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Three masterpieces by Israel Rukhomovsky at the Fabergé Museum

Among the items in the Fabergé Museum collection, there are jewelry pieces that survived the period of historical turmoil, and once belonged to royal family members, famous statesmen, and public figures. Among the jewelry masterpieces of the 19th century that reflect the epoch of Carl Fabergé, we would like to mention three rare and little-known pieces by Israel Rukhomovsky (1860-1936). 

A public opinion survey of contemporary experts in the field of art and jewelry shows that the name of this genius goldsmith and talented metal engraver who lived at the turn of the century is rarely found in art history books. Rukhomovsky's contemporaries, including the great Carl Fabergé, highly appreciated his work calling him "the greatest goldsmith of all time."

The works by the native of the town of Mozyr in Minsk province (Russian Empire) are in the Louvre, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, in private collections, and in the Fabergé Museum.

Israel Rukhomovsky was born in 1860 to an orthodox Jewish family. His parent's dream was to make their son a rabbi, and they sent him to a religious school. But already as a child, Israel showed talent and skill for art. He self-studied and mastered engraving and jewelry making; he was always making something and covered all available household items with engraving.

In the end of the 1870s Rukhomovsky was admitted as an apprentice to one of the best jewelry workshops in Kiev. Soon he realized that there he could learn nothing new, and proceeded directly to make brilliant works ordered by the refined public of Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. Well aware of Rukhomovsky's great talent, the successful jeweler Joseph Marshak stamped the works by the talented young master, who had no name at the time, with his own. Therefore, it is difficult to reconstruct in detail Rukhomovsky's early creative period, as we do not know how many great works by him bear the names of other more successful and entrepreneurial jewelers.

In 1892 Rukhomovsky moved to Odessa. Perhaps, during this period his talent reached its supreme point. The masterpiece, "Coffin with a skeleton", and the composition of "Achilles and Minerva," a famous tiara of the Scythian king Saytafern, were all created during these years.


It was the royal tiara commissioned by the crooked merchant brothers Hochman, who specialized in selling fake antique treasures, which brought Rukhomovsky international fame and glory. The master who didn't suspect anything, made a tiara for the famous Kharkov professor's anniversary. The tiara had the shape of a domed formal helmet consisting of several ornamental bands depicting the story of the Greek legend about the city of Troy, which is described in the "Iliad" of Homer.

The basis of the upper part of the piece represents a Greek openwork ornament, which is crowned by a snake with its head twisted into a spiral. The middle frieze of the tiara is adorned with the image of the eight-tower fortress wall of the ancient Greek city of Olvia (Albia).

The ancient Greek text on the wall surface contains the information of the person who it was given to. According to legend, the ancient Greeks from the city of Olvia presented the tiara to the Scythian tyrant Saytafarn in the III century BC, who besieged the city and demanded a significant ransom from the inhabitants for the promise of non-aggression. The lower ornamental band depicts scenes from the daily life of the Scythians - nomads and breeders, who inhabited the North Black Sea coast. The viewer observes scenes of sacrifice of horses strangled with ropes around their necks, hunting in the woods of various animals (lions, deer, hares, and mythical griffins), teaching children archery, hunting with dogs, farming, and the variety of flora and fauna of those places. The depicted 27 figures of the Scythians evidently give information about the period's costume history.

For more accurate pictorial "truthfulness" the Hochman crooks supplied Rukhomovsky with a pile of books about archeology, which the master carefully studied. For his seven-month jewelry work Hochman brothers paid 2,000 rubles, a lot of money for Rukhomovsky and nothing compared to what followed.

The tiara scandal began on March 13, 1896, when it was shown to the director of the Louvre, who in the presence of experts in ancient art examined the masterpiece and concluded it was an original.

According to the legend invented by the crooked brothers, the tiara was found during excavations at a burial mound in the Crimea. If the museum purchased the piece, it would be a pearl of its ancient art exhibition. The experts were celebrating without knowing that soon they would become the main characters in one of the biggest art expertise failures in the history of world museums.

The swindlers asked 200,000 gold francs for the tiara (at that time a huge amount, which only the French parliament could release). The Hochman brothers pretended they were in a hurry, and did not agree to wait for parliament's approval, and forced the museum board to borrow money from the well-known French art patrons, Corroyer and Theodore Reynak.

The legendary acquisition produced a true sensation in the art world. On April 1, 1896 Professor and Head of antiquity department Aaron de Villefosse publicly announced that the Louvre acquired a "miracle of Greek jewelry". According to the experts, the discovered treasure was in "excellent state", adorned with exquisite décor and "rich artistic motives". The tiara, named as "art at its most delicate and pure," took its honorable place in the permanent collection and was admired by experts, academics, and numerous visitors to the largest museum in Western Europe. The acquisition of the tiara caused a great sensation in the art world. Fine chasing, and the exquisite work on gold were perfect, but the discrepancy in the shape of letters, depicted stories and characters raised certain doubts among the experts about the authenticity of the work.

St. Petersburg professor A. N. Veselovsky already in May 1896 had said that the tiara was a fake. Research on the depicted characters revealed that they belonged to different periods and nations. The German archeologist and scholar, Adolf Furtwängler, shared the opinion of the Russian professor. The controversy on the tiara's authenticity lasted for seven years until in 1903 when attribution was made to Rukhomovsky. The French government appointed a special commission to investigate the incident after having secured the removal of the tiara from the permanent collection.

