Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

By Gladwell, Malcolm

Introduction The Statue That Didn’t Look Right

In September of 1983, an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros-a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two hundred kouroi in existence, and most have been recovered badly damaged or in fragments from grave sites or archeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved. It stood close to seven feet tall. It had a kind of light-colored glow that set it apart from other ancient works. It was an extraordinary find. Becchina’s asking price was just under $10 million.

The Getty moved cautiously. It took the kouros on loan and began a thorough investigation. Was the statue consistent with other known kouroi? The answer appeared to be yes. The style of the sculpture seemed reminiscent of the Anavyssos kouros in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, meaning that it seemed to fit with a particular time and place. Where and when had the statue been found? No one knew precisely, but Becchina gave the Getty’s legal department a sheaf of documents relating to its more recent history. The kouros, the records stated, had been in the private collection of a Swiss physician named Lauffenberger since the 1930s, and he in turn had acquired it from a well-known Greek art dealer named Roussos.

A geologist from the University of California named Stanley Margolis came to the museum and spent two days examining the surface of the statue with a high-resolution stereomicroscope. He then removed a core sample measuring one centimeter in diameter and two centimeters in length from just below the right knee and analyzed it using an electron microscope, electron microprobe, mass spectrometry, X-ray diffraction, and X-ray fluorescence. The statue was made of dolomite marble from the ancient Cape Vathy quarry on the island of Thasos, Margolis concluded, and the surface of the statue was covered in a thin layer of calcite-which was significant, Margolis told the Getty, because dolomite can turn into calcite only over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In other words, the statue was old. It wasn’t some contemporary fake.

The Getty was satisfied. Fourteen months after their investigation of the kouros began, they agreed to buy the statue. In the fall of 1986, it went on display for the first time. The New York Times marked the occasion with a front-page story. A few months later, the Getty’s curator of antiquities, Marion True, wrote a long, glowing account of the museum’s acquisition for the art journal The Burlington Magazine. “Now standing erect without external support, his closed hands fixed firmly to his thighs, the kouros expresses the confident vitality that is characteristic of the best of his brothers.” True concluded triumphantly, “God or man, he embodies all the radiant energy of the adolescence of western art.”

The kouros, however, had a problem. It didn’t look right. The first to point this out was an Italian art historian named Federico Zeri, who served on the Getty’s board of trustees. When Zeri was taken down to the museum’s restoration studio to see the kouros in December of 1983, he found himself staring at the sculpture’s fingernails. In a way he couldn’t immediately articulate, they seemed wrong to him. Evelyn Harrison was next. She was one of the world’s foremost experts on Greek sculpture, and