Biblical Archaeology Review 31:5, September/October 2005

First Person: Snap Judgments

Instant analysis by experts is often right—except when it’s not

By Hershel Shanks

Well-ensconced on the nonfiction best-seller list, Blink, by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, recounts how experienced connoisseurs were able, in the blink of an eye, to evaluate the famous Getty kouros—and declare it a forgery!

A kouros is a nude statue of a Greek youth standing with his arms at his side with one leg forward. One expert, when told the Getty museum was about to buy the kouros, replied, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Another expert, when he first saw it, felt cold. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, said that the first word that came to mind when he saw the statue was “fresh.”

These connoisseurs, in Gladwell’s words, “took a look at that statue and some part of their brain did a series of instant calculations, and before any kind of conscious thought took place, they felt something ... Did they know why they knew? Not at all. But they knew.”

For author Gladwell, the instant reactions of experts like these was enough—the statue was “so obviously fake.” The Getty isn’t so sure, however. There are expert connoisseurs on the other side, and the Getty has spent millions on scientific tests of the statue. The question remains open. When it is exhibited—and it is scheduled to go on display again this fall when the Getty’s new exhibit halls are to be opened—it will bear a label stating that it is either “about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”

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