Hello, would you like to buy something weird? Hammer Time is our guide to things that are for sale in New York City… fantastic, consequential and freakishly grotesque archival treasures that appear in public for just a brief moment, most likely never to be seen again.
On April Fool’s Day in 1896, the Musée du Louvre issued an announcement: For 200,000 francs, they had acquired an ancient Greek tiara that once belonged to the Scythian King Saitapharnes. It was decorated with scenes from the Iliad and bore an inscription experts at the museum dated from late 3rd to early 2nd century B.C.E.
The Louvre proudly placed the Tiara of Saitaferne on exhibition, and scholars and connoisseurs travelled from all over the world to see the artifact. What began as a whisper in front of the display quickly turned into allegations echoing throughout the 1st arrondissement, and then far beyond. Leading archeologists declared it to be entirely bogus, a forgery crafted far from the Eurasian Steppes, and certainly long after the Iron Age.
The museum responded to aspersions cast about by experts with sharp reproach, but they nonetheless began quietly making house calls to preeminent craftsman. Eventually, a specialist’s attention turned to Israel Rouchomovsky, in Odessa.
Rouchomovsky showed the specialist around his small workshop, where he had completed a 3½ inch gold skeleton with 167 parts. It had taken five long years to create a fully articulated rendering, and he took particular delight in the lower jaw, which opened and shut. In Rouchomovsky’s memoirs, he wrote that he was truly satisfied as he made the final engraving, “Mozyr 92 Odessa 96” on the right splint-bone, and his name on the left, but “it was at that point that I realized that this ‘deceased’ deserved a beautiful sarcophagus.” He spent another five years on a velvet-lined silver coffin, illustrating the removable cover with the footsteps of the Angel of Death, surrounded by infants alternately laughing and crying. The base was contemplation on the course of life, with war at one end and the arts at the other.
Soon after, this visitor to Odessa made it known that he believed Rouchomovsky was “making antiquities,” a rumor the silversmith adamantly refuted in an 1897 letter to the Journal des Debats.
Years passed, but controversy of the tiara persisted. In 1903, a Frenchman came forward and announced the artifact was indeed a forgery, and he knew this to be true because he had made it with his own hands.
The admission reached Odessa, and left Rouchomovsky at an impasse. In 1894, the Hochman brothers had paid him 1,800 rubles, a little under 1,500 francs, to make a tiara. They provided him with articles about recent excavations, assuring him it was to be a gift for a discerning archeologist.
The shady antiquities dealers had deceived him and fleeced the Louvre, but he could not allow someone else to take credit for his painstaking work. Rouchomovsky wanted to put an end to the treachery that had ensued and so, at long last, he came forward.
By then, the Louvre had grown weary of such claims, and met Rouchomovsky’s confession with a challenge: Come to Paris and publicly replicate sections of the tiara. They offered to pay his fare, and Rouchomovsky realized that if he accepted the proposition, he could enter the skeleton and sarcophagus in the Salon Exhibition of Decorative Arts. He agreed, and satisfied their requirements shortly after arriving. The disgraced Louvre publicly apologized, and spoke of the silversmith’s master craftsmanship in superlative terms.
Rouchomovsky was instantly famous, and his skeleton and sarcophagus won gold at the 1903 Salon. French patrons, including Baron James de Rothschild, sent him back to Odessa with substantial commissions.
He planned to return to Paris, but the largest and most severe Odessa pogrom threatened his very existence. The communal violence against Jews, carried out with tacit approval from the authorities, dated back to 1821. During the 1905 pogrom, the army enabled mobs to attack with abandon. Police reported that at least 400 Jews and 100 non-Jews were killed, but the Jewish newspaper Voskhod placed the number at 800, and Governor Dmitiri Neidhardt estimated casualties to be around 2,500.
Rouchomovsky survived, and returned to Paris for the 1906 Salon with a greater sense of urgency. By 1910, he finally managed to move his family to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1934. In his final years, Rouchomovsky toiled over miniature tombstones for himself and his wife, which he engraved:
A happy man was I in 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
As the work of my hands that I have left behind
The last sentence of Rouchomovsky’s epitaph will once again ring true this Monday, April 29th, in Manhattan, when Sotheby’s will auction off the gold skeleton and the silver-gilt sarcophagus. The auction house estimates that the silversmith’s decade-long endeavor, which has resided in hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt’s Judaica collection, will bring in $150–250,000.
Alexis Coe is now a writer living in San Francisco, but not long ago, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, and other publications. Alexis holds an MA in history. Follow her. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, who auction the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection in two sessions on Monday, beginning at 10 a.m.