Israel Rouchomovsky (1860-1934) came from a poor family in Mozyr, Belarus. Almost three-quarters of the population of the town was Jewish, and according to some accounts his parents wanted him to become a rabbi.[i] His memoirs describe how he was drawn to silversmithing, and the efforts required to get a work permit and move with his family to Odessa, where he arrived in 1892. They also recount how he helped a colleague make a first gold skeleton, now held in the Museum of Historical Treasures of the Ukraine.[ii] He had thought this first skeleton would require a month of work, when in fact it took four, and he thought he could do even better; only certain sections of the first skeleton could move. The inscription on the leg shows that the fully articulated skeleton – supposedly with 167 different parts[iii] – required five years of work.
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."[iv]
It would be another five years to make the case, 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]." Of the whole project, almost a decade of careful craftsmanship, the artist wrote, "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."
the tiara of saitapharnes
In the meantime, another work of Rouchomovsky’s would bring him European-wide fame, and the opportunity to show his skeleton to a much wider audience. On April 1, 1896 – April Fool’s Day – the Louvre Museum had proudly announced the acquisition of a spectacular Scythian gold cap, decorated with scenes from the Iliad. At a time of great competition among museums, Western institutions were jealous of the fabulous Scythian gold entering the Hermitage, and the Louvre paid 200,000 gold francs for what it displayed as an ancient masterpiece.
Almost immediately, though, there were questions raised about the piece. Scholars and archeologists with more exposure to Scythian material (and its recent replicas) were generally more damning of the piece, while the French experts fought to maintain belief in the treasure. At one point Rouchomovsky’s name came up, and he was visited in Odessa by a M. de Stern, who claimed that the goldsmith was making “antiquities.” Rouchomovsky refuted this in a letter to the Journal des Debats, October 3, 1897, but mentioned, “I showed him a skeleton in miniature, in gold, which I have executed for the approaching International Exhibition in Paris.”[v]
Only after a French forger tried to claim credit for the Tiara in March, 1903, did Rouchomovsky acknowledge that he had been the maker. Still the French experts were skeptical, and the goldsmith was sent funds to travel to Paris, arriving April 5. He had to replicate sections of the Tiara under the gaze of the French before his authorship was accepted, and the Louvre admitted its 200,000 franc mistake. The Hochman brothers, the shady antiquities dealers who commissioned the work from Rouchomovsky in 1894, had paid him just 1,800 roubles, or a little under 1,500 francs.
The controversy had brought Rouchomovsky fame, and his trip to Paris allowed him to show the skeleton and its case at the 1903 Salon, where he won a gold medal. Important French patrons such as Baron James de Rothschild placed commissions with him, and he showed again in the Salon of 1906.[vi] This contrasted with Odessa, where – while he became a master – Rouchomovsky was not able to get a certificate as a merchant.[vii] The violent pogrom of 1905, in which a Jewish newspaper reported 800 killed, can only have emphasized this difference; his memoirs recall a tiny Torah ark of mother-of-pearl and precious stones, “ordered by a very wealthy Jew…but unfortunately lost during the riots in Russia.”[viii]
In 1910, he moved with his family to Paris. He and his sons corresponded with Boris Schatz, who founded the Bezalel School in Jerusalem, and he published his memoirs in Yiddish in 1927. He died in 1934, but a few years earlier had created a tombstone for himself and his wife. Miniature, like his skeleton and its sarcophagus, it was engraved, “A happy man was I in life / Peace and quiet, bread and clothing were always found in my home / I loved my work, my wife, and my home / Even after my death my spirit will prevail / As the work of my hands that I have left behind.”[ix]
[i] Ivanov p. 18
[ii] Christie’s 1998 note
[iii] Ivanov p. 32
[iv] Translations from Rouchomovsky’s memoirs cited from 1998 note
[v] Quoted by Vicomte C. Burlington Gazette
[vi] Benjamin, p. 102
[vii] Ivanov, p. 27
[viii] Benjamin, note 14, p. 113
[ix] Ibid, p. 102
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