The Tiara of Saitaphernes: Wow Antique? Fake? Fine Art? Find Out
Some objects are especially prized because the story about them is so precious. The Tiara of Saitaphernes is certainly one of these “priceless” objects and its story is long and surprising. The Tiara of Saitaphernes is a gold artifact that was once believed to have belonged to a Scythian king. The object was purchased by the Louvre and displayed there. Soon, however, doubts were raised about the object’s authenticity. The Louvre, naturally, insisted that they had a genuine ancient artifact.
In time, news of the controversy surrounding the tiara reached the ears of its creator, who came forward to admit that the object was made by him. This caused great embarrassment for the Louvre, and the tiara was quietly put into storage. The object was not forgotten, however, as it first made it into the Louvre’s “Salon of Fakes,” and then it was loaned to several museums around the world.
The golden Tiara of Saitaphernes: from fake to celebrated work of art. ( Public domain )
The Tiara of Saitaphernes: Initially Commissioned As A Gift
The story of the Tiara of Saitaphernes begins in 1894 AD. In that year, the object was commissioned by a pair of brothers from the Ukrainian city of Ochakiv. The brothers Shepsel and Leiba Gokhman (also spelled as Hochmann) approached Israel Rouchomovsky, a goldsmith and jeweler based in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, for the job. Rouchomovsky was a master of his craft and his work was appreciated by Peter Carl Fabergé. The Russian jeweler, famed for his Fabergé eggs, considered Rouchomovsky to be the “greatest goldsmith of all time.”
Rouchomovsky was born in 1860 into an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents, who wanted him to become a rabbi, sent him to a religious school. Even as a child, however, Rouchomovsky was much more inclined towards the arts. Possessing both passion and skill, he taught himself and mastered engraving and jewelry making. Thanks to his creative mind, Rouchomovsky was always making something, and decorated any household item he could get his hands on with engravings.
Around the end of the 1870s, Rouchomovsky became an apprentice at one of the best jewelry workshops in Kiev. He soon realized, however, that there was little more that he could learn at the workshop. Therefore, Rouchomovsky began to take direct commissions for works from the refined public of Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. In spite of this, Rouchomovsky remained obscure and unknown, so much so that other, better-known, jewelers could claim his works as their own.
Rouchomovsky’s exceptional Coffin with a Skeleton work that is celebrated, even today. ( Sothebys)
Joseph Marshak, a successful jeweler in Kiev, for instance, would stamp his own name onto Rouchomovsky’s works, which did not bear its creator’s name. It is unclear how many more of Rouchomovsky’s early works were claimed by other jewelers in this manner.
In 1892, Rouchomovsky moved to Odessa. It was during this time that the master created his greatest works. Apart from the Tiara of Saitaphernes, Rouchomovsky’s other creations from this time include “Coffin with a Skeleton,” and the “Achilles and Minerva” composition.
Returning to the story of the Tiara of Saitaphernes, the Gokhman brothers told Rouchomovsky that they wanted to present the gold object as a gift to a “friend” of theirs from Kharkov. Since this “friend” was an archaeologist, a “ Scythian tiara” would be a very appropriate present said the brothers.
To make the tiara look as authentic as possible, the Gokhman brothers provided Rouchomovsky with a good number of books on archaeology, specifically those on Graeco-Scythian artifacts, which the goldsmith diligently studied. The brothers also paid Rouchomovsky 2000 rubles for his work. This was a large sum of money for the goldsmith, but nothing compared to price the artifact would fetch later on.
Rouchomovsky worked on the tiara for seven months, all the while believing that the object would be presented by the Gokhman brothers to their archaeologist “friend,” or so he would claim, later on.
The Gokhman Brothers: Trying To Profit From Archaeology
In the next part of the story of the Tiara of Saitaphernes, the focus shifts from Rouchomovsky to the Gokhman brothers. As it turns out, the brothers had no intention of presenting the gold tiara as a gift to their “friend.” Instead, they were planning to sell it to a museum as a genuine artifact. Around that time, museums across Europe were extremely eager to obtain Graeco-Scythian artifacts for their collections. The craze for such works of art was caused by the magnificent examples that had been unearthed at Graeco-Scythian sites in the preceding decades.
