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

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