The Jewish goldsmith Israel Rouchomowsky was a notorious forger. Around 1890, he began supplying the art world with coins and necklaces made to look old in his back-alley workshop in Odessa.
A gold helmet weighing more than 800 grams (1.75 pounds), which Rouchomowsky embellished with scenes from the Iliad and an inscription, is considered his best work. According to the inscription, the tiara was a gift from the Greek Black Sea colony of Olbia to the Scythian king Saitaphernes. The Louvre was so enthusiastic about the tiara that it bought it for a record price of 200,000 francs.
The bluff was discovered in 1903, triggering a wave of schadenfreude worldwide. Scholars in Berlin were particularly vocal in their derision of the Louvre -- which didn't protect them from falling prey to forgers soon afterwards, and from buying a fake wax bust of Leonardo da Vinci.
Hundreds of forged artifacts and works of art lie hidden in the cabinets of museums in Europe and the United States. The list of fakes is long, and in most cases curators have managed to conceal their embarrassing mistakes.
40 Million Dollars Lost
The most magnificent piece in the show, an allegedly 800-year-old bronze horse, had never been exhibited publicly before. According to the catalog, an archeologist serving as an expert witness in a legal dispute uncovered the forgery.
But the real story is different. A dramatic scene unfolded on the art market in 1980. "I received a call back then and drove to Lausanne," says Christoph Leon, an antique dealer in Basel, Switzerland. He met four Italians at an agreed meeting point who showed him the large bronze animal.
His impression, he says today, was that it was "a one-of-a-kind piece. The patina seemed real."
But stylistic features on the legs and mane of the horse made the art afficionado suspicious. In return for a deposit of 24,000 Swiss francs, Leon was permitted to take along a hoof that had broken off from the statue. He had the fragment analyzed in a Basel metal factory. "It was standard German bronze," says Leon.
A potential buyer from the Getty Museum in Malibu, California, who had already traveled to Switzerland with a lot of money in his wallet, was warned at the last minute that it was a forgery. Nevertheless, the gang, which had ties to the Mafia, was soon able to cash a check for $40 million it had received for the bronze horse at a bank in New York.
And although the four Italians were caught and sentenced to long prison terms, the money was never recovered. The horse's creator also disappeared.
"That's the way it usually goes," Leon says. "The number of forgeries on the art market is constantly increasing, while their nimble-fingered creators almost always remain in the dark."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan