Faked, flayed or fractured? Development of loss compensation approaches for antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum

Jerry Podany


From ancient times to the present the desire to “restore” works of art and artifacts to a more serviceable, accessible or complete state has often clashed with the evolving desire to maintain the object’s original integrity. As the passage of time places an increasing distance between the audience and the maker there is an increasing respect for the original remnants and an increasing reluctance to change or “improve” the object. Even during the 17th century, a time when the aesthetic fashions of the “Roman Baroque” were being strongly imposed during the restoration of ancient artifacts, a growing reluctance to alter the original artifacts took seed. This objective distance became strongest perhaps in the 1960’s and 1970’s when conservators of antiquity took what might be called a “purist” approach to compensation. This approach was, in part, a reaction to both the misinterpretations of the earlier restorers and the newly found affinities of the present day professionals with the “objective scientific method”. Fills and added elements were often monochromatic, smooth and recessed in order to clearly delineate the modem intervention from the ancient surface. Little was left to chance in the effort to separate what the conservator had added and what remained of the original object. Still, irrespective of this effort, additions were made to “complete the ba.o;;ic form” or to “make the object more readable” and in this sense restoration continued albeit in a contradictory fashion. While little can be argued against the philosophical tenets of this approach, the results of the efforts deserve more careful examination. This paper presents arguments that such purism interferes with the visual appreciation of the object, and in lacking “visual sympathy” for the ancient surface and form, sacrifices the clear presentation of the entire object for a falsely assumed “objectivity”. Modem fashion and sensibility have distanced the conservator from the object to a point where we risk not being aware of our ultimate impact upon its presentation.

In an attempt to develop alternative approaches to the question of compensation, the Department of Antiquities Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum has been exploring a number of approaches and options. These efforts have been, in a sense, hybrids of past methods which have been developed to minimize both the visual and technical impact upon the object being treated. Numerous case studies will be presented and the aesthetic and ethical considerations for each discussed.

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