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The Louvre's magnificent Greco-Scythian crown is a fake & Israel Rouchomovski takes a bow


Life magazine featured the tiara in its September 26, 1955, issue in one of several articles about fakes and the Louvre's "Salon of Fakes" exhibition.

Debate over the authenticity of a massive gold crown known as the Tiara of Saitaphernes divided Paris in 1896. According to an inscription on the tiara, it was a gift from Olbia, a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast, to the 3rd-century B.C. Scythian king Saitaphernes. Russian art dealer Schapschelle Hochmann's tale was that it was found at Olbia, near Odessa in present-day Ukraine. The inscription on it even matched an ancient one that had already been published. But it later became clear that the tiara's new owner, the Louvre, had not performed adequate research into its origins before buying.

By the end of the 19th century, Greek and Scythian artwork from Russia was highly coveted as a result of magnificent finds from sites such as Kul Oba (1830), Chertomlyk (1863), and Seven Brothers (1875-1878). With European museums and collectors hungry to acquire anything from this region, the stage was set for a remarkable swindle.

In 1895, a Vienna newspaper ran a brief note about Crimean peasants making an extraordinary discovery, but possibly fleeing Russia out of fear that the government would confiscate their find. Hochmann exhibited some "newly recovered" Russian antiquities in Vienna in February 1896, including the tiara. At 7 inches in height, and weighing a little more than a pound of solid gold, the pointed dome-like tira was decorated with lower, narrower band shows genre scenes of Scythian daily life; upper band, wider and shows episodes from Iliad including Agamemnon and Achilles quarreling over Briseis.

The Imperial Court Museum in Vienna and British Museum both passed on the tiara, but the Louvre jumped at the opportunity to purchase it, paying 200,000 francs for it on April 1. Almost immediately, questions about its origins arose. Professor Vesselovsky of St. Petersburg and Adolf Furtwängler both condemned it in print in 1896. The Louvre did not budge, its "authorities took in no pleasant way Prof. Furtwängler's criticism on certain objects in that collection, notably the Tiara of Saitophenes, which he declared to be spurious. ...Because the professor was a German, the French declared his motives to have been dictated by spite" (New York Times). With the museum reluctant to brand its new beauty a fake, a six-year battle over the tiara between the Louvre and the Parisian press ensued.

The crown's amazing state of preservation was the key clue. The only damage was in non-essential areas. Ironically, while this should have been a tip off to the Louvre, it was actually a hook for the museum, which took pride in the tiara's almost perfect state. Arguments went back and forth until Henri Rochefort, the editor of the newspaper L'Intransigeant, finally convinced the Louvre to perform a thorough investigation.

In 1903, the newspaper Le Matin published a letter by a Russian jeweler named Lifschitz, who said he witnessed a friend named Israel Rouchomovski making the tiara. The artist, from a small town near Odessa, was brought to Paris. When questioned by the Louvre, he claimed Hochmann tricked him into making the phony crown and that he had not known its real purpose. Hochmann, he said, had asked him to make a tiara as a gift "for an archaeologist friend" and gave him books showing Greco-Scythian artifacts on which to base the work. Rouchomovski pointed out the exact books (Bilder-Atlas für Weltgeschichte and Antiquités de la Russsie Méridionale) to the investigators and described how he made it in three parts that he soldered. He was then given a sheet of gold and asked to prove his skill before they accepted his story. He did and they did.

Taken by the desire to acquire the tiara, the Louvre had missed warning signs that could have saved them considerable embarrassment. The tiara was flawed: there were traces of modern tools, there was modern soldering (though cleverly concealed), and an inscription was raised in relief. And then there was the preservation, ridiculed in a World Today article in 1907:

There are a lot on indentations on the tiara and these furnish a comical note in this affair. They were supposed to have been caused by the falling of stones of the mouldering tomb. These stones certainly possessed a rare and discriminating appreciation of art, since they had avoided falling on any of the numerous figures in relief, but had dented in most of the smooth spaces. What was more, unless the worthy Scythian potentate had turned around a few times in his tomb one could not explain why dents were found on all sides of his tiara. However there had been no miracle, the bumps and indentations were made by using alternately the ends of a common ballpane hammer.

The Louvre still owns the Tiara of Saitaphernes, though it is no longer on display. The World Today article quoted above predicted that "It would indeed be very surprising if the tiara was ever again exhibited." But in 1954 the Louvre included it in "Salon of Fakes," along with eight Mona Lisas. In 1997 the Israel Museum in Jerusalem had an exhibition about Rouchomovksi at which the tiara was displayed. Today, in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is a small installation with three pieces. One is a replica of the Tiara of Saitaphernes. Another is a double-sided silver engraving showing the fall of Saitaphernes, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the embarrassment the Louvre suffered in the scandal. And there's a plaque that tells about Rouchomovski and his crowning hoax.

The Tiara of Saitaphernes is an example of two factors that make archaeological frauds possible. The willingness of individuals or institutions to acquire artifacts with no documented findspot opens a gateway for forgers. Once a fake is in the door, it is difficult for the purchaser to admit that they were taken, all the more so if the fake is a spectacular and costly one.