The Scythian chieftain, Kul Oba, found in the Kul Oba kulgan in the Crimea by archaeologists in 1830. (PHGCOM / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
One of these sites, for instance, is Kul Oba, a 4 th century BC kurgan (burial mound) located in the Crimea, not far from Kerch. The kurgan was excavated by Paul Dubrux and Ivan Stempkovsky in 1830. Within the kurgan were the skeletons of a Hellenized Scythian chieftain, his wife / concubine, and a servant. In addition, the tomb contained a large quantity of grave goods, including hundreds of bronze arrowheads and spearheads, gold, silver and bronze wares, and various gold ornaments.
The Gokhman brothers were hoping to take advantage of the hype surrounding these Graeco-Scythian artifacts to sell their tiara. The brothers even invented a story about the artifact’s discovery. According to their story, the tiara was discovered during the excavation of a kurgan in the Crimea. This story may have been inspired by a brief note that appeared in a Viennese newspaper in 1895 AD. The note reported an extraordinary archaeological discovery made by peasants in the Crimea. They may, however, have fled from their homes, fearing that their precious finds would be confiscated by the Russian authorities. It is thus plausible that some of the artifacts discovered by these peasants, including the tiara, ended up in the hands of the Gokhmans.
The brothers had no luck with the Imperial Court Museum in Vienna and the British Museum, as both were not interested in purchasing the artifact. The Louvre, however, took the bait, and the Gokhman brothers put a price tag of 200,000 francs on their tiara. This was an enormous sum of money, and only the French Parliament could release it.
The Gokhman brothers, however, pretended that they were in a hurry, and were not willing to wait for the Parliament’s approval. In its eagerness to secure the artifact, the Louvre was forced to borrow from the famous French art patrons, Corroyer and Theodore Reynak. By these means, the Louvre succeeded in purchasing the Tiara of Saitaphernes. After selling the tiara to the Louvre, the Gokhman brothers disappeared from the pages of history.
On the 1 st of April 1896 AD, the museum made an announcement to the public about their most recent purchase. Little did they know that this announcement would later turn out to be (ironically) a huge joke. For the time being, however, the Louvre celebrated their new acquisition, which became part of their permanent exhibition.
The prestigious Louvre Museum in Paris bought the Taira of Saitaphernes with private money - a lot of private money! ( Alexi Tauzin / Adobe Stock)
The Tiara Goes On Display And The Fake Is Revealed!
It is likely that most of the visitors to the Louvre who saw the tiara did not suspect in the least that it was a fake. Although it was not an authentic artifact, the tiara was still a work of art. The solid gold artifact measures 17.8 cm (7 in) in height, weighs slightly more than 453.6 grams (1 lb), and takes the form of a domed helmet made of several ornamental bands.
The tiara can be divided into three main parts. The top of the artifact is a piece of “Greek openwork ornament,” crowned by a “snake with its head twisted into a spiral.” The middle section of the tiara shows scenes from Homer’s Iliad, including the quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis. The object’s lower section, which is narrower than the middle one, depicts scenes of everyday life amongst the Scythians. These include hunting scenes, scenes of horses being sacrificed, children being taught archery, as well as the flora and fauna of the region. An inscription in ancient Greek which tells the story of the object, is also found on the tiara.
According to the inscription, the tiara belonged to Saitaphernes (hence the name of the artifact), a Scythian king from the 3 rd century BC. This king besieged the Greek city of Olbia, Ukraine’s Mykolaiv Oblast today, and demanded a huge ransom from its inhabitants, in return for peace. The people of Olbia decided to comply with Saitaphernes’ demands, hence the creation of the tiara. Incidentally, the inscription on the tiara matched an actual ancient one that had already been published.
