Both Elie Borowski and Israel Museum curator Tallay Ornan think the beautiful cherub that graces our cover came from Arslan Tash, about 20 miles east of the upper Euphrates River in present-day Syria. In 1928, a French expedition discovered an ivory hoard at the site of an eighth-century B.C.E. palace that once belonged to the Assyrian governor.
We naturally wondered how Borowski and Ornan made the connection. Ornan relied on similarities in style to known pieces from Arslan Tash. So did Borowski, but Borowski knows more. Since World War II, Borowski has been one of the most renowned dealers in Near Eastern antiquities, first in Switzerland, then in Toronto, and now in Jerusalem.a He was on the scene after the war when newly poor European aristocrats took their collections from bank vaults where they had been stored. He has been all over the Middle East, too, where peasants sold his name and whereabouts to their fellows who had discovered antiquities. The following is what Borowski told us about his experience of the Arslan Tash ivories:
In 1938 and 1939, while studying at the École de Louvre, in Paris, Borowski noticed that some of the ivories in the Louvre’s collection from Arslan Tash appeared incomplete. They looked as if second matching pieces should have been there but weren’t. Borowski suspected that some of the ivories had originally been carved in pairs; somewhere along the line, the corresponding pieces had been lost. Borowski’s puzzlement over the missing ivories led to a lifelong obsession: If the Arslan Tash artist made many of the ivories in pairs, where were the missing halves?
Borowski’s hunch proved correct. Although the Arslan Tash ivory hoard was published in 1931, much of it had already disappeared.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Borowski enlisted in the French army; surrounded by German troops in the southeast of France, his fighting unit was interned in Switzerland a week after the fall of Paris. After the war, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Geneva and began making inquiries about the Arslan Tash hoard. As late as 1948, however, he could discover no traces of the missing Arslan Tash ivories in Turkey or Iraq, so he asked friends to make discreet inquiries in the Middle East antiquities markets. The next year Borowski’s detective work was put on hold, as he accepted a Lady Davis Fellowship at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
Three years later, he again picked up the scent. In Paris, a dealer specializing in Persian art promised to introduce Borowski to the owner of the missing ivories, which, Borowski was told, had lain in European bank vaults since the 1920s. Later, Borowski was shown photographs of the badly damaged, dirt-encrusted ivories. In 1954, he purchased the whole group of nearly 80 ivories, removed them from banks in London and Paris, and brought them to Basel, Switzerland.
As far as Borowski knew, the Arslan Tash hoard was now completely accounted for: The pieces excavated in 1928 had been divided between the Louvre and the Aleppo Museum in Syria; the others—which were either dug up before 1928 or disappeared during or shortly after the excavations began—were in Borowski’s possession. All that remained were fragments—parts of legs, or tree limbs—that had broken off when the ivories were removed from the earth.
When Borowski brought the eminent restorer Vincent Dinacopoulos to Basel for a few months to work on the ivories, Dinacopoulos agreed that only fragments of the ivories remained lost. A year later, Dinacopoulos returned with missing fragments, completing many of the ivories. “How is this miracle possible?” Borowski asked. Dinacopoulos explained that while cleaning the ivories he had recalled that, in his youth, he had known a physician in the Levant who had possessed ivory fragments found in the desert. Dinacopoulos then sought out the physician and acquired from him the lost fragments.
In 1965, Borowski took his collection—minus 17 pieces he had sold eight years earlier to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—to Jerusalem for display at the inauguration of the new Israel Museum.
In 1970, he sold 36 ivories and numerous fragments to the German Ministry of Culture, to be displayed at the National Museum in Karlsruhe. The ministry had sought to acquire the whole collection, but Borowski refused, setting aside 21 choice pieces for a future museum to be built in Jerusalem and devoted to the Bible. This group of 21 ivories, now in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, constitutes the nucleus of the museum’s collection.