You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Eight

The Tiara of Saitaphernes, 1896

Perhaps appropriately, on April 1, 1896 the Louvre announced that it had acquired a massive golden tiara, a gift dating to the 3rd century BCE from the Greek colony of Olbia to the Scythian king, Saitaphernes. According to a Russian art dealer, Schapschelle Hochmann, it had been found at Olbia, near Odessa. At the time Greek and Scythian artefacts from the Ukraine and Russia were highly sought after and the inscription on the crown seemed to match on that had already been published in an academic journal. This seemed a coup for the Parisian museum.

However, a little bit of digging may have put them on warning. The tiara, purportedly discovered by some Crimean peasants, was put on display in Vienna in 1895 by Hochmann in an exhibition of newly recovered antiquities. The tiara was certainly a stunner, some 7 inches tall, made with a pound of solid gold, with a pointed dome, decorated with scenes of Scythian life and from the Iliad. Perhaps surprisingly, both the Imperial Court Museum in Vienna and the British Museum passed on the opportunity to buy it, but the Louvre stumped up 200,000 francs to secure it.

Almost immediately, doubts were expressed as to its provenance. A Professor Furtwängler was particularly trenchant in his condemnation of its authenticity, his criticisms, the Louvre retorted, “dictated by spite” given his nationality. For six years a battle royal raged as to its authenticity, the Louvre adamant that they had not been duped. Eventually, Henri Rochefort, editor of the Parisian newspaper, L’Intransigeant, persuaded the Louvre that the only way the matter would be resolved once and for all was to perform a thorough investigation.

The tiara was in remarkably good condition, perhaps this should have been a warning sign in itself, and there were signs that modern tools had been used in its manufacture. There was evidence of soldering, although this was discreetly hidden, an inscription raised in relief, and some very curious indentations. Allegedly caused by falling masonry they had been highly selective in the areas that they had damaged, missing completely the elaborately carved reliefs, only denting the smooth surfaces. The conclusion was that the dents had been made by using the ends of a common ball pane hammer.

Worse still, a letter was published in Le Matin in 1903 from a Russian jeweller, Lifschitz, who stated that he saw a friend, Israel Rouchomovski, make the tiara in Odessa. Brought over to Paris Rouchomovski confessed that he had made the crown for Hochmann but had no idea what the art dealer had intended to do with it. To help him in his work, Hochmann had given him some books on Greco-Scythian artefacts to study. He had made the tiara in three parts, hence the soldering. Still unconvinced, the Louvre provided him with some gold and asked him to do his best. Rouchomovski’s expertise finally convinced the museum’s authorities that they had bought a dud.

The Louvre still own the tiara but they do not display it. The British Museum, perhaps revelling in their rival’s discomfort, have a copy which they openly display. As for Rouchomovski, he became a famous artist in his own right, winning a gold medal at the Paris Salon of Decorative Arts and living in Paris until his death in 1934.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

Glasses Of The Week

Mahatma Gandhi is renowned for eschewing material possessions, or, at least, he did so from September 22, 1921. He was content to wander around in a dhoti and shawl and a pair of wire spectacles in a show of solidarity with the poor masses. With so few possessions, for collectors of Gandhi ephemera competition is fierce when something of his where provenance can be confirmed comes on to the market.

An envelope was stuffed through the letter box of East Bristol Auctions some time ago. Inside was a pair of Gandhi’s trademark glasses and a note saying “these glasses belonged to Gandhi. Give me a call”.   

The auction house’s enquiries suggested that these indeed were Gandhi’s specs. The owner had inherited them from his uncle who was in South Africa at the same time as Gandhi and they dated from sometime between 1910 and 1930.

The glasses went on sale with a reserve of £15,000. To everyone’s astonishment, the glasses went for a whopping £260,000. There is a certain irony that the spectacles of a man who made a virtue out of poverty should have sold for such an amount, but that is capitalism for you.

What would they have fetched if he had gone to Specsavers?

Donation Of The Week

With the ‘rona hogging the headlines, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all other forms of medical research have been put on hold for the foreseeable. Here, then, is some cheering news fresh from the pages of that indispensable if rather curiously titled organ, Annals of Internal Medicine.

I have written before about gut fermentation syndrome, a, thankfully, rare condition caused by the body producing ethanol in the gut after particularly carbohydrate-rich meal, leading to high blood alcohol levels and a feeling of having one over the eight. It is a bit of a bummer for anyone who doesn’t drink a drop.

Anyway, relief is at hand for sufferers. Researchers from University Hospital Ghent in Belgium have reported the case of a 47-year-old man who had intermittent bouts of the syndrome. A course of antimycotic drugs and a low-carb diet failed to do the trick and so the doctors suggested a faecal microbiota transplant. In layman’s terms that means transplanting someone’s faeces into his intestine.

The man’s daughter was only too happy to oblige with a stool, perhaps her kindest gift, and the symptoms of ethanol intoxication have disappeared as if by magic. 34 months later, according to the report, he is eating his normal carbohydrate-rich diet and even having the occasional sherbet.

What Is The Origin Of (297)?…

According to Gunter

I like these rather obscure phrases that I come across from time to time, all of which mean correctly or reliably and cite an authority for such an assertion. This is one such, but who was Gunter?

