The amazingly fragile skeleton and its attractive sarcophagus are the artistic work of the renowned Jewish gold- and silversmith Israel Rouchomovsky (1860-1934). Rouchomovsky was born into a wretchedly poor family in the town of Mozyr, Belarus. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as was the case in dozens of small towns in Russia, no less than 70 of the population of this town were Jewish. Although he had encountered major problems in obtaining the necessary permits to exercise his craft, it is known that he obtained a work permit for Odessa as late as 1892. Rouchomovsky's extraordinary talents were soon acknowledged in the world of Russian art connoisseurs and dealers. He was also often called upon by fellow craftsmen to assist them in the completion of assignments which appeared to be beyond their competence.
The story of the Louvre Tiara
At the end of the year 1894, Rouchomovsky was approached by two antique dealers, generally referred to as the Hochman brothers, for whom he had done some work before. The two men misled the young, somewhat naive genius by ordering from him a spectacular tall, conical tiara, to be executed in gold and to be decorated lavishly, with various thematic bands of decoration, in the then popular style of the Scythians. The Scythians were a people of horsemen and archers who had lived near the Black Sea in the last centuries BCE. Rouchomovsky was told that the tiara was meant as a gift for an important archeologist and was paid 1,800 rubles for seven months of work.
On April Fool's Day, 1896, the Louvre in Paris proudly announced the acquisition for the nation of France, at the amazing sum of 200,000 gold francs, of a rare gold tiara, decorated with scenes from the Iliad and the daily life of the Scythians, datable to the third century BCE and bearing a Greek inscription attesting that the crown was presented to King Saitaphernes by the senate and the citizens of Olbia, a town near the mouth of the river Dnieper. From the same dealer, an accomplice of the Hochman brothers, the Louvre also bought an 'antique' gold necklace and pendant, which were also the handiwork of Rouchomovsky. Although two of the greatest experts at the Louvre, the Director of National Museums and the curator of the Greco-Roman collection, had done extensive research into the remarkable headdress, very soon doubts as to the authenticity of the masterpiece were expressed in the public. The most ardent among the opponents of the tiara's genuineness was the well-known art historian Adolf Frtwangler of Munich. He declared that its decoration was 'an empty mishmash' of imitation, that he could easily identify the artist's sources of inspiration and that only some of the bronze rivets might be genuinely old.
Contemporary periodicals bear witness to the violent clashes between the tiara's supporters, largely the experts from the Louvre, and its opponents. It was not until 1903, however, that the Louvre, forcibly, conceded defeat. In that year in a letter to a newspaper a known forger claimed that the tiara was his work. The letter induced another one, from an originally Russian silversmith who claimed to have seen Rouchomovsky work on the crown in Odessa, years before. It was only then when French reporters, who followed this lead, came to Odessa that Rouchomovsky became aware of the public outrage in France and of his role in it. Rouchomovsky was summoned to Paris at the expense of the French government and convinced an independent parliamentary committee, presided by the famed archeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, that the tiara was made by him, by perfectly reproducing with borrowed tools part of the tiara's exquisite decorative bands. The original drawings of these bands that he had brought with him initially had been put aside as insufficient proof. It is only a year ago now since the tiara was first shown to the public again, together with the skeleton and the sarcophagus which were the other highlights, in a succesful exhibition dedicated to Rouchomovsky's entire oeuvre in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The skeleton and the sarcophagus
Rouchomovsky had already manufactured a gold skeleton before. As can be learned from his memoirs, which were first published in Yiddish in 1928, he had assisted a colleague who did not manage to produce a skeleton properly. The work, now held in the Museum of Historical Treasures of the Ukraine in Kiev where it has been exhibited a number of times, had taken him four months, instead of the one month he had thought it would cost. Although he was certainly not discontent with it, he was convinced at the same time that he could do a much better job and that he could in fact produce a skeleton that would move entirely naturally, as opposed to the first skeleton of which only certain parts could move. The inscrpition on this, the second skeleton proves that it took him some five years to finish his project. In his own words:"In the second piece, with the help of minute ball-bearings, all body members can move in all directions, and even the lower jaw can be opened and closed. This time I was entirely satisfied and I could say without any humbleness that I succeeded, I really succeeded, and it was at that point that I realized that this "deceased" deserved a beautiful sarcophagus".
The very creation of the sarcophagus would take another five years and was finished in Odessa in 1901. Again in Rouchomovsky's own words: "The sarcophagus is cut in massive silver and is covered entirely with ornaments and miniature figures [which he describes in minute detail]". Images depict the old pessimistic idea of Ecclesiastes: "Utter futility! All is utter futile". In describing the sarcophagus one can only agree with the artist himself who stated in his memoirs that "although the work has taken very long, I can say that it is one of my best works, and I have always remained more than content with it, not only with its execution, but also with its underlying conception."
After the tiara incident Rouchomovsky's prodigious talents aroused great public interest and he decided to stay in Paris where he became an acclaimed artist in the Parisian high society. He exhibited at the Salon from 1904 to 1906, where the skeleton and the sarcophagus, that are offered for sale now, were shown together with some of the most exquisite Art Nouveau pieces. The Salon awarded him a gold medal for his works, and among his commissioners was Baron Edmond James de Rothschild (1845-1934).
We would like to express our thanks to Mrs. Chaya Benjamin, curator in the Judaica department in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, for her help.
See front cover illustration and illustrations