An Introduction to the Case of the Getty Kouros

Getty Kouros

The Getty Kouros

Anavysos Kouros

The Anavysos Kouros

Tenea Kouros

The Tenea Kouros

       In 1983, Swiss art dealer Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu with a surprising offer. He was attempting to sell a kouros that had previously been in the collection of Jean Lauffenberger, a doctor from Geneva.[1] The statue was in several pieces, but was in extraordinarily good condition otherwise.[2] Becchina agreed to loan the piece to the Getty, and in September 1983, professionals began fourteen months of extensive testing for the statue's authenticity and legality.[3] Deemed authentic by these tests, Jiri Frel, the curator of antiquities at the Getty in 1984, officially purchased the kouros from Becchina for between seven and nine million dollars.[4]

       Yet experts still questioned the statue due to its unusual visual elements. Scholars have had difficulty identifying both the chronology and geographical origin of the kouros. Furthermore, its close resemblance to both the Anavysos kouros and the Tenea kouros is unusual. Nevertheless, the scientific tests were accepted as proof of the statue's authenticity, and the museum purchased the object. However, in the last twenty years, the authenticity of the kouros has come into question again. Previous scientific testing was found to be flawed, the original provenance counterfeit, and original issues with the statue's appearance were once again presented.

       In the United States, for an object to be considered a forgery it must be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt."[5] Unfortunately, given current scientific techniques, understanding of kouroi, and evidence presented, it is almost impossible to determine the Getty kouros's authenticity for certain. If it is fake, then the forger is a master copyist of archaic technique and form. If it is real, then it is a very unusual piece in the current corpus of kouroi. While it cannot be completely proven based on the current evidence, the unusual features of the Getty kouros combined with its lack of proper provenance suggests that the statue is likely a modern forgery.

       Overall, the piece follows the standard model of an archaic kouros. Jeffrey Hurwit defines the kouros as "a naked, frontal, blocklike youth, left leg advanced, arms down by the sides, that seems to generalize and pattern the male form."[6] Sometimes a kouros did have a specific identity, though this was dependant on context. These statues usually functioned as either votive offerings or grave markers. This function depended on region, with some favoring kouroi as grave markers and others preferring to offer them in sanctuaries.[7]

       The Getty kouros adheres to this description with its frontal stance and left leg advancing as if taking a step, and at six feet nine inches tall, it is larger than life size. Its hands rest at its sides, closed into loose fists. The kouros's hair is wig-like, carved into an unnatural, heavy-looking, and gridded slab that closely resembles the hair of the New York kouros. The curls on the forehead swirl out from the center and have been described as "doughy" by various scholars.[8] The statue wears a thin headband just above these curls that continues around to the back of its head. The sculptor apparently attempted to conceal a flaw in the marble by reworking one of the central curls to hide it.

       The face of the Getty kouros looks much like the Anavysos kouros and even the kouros from Kea. The Getty kouros's face is oval, and it has a heavy, rounded chin. The cheekbones are wide and well-defined, seeming to plump with the statue's smile. The kouros's eyes are almond shaped and have well-defined tear ducts. The statue's browlines are soft and the eyes beneath them are not very deep set. The nose of the kouros damaged but its remaining portions of the bridge and nostrils are small and delicate. The mouth below appears narrow, its edges lining up with the inside corners of the eyes. The lips are full, curving into the typical archaic smile. The ears of the kouros are high on its head, with the top edges lining up just over the browbone. They are set much higher on the head than the Anayvasos kouros's ears, though they match proportionally with the kouros from Kea.

       The head rests on a thick neck that declines into narrow, sloping shoulders. The musculature of the statue's arms is defined, with the deltoids and biceps squeezing close to the upper body. Its hands curl into loose fists and rest against the tops of its thighs, thumbs pointing straight down, though a large piece of marble is missing just above the kouros's left hand. The collarbone stretches straight across above a shallow chest, perpendicular to the vertical line separating the pectorals. This line visually continues in the abdomen, effectively bisecting the statues body. The abdominal muscles are rendered as straight, shallow lines contained in a vertical oval with the belly button at the center. Its waist is narrow and curving, widening again only at the external oblique muscles, whose lines taper diagonally towards the groin and damaged penis. The back of the statue is just as shallow, with another vertical line visually bisecting the piece at the spine and buttocks. Both shoulder blades and diagonal latissimi dorsi are indicated with shallow lines.

       Yet the relatively flat upper body is surprisingly joined to a muscular and well-defined lower body. The musculature of the legs and buttocks is more clearly defined and full, especially when viewed in profile. However, the more naturalistic lower body is interrupted by rather unusually outlined, triangular kneecaps. Below these, the gastrocnemius bulges on the inside of each leg, tapering towards the feet. The statue's feet are rendered with care and detail and are the most naturalistic parts of the piece. Overall, the body of the Getty kouros resembles that of the Tenea kouros in proportion and the Anavysos kouros in the rendering of musculature. In fact, many scholars question these similarities, arguing that it must be a fake due to its seemingly copied features.

      This exhibition will examine the various evidence presented in the case of the Getty kouros in order to investigate the authenticity of the statue. It will compare the kouros purchased by the Getty in 1984 to various other established ancient kouroi along with a known modern forgery. Finally, it will examine the Getty kouros's provenance in relation to UNESCO 1970 and the Getty's current acquisitions policy. The statue remains controversial, and the reader will have the option in the conclusion to vote on whether or not the piece is authentic.


 [1] Kenneth Lapatin, "Proof?: The Case of the Getty Kouros," Source: Notes in the History of Art 20.1 (2000): 44.

[2]Marion True, "A Kouros at the Getty Museum," The Burlington Magazine 129.1006 (1987): 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lapatin, "Proof?: The Case of the Getty Kouros," 44.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 197.

[7] Ibid., 197.

[8] Marion True, "The Getty Kouros: Background on the Problem," In The Getty Kouros Colloquium Athens 25-27 May, 1992 (Athens: Kapon Editions-Greece, 1993), 11.

An Introduction to the Case of the Getty Kouros