Well, Edmund Gunter (1581 – 1626), a clergyman, mathematician, geometer and astronomer, who was a Professor of Astronomy at London’s Gresham College, a position he held from 1619 until his death. To him we owe the terms cosine and cotangent. He published a collection of his mathematical writings in 1624, entitled “The description and use of sector, the cross-staffe, and other instruments for such as are studious of mathematical practise”. What was remarkable about the book was that it was published in English rather than in scholastic Latin, its principle purpose was to be a practical manual to be used by seamen, surveyors and the unlike, unschooled in the delights of the language of the Romans.         

Gunter was interested in improving man’s ability to measure and survey and invented a number of instruments which bore his name. Gunter’s chain, 66 feet long, was used to take linear measurements between topographical features, such as corners of a field and then, by the process of triangulation, used to calculate the area of the whole field. As ten square chains made an acre, calculations were simplified. To determine the hour and the direction of the sun from the traveller, essential information for sailors, Gunther developed a quadrant, made principally of brass and wood.

To assist in the solving of navigational and other mathematical problems, the enterprising Gunter developed what was known as Gunter’s scale or rule. A flat rule two feet long and about 1.5 inches broad, it had scales of natural lines and on the reverse, scales with the natural logarithms of those lines, what was known as Gunter’s line. Accuracy and precision were clearly his bywords.

It was almost a century after his death, though, before his name was used figuratively to signify accuracy in the calculation of fiendish mathematical problems. The Commentator in its edition of June 25, 1720 noted that, “there is no squaring Things in Politicks according to Gunter; the Mathematicks will have no Share in our Measures”. A century later the Berwick Advertiser in its edition of January 18, 1834 wrote rather admiringly of Thomas Campbell; “all his sentences are constructed according to Gunter. He writes with his case of mathematical instruments by his side”.       

Cocker was another mathematician whose methods and name was taken as gospel for accuracy and reliability and, at least in Britain, his reputation rather usurped that of Gunter. From the middle of the 19th century Gunter, who was a Puritan, seems to have been adopted by the Americans. John Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1859, gave this explanation of our phrase; “The Laws of Rhode Island, both colonial and recent, referring to measures, say, “All casks shall be gauged by the rule commonly called “gauging by Gunter””. Hence any thing correctly and properly done is said to be “according to Gunter””.     

That America had embraced Gunter over Cocker because of his Puritanism was confirmed by this entry in Americanisms – Old & New, compiled by an English lexicographer, John Farmer, in London in 1889. Defining according to Gunter as “a variant of the English “According to Cocker””, Farmer noted explaining that “both Gunter and Cocker were distinguished mathematicians; the former, however, being a Puritan, has naturally taken the lead in the United States in preference to the latter”.  

The phrase did, though, originate in England but fell into obscurity, at least this side of the pond. Still, I am glad to shine a light on it.

Book Corner – August 2020 (4)

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

It’s a curious thing. Although I had read this book many moons ago and knew that there had always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm and that Ada Doom had seen something nasty in the woodshed, I realised as I turned the pages, I couldn’t remember the plot. The onset of senility, perhaps, or for all its brilliance is it that Gibbons’ masterpiece is more a triumph of style over substance?             

Published in 1932 when Gibbons was working on the books pages of The Lady magazine, it was her first novel. And its success eclipsed anything else she produced during her career, much to her chagrin. Indeed, her other works are so forgotten nowadays that asking anyone to name one would almost certainly generate a perfect Pointless score. She even wrote a sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, a short novel in which the farm becomes a conference centre and tourist attraction but though moderately successful, it has now sunk into obscurity.

These days I tend not to read introductions penned other than by the author. There is nothing worse than someone giving away the nuances of the plot or highlighting the best passages of the work before you have even had the opportunity to sample it. However, you should read Gibbons’ Prologue before you embark on this novel. It will unlock the key to why some of the paragraphs in the text are marked with between one and three asterisks. It is Gibbons’ tongue-in-cheek way of alerting the reader to passages she considers to be particularly impressive.

As a book, Cold Comfort Farm is a wonderful parody of those doomy, tragic, rural novels penned by the likes of Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence as well as a swath of lesser writers, particularly prevalent and popular in the 1920s. They were full of sons of the soil, saddled with Biblical names, who cannot control their strong natural urges. But whereas they were full of tragedy, disgrace and death, in Gibbons’ hands they see the path to happiness and redemption. Her guardian angel is Flora Poste, recently orphaned at the age of 19 losing both her parents to the 20th century killer, Spanish flu, and accepts the strange invitation to live with her distant Sussex relatives, the Starkadders.

The farm is a desolate place, stocked with characters bearing names such as Seth, Reuben, Harkaway, Urk, Ezra and Caraway and animals such as Big Business the bull, and cows bearing monikers such as Graceless, Pointless, Aimless, and Feckless. Upstairs is the brooding and controlling presence of Aunt Ada, her gargantuan appetite and her obsession with that nasty vision she had in the woodshed many years ago. Taking stock of her situation and her gloomy, eccentric relatives, the thoroughly modern Flora decides to shake things up and give them a path to happiness and self-fulfilment.

Flora comes over as bossy but well meaning and she eventually succeeds in her objective, picking up a fiancé along the way. Astonishingly, the book is set a little into the future, planes whizz in and out to whisk some pf them away. The book is genuinely funny and, for me, the standout piece was Amos’ sermon, full of hellfire and damnation, delivered to the assembled congregation of the Church of the Quivering Brethren.      

Great stuff and justifiably a classic. If your first book is a masterpiece, it is hard to top it. As Neil Young once sang, “it is better to burn out than fade away”. It was Stella Gibbons’ misfortune that she had to fade away.