Scholar: famed “Greek” statue is a fake by
tests could help assess claim
Posted March 30, 2005
Special to World Science
In a case that may test the limits of forgery-detection science, a scholar claims one of history’s most fabled archaeological finds is a fake—by one of history’s most lionized artists.
Lynn Catterson, a summer lecturer at Columbia University, New York City, says the storied sculpture
Laocoön, unearthed in 1506 to international acclaim, was not created by the ancient Greeks, as traditionally
believed. The creator was the famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti,
Experts say scientific tests
might help validate some of these claims, but the age of the piece could make it
Michelangelo is reputed to have faked other ancient artworks. He is also said to have been at the scene of the
Laocoön (pronounced Lao-Cowan) discovery and to have “authenticated” the piece for Pope Julius
II. The pope acquired it and displayed it in the Vatican, where it remains. The marble sculpture depicts a priest and his sons struggling to break free of an attacking sea snake, based on a story in Homer’s
Catterson didn’t reveal the basis for her claims, but announced that she will present evidence at a lecture April 6 at the university’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America.
“The sculptural group of Laocoön and his Sons is considered to be one of the most famous and influential representatives of antiquity to survive,” said an announcement from the academy. Although scholars have long sought to pin down its origin—whether it is a Greek original or a Roman copy, and to fix its date somewhere between the mid-third century B.C. and the second century A.D., “no one has ever questioned its authenticity,” the statement continued.
It is also widely believed to be a long-lost sculpture written of by the first-century Roman historian Pliny, who described it as the best artwork he knew of and said that it adorned the Palace of Titus in Rome.
But “a reevaluation of the Laocoön and the circumstances of its ‘discovery’ together with startling new evidence lead to the conclusion that the statue is actually a modern forgery by Michelangelo,” the academy’s statement said.
A colleague of Catterson, at the university’s Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, said Tuesday that the claims are detailed fully in a book Catterson has submitted for publication to Princeton University Press. Its last chapter describes Michelangelo’s “training as a forger of antiquities,” said the colleague, adding that if experts take Catterson’s claims seriously they will likely want to conduct scientific tests on the sculpture.
Although no further details were revealed, some historical documents are eerily consistent with Catterson’s allegation.
Michelangelo, by many accounts, was far from a stranger to the world of artistic deception. The Renaissance artist and chronicler Giorgio
Vasari, who knew and
revered Michelangelo, wrote that around age 20, he carved a marble sleeping cupid, carefully
“aging” it through a temporary burial.
Michelangelo then sold it as an antique to the pope’s nephew, according to the book “Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture,” by William E. Wallace. The sham was soon unmasked,
Wallace adds—but the work was considered so brilliant that far from hurting Michelangelo, it helped launch his career.
Nor was this the first of his alleged forays into fraud.
“Before earning the status of a great original, Michelangelo began his career as a forger,”
wrote Aviva Briefel of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in the Spring 2003 issue of the journal
American Imago. Even before the Cupid incident, Vasari recounts, “the young artist made copies of Old Master drawings, smoking and staining them to give them an authentic
appearance,” Briefel added.
An event surrounding Michelangelo’s encounter with the Laocoön might also be interpreted as consistent with a forgery claim.
The piece was found with one the priest’s arms missing, so it was exhibited with a replacement arm done by a relatively minor contemporary sculptor, Giovanni
Montorsoli. But Michelangelo maintained, based ostensibly on artistic considerations, that Montorsoli’s arm was wrong and created his own version.
In the last century, the missing arm turned up, looking exactly like Michelangelo’s version—seemingly confirming his almost superhuman artistic intuition. But if Michelangelo had made the sculpture to begin with, as Catterson claims, this would obviously provide a more mundane explanation for his insight.
The allegations might also be seen as consistent with findings in another book, from 2002, that claims Michelangelo was considerably richer than he let on, and less than scrupulous.
If he had a shadow career as a forger,
this conceivably could help explain his wealth.
The book, by Rab Hatfield of the Syracuse University program in Florence, cast doubt on a longstanding legend of Michelangelo as underpaid and exploited.
“He was a funny sort of man, somewhat paranoid and somewhat dishonest,” Hatfield told the Reuters news service in December, 2002. He “didn’t want it to be known he was fabulously rich.”
Art historians and experts reacted noncommittally, but with interest, to Catterson’s claim that Michelangelo faked the
“It’s a good idea,” said James Beck, an art historian at Columbia University.
If confirmed, “It would be very important,” added Robert Cohon, curator of ancient art and a professor of art history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Cohon has studied the
Laocoön, and also organized a 1996 exhibition on forged antiquities, “Discovery and Deceit: Archaeology and the Forger’s Craft,” at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“Scholars for hundreds of years have studied this” sculpture, Cohon
continued. “I’d love to hear the evidence… It’s the first time I’ve heard of anything like this.”
Scientific tests could shed light on the subject, but they would be difficult, experts said. “The analysis of the surface of stone is a very tough subject,” Cohon said. “Stone and gold are pretty hard to analyze,” because they don’t absorb as much radiation from the environment as, say, ceramics, whose radiation content can help reveal their age.
Scientists sometimes shine ultraviolet light on marble sculptures to determine their authenticity.
Old marble develops a surface that glows greenish-yellow under ultraviolet light, whereas recently cut marble gives off a bright violet. But this technique has its limits.
Henry W. Lie, director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies of the Harvard University Art Museums in Cambridge, Mass., said in the Oct., 2004 issue of
Harvard Magazine that there have been attempts to analyze mineral accretions on antiquities to see if they have a layered structure
indicating the number of seasons that have passed. Root shapes are also found in such accretions because roots carry more liquid through them than the ground water itself and deposit minerals on the surface of
objects, he added.
Until such techniques develop further, experts say, the trained eye of an art connoisseur may remain the best way to determine the authenticity of many artworks.
As for how Catterson reached her conclusions, that remained unclear. A profile of her on a Columbia University website
suggests she has wide-ranging interests and a cult following. “Catterson fearlessly investigates scandals of art market and teaches students to use technology for research,” the website says.
“Hailed by her students, she is an energetic and eccentric lecturer. Her real ability to teach blossoms outside the classroom during her office hours. Known to run late into the night, office hours include being handed international contact information, spending hours on the Web researching and tracking obscure documents, translating various languages, etc.,” the website says.
She “has a cult following, many of whom are professional art historians.”