Not everyone, however, was convinced that the tiara was real. In fact, as soon as the artifact went on display, doubts were raised as to the tiara’s origins. One of the first individuals to question the authenticity of the Tiara of Saitaphernes was a Russian scholar from St. Petersburg, Alexander Veselovsky. He declared in May 1896 that the tiara was a fake. This opinion was shared by another scholar, Adolf Furtwängler, a German archaeologist.
Indeed, there were signs all over the tiara that suggested it was a fake. For instance, the characters depicted on the object actually belonged to different periods and nations, as opposed to the alleged Scythians of the 3 rd century BC. Apart from that, there was the object’s almost perfect state of preservation. Although there was evidence of slight damage on the tiara, these occurred in spots that were unimportant.
The Tiara of Saitaphernes as published in the "La Nature" journal in 1896 AD. (Israel Rouchomovsky / Public domain )
Instead of flagging the object as a potential fake, the object’s excellent state of preservation fueled the desire of the Louvre to obtain it. Moreover, there were traces of modern tools on the object, as well as modern soldering, though the latter was carefully concealed.
In spite of these critiques, the French experts at the Louvre refused to entertain the idea that they had bought a fake. Furtwängler’s criticism, for instance, was dismissed as spite, simply because he was German. The Louvre even prepared a book devoted to the Tiara of Saitaphernes.
It was only in 1903 that the Louvre finally accepted the fact that their tiara was a fake. In that year, a letter by a Russian jeweler by the name of Lifschitz was published in the newspaper Le Matin . In the letter, Lifschitz claimed that he had seen a friend, i.e., Rouchomovsky, making the tiara. The French government, which took this allegation seriously, formed a special commission to investigate.
In the meantime, the tiara was removed from the Louvre’s permanent collection. Rouchomovsky, who was still in Odessa at that time, was flooded with letters and telegrams from many Parisian newspapers, who offered co-operation in exchange for exclusive information. On the 5 th of April 1903 AD, Rouchomovsky received an invitation from the French consul to visit Paris to resolve the issue of the tiara’s authenticity.
In Paris, the government’s special commission first tested Rouchomovsky’s knowledge of ancient history, arriving at the conclusion that he did not have profound knowledge in this area. Next, the commission decided to test Rouchomovsky’s skill as a jeweler, and his knowledge of the images on the tiara. He was given a sheet of gold leaf, and the necessary tools for the job.
Rouchomovsky was asked to recreate a section of the tiara from memory, which would then be compared with the object sold to the Louvre. Needless to say, Rouchomovsky managed to do that, thereby establishing once and for all that he was the creator of the Tiara of Saitaphernes.
The exposure of the tiara as a fake caused extreme embarrassment to the Louvre, who naturally decided to quietly hide the object away. Indeed, the purchase of the tiara is still considered to be one of the two great misfortunes suffered by the Louvre during the Belle Époque, the other being the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 AD.
Whilst the Louvre retained possession of the object, it was reclassified as an object from the end of the 19 th century and transferred to the Museum of Decorative Arts. On the other hand, the exposure made Rouchomovsky famous, and his other works caught the attention of scholars. His “Coffin with a Skeleton,” for instance, was entered in the Paris Salon of Decorative Arts in 1903 AD, where it won a gold medal.
Rouchomovsky lived in Paris for the rest of his life, though this part of his history is somewhat of a blur. Some believe that Rouchomovsky died in obscurity, whilst others opine that he continued to enjoy a successful career, even receiving orders from the Rothschilds.
Finally, although the Tiara of Saitaphernes was hidden away by the Louvre, it was not completely forgotten. In 1954 AD, for instance, the tiara was included, along with eight Mona Lisas, as part of the museum’s “Salon of Fakes.”
In 1977 AD, the tiara was loaned to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for an exhibition on Rouchomovsky. Additionally, two replicas of the tiara were produced, one displayed in the British Museum, and another in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Thus, the tiara, though no longer considered to be an ancient artifact, is today admired instead as a work of art.
Top image: Tiara of Saitaphernes postcard. Source: Public Domain
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