Friday, May 10, 2013

Not Your Father’s Judaica

In 1903, gold/silversmith Israel Rouchomovsky traveled to the Louvre in Paris from his home in Odessa. There, under the watchful eyes of institutional experts, he replicated a portion of a superbly tooled ancient Scythian tiara the museum had purchased in 1896. Only then would the museum even consider the possibility, as skeptics had charged, that the “antiquity” which had been drawing crowds (and criticism) for the last seven years, might actually be the work of a contemporary craftsman. The tiara's creator, of course, was Rouchomovsky, whose virtuosic skill as a goldsmith had been exploited, unbeknownst to him, for the purpose of defrauding the museum.

Truly, nothing short of a mini series could do this story justice, as it involves shady antiquity-dealing brothers, anti-semitism, and the celebrated Scythian gold discoveries in Crimea. Not to mention the reputations at stake at the highest levels of classics scholarship, archeologly and the Louvre itself.

Blowup wall graphic of the skeleton at the Sotheby’s exhibit. 

The Louvre’s embarrassment was Rouchomovsky’s good fortune. It just so happened that while enjoying his newfound fame, he was able to further dazzle his fans with a recently completed pet project. Starting in 1892, Rouchomovsky began work on a fully articulated 3” gold skeleton (the secret is in the teeny-tiny ball bearings) and its very own elaborately decorated silver sarcophagus. This remarkable piece was displayed in the Paris 1903 Salon where it earned the artist a gold medal. Lucrative private commissions followed. Rouchomovsky, who as a  Jew in Russia was denied a merchant certificate, brought his family to Paris where he lived for the rest of his life.

Read fuller accounts of the story here, here, and a contemporary account of the Scythian tiara itself in the July 25, 1896 issue of  Scientific American. The piece makes sure to mention that the headpiece "is as brilliant as if it had just come from the workshop."

Last week’s sale of the Steinhardt Judaica Collection broke all sorts of records, and with good reason. I was fortunate enough to stop by on the last day of viewing before the sale, and though the exhibit is over, you may still see the images and read about them online.

If your idea of Judaica is silver filigree and seder plates, the collection provides plenty of reinforcement, but only as a background some extraordinary standouts.

Here are just a few …

Painted plaque inset with manual clocks for the times of prayer services
on weekdays and Sabbath. Romania, 1878 

Abraham Pavian, the artist, was actually the shamas, or caretaker of the synagogue. Among his responsibilities was probably the opening and closing of the building for services. Let's hear it for thinking beyond the grooved, black felt notice board with its changeable white letters and numbers!

Torah shield, Austria, late 19th century

This late 19th century, Austrian Torah shield is set with paste “gemstones” engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Matzah tool, 18th/early 19th century

Micrographic Omer Calendar, Germany, c.1830

Menorah of chairs, Poland, early 20th century

All photos are from Sotheby's catalog.

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