An about-to-happen sensation fueled the interest of many Paris editions, and Rukhomovsky's in Odessa was bombarded with letters and telegrams offering cooperation in exchange for exclusive information. On April 5, 1903 the jeweler received an invitation from the Consul of France to visit Paris in order to resolve the issue of authorship. The results of the first meeting with the governmental commission showed that Rukhomovsky did not have profound knowledge of ancient history. During further investigation, chairman of the commission Clermont-Gammo (member of the Academy of Sciences, and professor) decided to test the master's jewelry-making skills and his accurate knowledge of the images in order to compare the results of the test with the scandalous original. Rukhomovsky was given a golden leaf and the tools necessary to recreate a section of the tiara from memory. The commission members were astonished when a few hours later Israel demonstrated to the experts a figured composition of the fragment on the frieze of the tiara, which looked exactly like the tiara.  There was no doubt: Rukhomovsky was the creator.

The highly appraised piece of refined jewelry (now reclassified as a work of the end of the 19th century) was transferred from the Louvre to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. Recognition of his work made Rukhomovsky famous. Every newspaper wrote about him, and prominent academics and jewelers took a great deal of interest in his work. The master moved to Paris, where he worked until his death (1936).

There are controversial opinions on Rukhomovsky's further success. Some say that he died in oblivion, while others talk about a successful career with orders from Rothschild himself. History does not give a clear answer about the further development of his artistic career. In any case, he raised and educated his children, who assisted him in the jewelry business.

The number of all Rukhomovsky's creations, including jettons, does not exceed 160 items. In the history of world art, they were single sparks that shone bright and overshadowed many recognized master-jewelers. The tiara is significant evidence.

In 2009 the Fabergé Museum acquired a rare piece - a miniature copy of the King Saytafarn's tiara made by Rukhomovsky himself. It is the most refined and delicate work that Rukhomovsky created for the Salon of French artists in Paris (1903 - 1904) in order to prove his high level of skill when he was officially recognized as the author of the tiara. The item strikes with its exceptional level of accuracy to the original and the laborious attention to details.

On the central frieze, which is 13mm high and 65mm long in the circumference of its lower base, the master managed to portray 39 figures of humans and animals, emphasizing the individuality of each. Overall, there are 64 subjects of ancient times on the frieze. The lower frieze with the surface area twice smaller impresses with its capacious composition (26 figures of humans and animals, 41 plants, 6 household items). Openwork pattern of the frieze includes 375 decorative elements. Being in complete compliance with the scale of the legendary original, this work was praised by the experts at the Salon and was awarded the Golden Medal. Tremendous interest in the art piece attracted many visitors to the Salon hoping to see this "golden miracle."

In 1924, this copy of the tiara was exhibited at the Burlington Club of Fine Arts as an outstanding work of Russian art.

Another Rukhomovsky creation in the Fabergé Museum collection is a pendant in the form of Saytafarn's tiara, made of gold with "smoothing" of the surface of low height reliefs towards the contour of the initial engraving. Scenes of the daily life of the Scythians, which prototypes were taken from designs of the original tiara, are depicted on the pendant. The most striking is the size of the piece: 15mm high. On a very limited surface, the author miraculously assembles 20 characters, 10 floral ornaments and a fascia. On the inner side of the pendant there is an inscription: "In memory of my best friend Joseph Hecht. Author of the Saytafarnes tiara, Rukhomovsky. Odessa. 1903".

The third rare and most valuable object in the museum's collection is a necklace with scenes from ancient life. Here, stylistic similarities with the Saytafarn tiara are evident. On the outer side of the necklace as on the tiara, there are three friezes, the upper of which is adorned with a decorative floral ornament. On the middle frieze, along its entire length, there are scenes of the Scythian life. They are executed in the chase technique and are similar in their motives to the ones on the tiara. Two sphinxes are placed on the central part of the necklace with an inscription engraved in Greek beneath them. Along the symmetry axis of the lower frieze there are two griffins, from which the ornament in the shape of vines spreads sidewise. The ornament is executed in the technique of "slotted voluminous" chiseling with subsequent folding of the trimmed edges.

When sketching these jewelry pieces, Rukhomovsky used ornamental style with continuously creeping springs, intricately twining stems, flowers and leaves.

Today, as much as 100 years ago when interest in antiquities was particularly high, when looking at these skillfully executed replicas of ancient art, the viewer feels the very music of past centuries.

During his last years of life, we know that Rukhomovsky chose a burial place and a monument of black granite together with his wife. His will stated that the tombstone should be decorated with bronze bas-reliefs and bear an inscription: "In life and after death they were not parted".

From Rukhomovsky's will: "Yet, in my dreams I wished that a few lines were carved on the monument:

I was a happy man in my life.

Peace and quiet, bread and clothes were always in my house.

I loved my "kingdom," my wife and my home.

Also, after my death my spirit will live on

In the deeds of mine..."

As for the fate of his work, we know that most of Rukhomovsky's creations were in hands of the private collector and art patron, Reitling. Reitling believed they were real antique treasures. His supplier was one of the above-mentioned Hochman brothers. But Reitling met Rukhomovsky after the fraud story about the tiara had been revealed and published. By then, Reitling had already been in possession of the necklaces with mythological scenes (which is now in the Fabergé Museum collection), a statuette "Achilles and Minerva", a golden vase with two Scythians drinking wine, and many others.

In 1951 a solo exhibition of works by Rukhomovsky was organized in Tel Aviv. The exhibition had about 80 pieces from Reitling's collection. Few attempts were made to systematize the Rukhomovsky heritage, but Western academics and art historians have come to believe that most of his creations were lost, melted down during the war and cannot be reconstructed.

In particular, the necklace was listed among lost works, which despite everything, is on display at the Fabergé Museum.

Thus, the Fabergé Museum makes a significant contribution to the revival of Israel Rukhomovsky's name, and it never ceases to impress admirers of jewelry with previously unseen masterpieces.

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