Antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin has spent much of the pandemic doing detective work on a 200-year-old cold case—a beautiful carved “ancient” amethyst in the Getty collection that turned out to be a modern forgery.
Questions were first raised about the gem’s authenticity in 2009, and by 2012 Lapatin had seen enough evidence to know that the gem was not ancient, as had been believed for hundreds of years.
Instead, it was a 19th-century forgery, carved by Giovanni Calandrelli for Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, nephew and heir to the King of Poland and Lithuania, and one of the richest men in Europe.
But plenty of questions remained, and the pandemic gave Lapatin the time to seek some answers while the Getty Museum was closed, and track the gem’s history all the way back to its engraving.
What he found allowed Getty to correct and flesh out its records of the gem’s provenance. The story of how Lapatin uncovered the truth is available in the March issue of the Journal of the History of Collections titled The Getty Gnaios, A love story.
We asked Lapatin for a brief overview of what he found, and why he wants to share the story of this gem.
Julie Jaskol: Tell me about this gem.
Kenneth Lapatin: Like most ancient gems, it is quite small, about the size of a penny. It’s amethyst, a purple violet stone, very finely carved. It depicts the Roman triumvir, Mark Antony, in profile. And in tiny Greek letters, about a millimeter tall, is written the name Gnaios, who is known to have carved other ancient gems.
This gem came to be widely known in 1968 when John Boardman (now Sir John), one of the foremost authorities on ancient gems, published and praised this gem very highly. Since then, it has been reproduced over and over again as one of the masterpieces of late Roman Republican, early Augustan gem carving.
The Getty acquired it in 2001, in a group of 12 gems. It had been on view at the Getty Villa but is no longer.
JJ: Tell me about the Getty’s gem collection.
KL: It’s quite impressive and includes ancient gems and modern gems carved all’antica, not as forgeries, but in the ancient style. The best are on view at the Getty Villa. Some of the modern ones are on loan to the Getty Center, displayed in a splendid 17th-century display cabinet in the Decorative Arts galleries.
The esteem for ancient gem engraving continued from antiquity into the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when gem engravers emulated the ancients. It was the art of kings and princes. Collecting was an aristocratic pastime, and so, occasionally, was carving. Madame de Pompadour and Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law both took up gem engraving.
We also know Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, and the nephew of the Emperor Augustus all collected gems and donated their collections to the gods in temples. And of course, in the Middle Ages, ancient gems were set into altars, book bindings, and processional crosses.
Gems, unlike marble or plaster, are intrinsically valuable even before they are carved. It’s part of their allure.
JJ: What made you suspect this gem was a forgery?
KL: In 2009 I curated an exhibition called Carvers and Collectors: The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems. The Getty Gnaios was featured alongside other gems on loan that also bore Gnaios’s signature. Toward the end of the exhibition, a dear friend and colleague who has since passed away, Gertrud Platz from the Berlin Antikensammlung, saw our gem for the first time.
She had just published a study of Giovanni Calandrelli, an early 19th-century Italian gem engraver who worked for a Polish prince named Poniatowski, who amassed a huge collection of gems that purported to be ancient but were actually modern.
Poniatowski is really interesting. He was very rich, and very closely guarded with his gem collection. But near the end of his life, he wanted to provide for his family financially. He had plaster impressions of a selection of his gems made and sent them to the Berlin museum as kind of a sales catalog, hoping he could sell them.
Gertrud remembered seeing the plaster impression in a box in the storerooms of the Berlin museums. She sent me photographs, and it indeed looked a lot like our gem. I sent her a cast and impression of our gem so she could compare them side-by-side. And she determined, yes, it does seem to be the same gem.
She also found Calandrelli’s notebook, with a handwritten list of the gems he made. And in this list was a gem that sounded a lot like ours.
So these were clues that the gem had belonged to Prince Poniatowski and was created for him in the 19th century by Calandrelli.
JJ: Was Poniatowski representing this modern gem as ancient? Did he intend to deceive buyers?
KL: Yes. At every stage, this gem was presented as ancient. That’s not to say that the people who bought it and sold it throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and John Boardman and others who published it, sought to deceive. It was so good they were all deceived. (In fact, on some level, they all probably wanted to believe this was an ancient work by Gnaios.) But Prince Poniatowski and Calandrelli, they knew. Poniatowski was motivated by prestige, but also by money.
JJ: Was there a smoking gun for you?
KK: There are three smoking guns. There is the plaster impression in Berlin, and another sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, that show that the gem had been in the Poniatowski collection, which was full of forgeries. That doesn’t prove anything, because Poniatowski’s collection also contained some genuine antiquities, but puts the gem in very bad company. Then, there’s Calandrelli’s notebook, which says he made a Mark Antony with the signature of Gnaios. And then, the third is when we put our gem next to ones that we know are genuine ancient engravings by Gnaios, we can see stylistic discrepancies, especially in the way the skin and hair is rendered.
I hadn’t paid close enough attention to these features before. This gem had the approbation of experts. It had been featured dozens of times, in handbooks and encyclopedias. It’s not quite the Mona Lisa, but it had become a very famous work, and I accepted that. But once the question was raised and I began to look closely, the differences became clear.
JJ: So now that you’ve proved that it isn’t ancient, does the gem still have any meaning or value in the collection?
KL: It’s still a very beautiful example of gem engraving, but quality is no proof of authenticity. It’s a very fine work by a carver whom we can now properly identify. It’s also valuable as an example of the passions of early 19th-century gem collectors and engravers, and the esteem for the antique that they had.
But it’s also a valuable lesson for those of us who create narratives about the ancient world. The Mark Antony had been paired with another gem, actually carved by Gnaios, that was thought to depict Cleopatra, and the pair was said to pay tribute to one of the most famous love stories of all time. I myself came up with another nice little narrative. The ancients believed that amethysts could prevent drunkenness. When I thought that our gem was genuine, I thought the ancient carver might have chosen amethyst for Mark Antony because he was famous for his drinking.
JJ: How often do museums find themselves having to reattribute work, or expose forgeries?
KL: I think it’s pretty common. It’s part of our jobs as curators. But I think uncovering a forgery or changing attribution shouldn’t be the end of the story but the beginning. The question is, what can we learn from that about desire, wishful thinking, and reliance on authority? And that’s why I think it’s worth telling this story and not just putting the thing in the basement and forgetting about it. Because then we fail to learn those lessons.
I think those lessons about how we evaluate what we’re told, weigh evidence, construct truth, and, often, reconstruct the past to suit the needs of the present, are all far more interesting than whether something is real or fake.