sized fragment of a piece of Roman wall-painting with Nile scene (72.AG.86) (p. 115) dates from just before the eruption of Vesuvius, though perhaps that observation is unconnected. The “Mummy Portrait of a Woman” (81.AP.42) (p. 116), in fact named in Greek as Isidora, has been cut from a mummy, almost certainly from el-Hibeh (Ankyronpolis) (S. Walker & M. Bierbrier, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt [London: British Museum Press, 1997] 112-13, no. 108; D.L. Thompson, Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum [Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1982] no. 1).

It must have been virtually impossible to build up a collection like that of the J. Paul Getty Museum without buying newly surfaced antiquities. Yet within the collection are some pieces from older collections. J. Paul Getty himself purchased the Lansdowne Herakles (70.AA.109) (p. 106; see also J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: the Late Classical Period fig. 76). A second Masterpiece which reflects J. Paul Getty’s personal taste is the Etruscan bronze statue of Tinia (Zeus) which is said to have been found at Piombino (55.AB.12) (p. 81) ( The Gods Delight no. 39).

The more one researches individual Masterpieces in this selection, the more one is left asking questions about provenance, authenticity, and loss of context. These Masterpieces appear to represent a major loss of knowledge in that they have probably been removed from their archaeological context in an unscientific manner. Devoid of real knowledge, all that is left is speculation masquerading as connoisseurship. If these pieces were Masterpieces in their own time and cultures, we shall probably never know thanks to the activities of the clandestini. The J. Paul Getty Museum may not be able to make amends for its collecting policy of the last few decades, but it can ensure that its present and future policy will support archaeological excavation, conservation and scholarship in the countries where such Masterpieces are found.