Ancient or modern?
One of the great things about working in the Getty Research Institute Library is that you are only two minutes away from the Getty Museum. Just like in the old British Museum Reading Room, when you need a rest, or inspiration, you can go off and look at some art.
This week I've found myself taking breaks in front of an intriguing marble bust of the Roman emperor Commodus (of Gladiator fame). For he is currently the surprising star of the Getty's Early-Modern Sculpture Gallery.
His story is likely to turn curators in cash-strapped museums green with envy. For here, it seems, the richest museum in the world -- whose problem is more often finding things to buy than finding the money to buy them with -- just might have picked up an extremely good bargain.
Commodus has spent most of the last three centuries at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. The Getty bought him from one of the Howards' periodic attic-clearing sales in the early nineties. He was described in the sale catalogue as "second-century Roman style", which is auctioneers' code for "he looks second-century to us but frankly we're not promising".
Most people at the sale didn't think he was -- more likely a relatively modern piece flogged to some Howard ancestor on the Grand Tour. So the Getty buyers came back home quite happily with a nice bust that they thought was sixteenth-century.
But over the years, doubts have set in -- in an rather unusual direction. The normal pattern is for some extremely expensive object bought on the assumption that it was genuinely ancient comes under suspicion of being a modern fake. The Getty have got one of those too . . . the so-called "Getty kouros", an impressive nude male statue, which is as likely to have been made in the twentieth century AD as in the sixth century BC.
In the case of Commodus, the more that art-historians looked at him, the more they thought he looked rather Roman. But how do you tell for sure? The trouble is that you can't date marble scientifically. And the techniques of carving it haven't changed much since antiquity, so you can't pin the date down that way either. And there is no record of exactly when and how it was acquired, or even where.
The answer is: have a conference, invite a galaxy of relevant experts and fight it out. Which is exactly what the Getty did a month or so ago. They discussed the marble it is made of (if it's Asian marble, then it must be Roman -- but they didn't think it was). And what it might have been copied from, if it was a copy.
They didn't come to a unanimous conclusion. As my sharp-eyed husband pointed out, put the thing with other sculpture from the sixteenth century and it looks sixteenth-century. Put it in the Roman gallery and it looks Roman. This isn't a very exact science! All the same the vote they took at the end of the conference did come down, by a majority of roughly four to one, on the side of it being ancient.
But re-classification isn't quite as easy as all that in the museum world. The joke is that the vote doesn't seem to have convinced the modern sculpture curators here, who are reluctant to hand over this nice bust to the antiquities department. Or so I conclude from the fact that he's still in the modern gallery, with no sign of an imminent transfer.