On April 1, 1896, the Louvre Museum proudly announced the acquisition of a magnificent piece, a recently discovered gold tiara on the Crimean Peninsula in perfect condition, dating back to the late 3rd century B.C.

On the advice of Albert Kaempfen, director of the National Museums of France, the Louvre had paid a considerable amount of 200,000 gold francs for it.

The piece bore a Greek inscription that read: the council and citizens of Olbia honor the great and invincible king Saitapharnes. The tiara, made of solid gold sheet, was a confirmation of the legend of this Scythian king, who, by the late 3rd century B.C., would have subdued some Greek colonies in the Black Sea, including Olbia, and would only have agreed to leave the city after receiving precious gifts, among which was the tiara.

It all began a year earlier, in 1895, when a Viennese newspaper reported on various discoveries made by Crimean peasants. In February of the following year, some Russian antiquities from those findings, including the tiara, were exhibited in the Austrian capital.

It stood about 18 centimeters tall and weighed approximately half a kilogram, made of solid gold in the shape of a pointed dome and adorned with scenes from the everyday life of the Scythians and the Iliad, including the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles for Briseis. Both the British Museum and the Museum of the Imperial Court of Vienna declined to purchase it, but the Louvre took the bait.

For several years, the tiara was exhibited at the Louvre, which defended its authenticity despite the reservations expressed by some experts almost from the beginning. The strangest thing of all was the good state of preservation for such an ancient object. In fact, the prestigious German archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler, who had the opportunity to examine it, was perplexed by its lack of patina, as well as the mixture of styles in the engravings.

It took seven years for the whole matter to be clarified. A goldsmith from the Ukrainian city of Odessa (located on the shores of the Black Sea, near the supposed discovery site) had learned that the Louvre was exhibiting the piece and went to Paris in 1903 to clear up the confusion.

His name was Israel Rouchomovsky, and the story he told the museum officials left them astonished. According to Rouchomovsky, two years before the Louvre acquired the tiara, two individuals had come to his workshop in Odessa.

They asked him to make it, with precise instructions on its design and examples of pieces found in recent excavations in ancient Greece, claiming it was a gift for an archaeologist friend. They paid him 7,000 francs for it.

As the Louvre refused to believe him, he had to prove that he could exactly reproduce a part of the tiara, which he did. The museum officials, embarrassed, had to remove the tiara from public display, and the press at the time mocked and ridiculed the situation.

Rouchomovsky, on the other hand, was congratulated for his skill. He settled in Paris, where he lived until his death in 1934, and even received a gold medal at the Salon des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

The tiara followed a certainly surprising path. Initially considered a work of art, and later an obvious forgery, it became a work of art again when, in 1997, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem borrowed it for an exhibition on the work of Israel Rouchomovsky.

Before that, in 1954, it had been exhibited again, this time in the Forgery Salon of the Louvre. But it doesn’t end there. In 2009, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta borrowed it for an exhibition on the Louvre Museum.

Today, the British Museum owns and displays a copy of the tiara, as does the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 15, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La historia de la Tiara de Saitafernes, una pieza escita falsa que se convirtió en una obra de arte


Archaeological Institute of America | Bulletin n° 33 de la Société française d’Archéologie classique | British Museum | Wikipedia

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