Fakes and Forgeries: the Tiara of Saitaferne

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I read somewhere that up to around 20% of exhibits in museums and galleries are fakes or forgeries. That’s a much higher percentage than I would have guessed but not that surprising if you really think about it. The motivation is there for the sellers of the forged items: money or perhaps some small prestige — or it may be that some of them believe the item to be genuine, because it was sold or given to them as such.

But how are the museum experts fooled — even if the item is so convincing that it persuades the expert of its authenticity — surely they must carry out some very stringent research on the provenance of all the item they choose to display? And there must be some pretty sophisticated and accurate tools available to the museum to carry out tests to determine the age of an object.

My take on it is this

  • most of the a fakes have been on display in the museum for years and their acquisition predates highly developed means to age-date items
  • the experts either know or suspect that some items on display are not genuine but choose not to disclose this for a number (obvious) of reasons
  • the creators of more recent fakes are well-studied in the technology used to date items and may use scientific methods to prevent detection

Which leads me to The Tiara of Saitaferne  (it was called a tiara but actually looks like a cap):

Sometime in the 1890′s the Louvre museum in Paris purchased the tiara for around 200,000 gold francs — believing that it dated from somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC and that it had belonged to Saitapharnes, a Scythian king. From the start the authenticity of the tiara was called into question by a number of outside experts, but the Louvre insisted that is was a legitimate ancient artifact.

Then …. a goldsmith called Israel Rouchomovsky enters the picture….

Rouchomovsky had heard about the controversy surrounding the tiara and his suspicions were aroused — for he been commissioned to make such a tiara some ten years before. The buyers — dealers known as the Hochman brothers — had told him the tiara was to be a gift to an archaeologist friend. They provided the goldsmith with inscriptions from a recent archaeological dig, to be used as detailing on the tiara.

Rouchomovsky traveled to Paris to find out if the tiara is in fact his creation — and discovered that this was indeed the case. Initially, officials at the  Louvre refused to believe him — but could deny it no more when he reproduced a section of the tiara.

The Louvre came in for a bit of ribbing in the press but got off with their (embarrassing and expensive) mistake fairly lightly, desperately playing the whole thing down. Rouchomovsky went on to be a famed goldsmith (no doubt helped by the publicity generated by the debacle over the tiara, and the Hockman bothers  — I’ve no idea what happened to them…

But…  if they did it once — and got away with it for years, then it is very unlikely that this was the only little con job they pulled off. Just think of that next time you are gazing in wonder at some treasure from ancient times — could the Hockman brothers have had their sticky hands in its creation?

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