An exquisite gold artifact was creaed by a brilliant Russian-Jewish goldsmith Israel Rouchomovosky and sold as an ancient Scythian Greek tiara to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France without his knowledge. It was on display at the museum from 1896 to 1903. Then, after its discovery as an archeological forgery, it was hidden away for ninety years. Now it was finally on view, together with other creations by the goldsmith, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Curator Mrs. Chaya Benjamin
On All Fools’ Day, the first of April in 1896, the Louvre Museum in Paris announced triumphantly that it acquired a rare gold tiara for the nation, a crown of royalty in the form of a conical cap and decorated with the scenes from the Iliad of Homer and scenes from the daily life of the Scythians. It was dated to the third century B.C.E. and bearing a Greek-lettered inscription which affirmed that the diadem of royalty was presented to King Saitapharnes by the senate and citizens of Olba, an ancient town near the mouth of the Dneiper River (Russia).
In fact, the well-crafted tiara, a supposedly ancient artifact, was actually a great deal younger. It had been created in Odessa in Russia only two years earlier by a brilliant Jewish goldsmith named Israel Rouchomovsky.
The international sting had the following scenario in which the innocent goldsmith played an unwitting partner. The tiara had been commissioned from him by dealers known as the Hochman brothers as a gift for a member of their family. These unscrupulous dealers provided the artisan with books of drawings of ancient finds and text of source material. It appeared that Rouchomovsky was unfamiliar with Greek mythology or history as some of the scenes crafted by him were from a medal found in Rhone region of France in the year 1656.
After paying for the commissioned work, the Hochman brothers took the tiara to Paris, showed it to the Louvre curators and casually mentioned that they were on their way to sell their Scythian-Greek find to the British Museum. It didn’t take long for the officials to be tempted and promptly purchased the crown for a large sum of money, even as doubts were cast on the tiara’s authenticity. But the Louvre director A. Kaempfen, his curator of antiquities Heron de Villefosse and archaeologist Salomon Reinach stood fast. Through their word the French bankers arranged the necessary funds to purchase this valuable antique treasure: a genuine fake.
But it was the German archeologist Rudolf Furtwangler that first labelled it as a forgery, noting the varied styles in the decorations and even named their sources; he also pointed out that the tiara did not even have a patina.
Other prominent archaeologists expressed doubt about the authenticy of the tiara, and within time there was a public furor, but the Louvre did not back down and admit the sting. Only after seven years did the Louvre announce to the public that the tiara was a fake and removed it from public view. Satirical French postcards at that time pictured the tiara with a ditty: “It is a perfect fake, like every thing in your collection.”
The officials reached this conclusion thanks largely to Israel Rouchomovsky himself, who came to Paris to declare before a specially appointed parliamentary committee that he was the maker of the gold tiara. Even yet some of the experts refused to believe him, and only when he produced documents on its crafting were they convinced — almost. It was not fully accepted that he was the artisan until he was locked up in the Louvre workshop, where he reproduced part of the tiara, that the Louvre museum officials conceded defeat.
The matter was lampooned in the press in cartoons and limericks... and in an account of a mock procession of French art students. There were even some antisemitic overtones. (Unfortunately history does not relate to the fate of Hochman brothers. Probably the Louvre officials were too embarassed to fully pursue the matter.)
The Players in the drama of the “Secret of the Golden Tiara” include the Louvre Museum, French banks, scholars, experts, and shady merchants; their involvment in the scheme of skulduggery still intrigues the public to this day.
Israel Dov-Ber-Rouchomovsky (1860-1934) was born in Mozyr, a small market town near Minsk, Russia. He lived there in grinding poverty and described his childhood and surroundings with sympathy and humour in his Yiddish language memoirs, Mein Leben und Mein Arbeit (my life and my work), published in Paris in 1928. He began as a silversmith, being largely self-taught, and he set up his workshop in Odessa. He had gited hands and in a few years was known well enough for the Hochman brothers to commission the tiara.
The Louvre fiasco made the Jewish goldmith famous and other works earned him a Gold Medal at the Paris Salon of Decorative Arts. He brought his wife and children to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life while teaching the secrets of his trade of goldsmithing to his sons.
The inscribed words on a tiny gold model of his tombstone he designed spoke of his love for life, his family and of his craft:
A happy man was I in my life
Peace and quiet, bread and clothing were always found in my home
I loved my work, my wife and my home. Even after my death my spirit will prevail
In the works of my hands I have left behind.
Copyright © 2003 by Norman A. Rubin