Jerome M. Eisenberg, Expert on Antiquities Both Real and Fake, Dies at 92
Jerome M. Eisenberg, a leading New York antiquities dealer who in the murky world of tomb raiders and smugglers held himself up as a guardian against the illegal importation and sale of ancient art, died on July 6, his 92nd birthday, in Manhattan.
His son, Alan, said his death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of pneumonia.
Mr. Eisenberg started a mail order ancient coin business with his father when he was 12, and over the years he sold an estimated 40,000 ancient artifacts — he insisted that he never knowingly sold any that were of suspect provenance — and appraised countless others for prospective buyers and insurance adjusters. He testified as an expert witness in numerous lawsuits on the value and source of antiquities.
As the founding editor of Minerva, an archaeological journal, he challenged the authenticity of several prominent relics. One was the Disc of Phaistos, a clay artifact, six inches in diameter and festooned with mysterious symbols, that was discovered in 1908 in Crete; another was the Snake Goddess of Knossos, which was found about the same time and, like the Disc, put on display in Crete at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Mr. Eisenberg, an expert on forgeries, wrote in 2008 that the Disc of Phaistos and its undeciphered symbols, not connected to any known script, were faked by Luigi Pernier, the archaeologist who said he had discovered it in a dig at the Knossos Palace 100 years earlier. His analysis is still being debated.
Often described in the press as the dean of New York antiquities dealers, Mr. Eisenberg founded the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan, specializing in Classical Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, in 1954, after being discharged from the Army. In 1970, he established Collector’s Cabinet, a natural history gallery featuring minerals, seashells, fossils and butterflies. He later expanded Royal-Athena, opening branches in Beverly Hills, Calif., and London.
He retired and closed Royal-Athena in 2020, when he was 90.
Jerome Martin Eisenberg was born on July 6, 1930, in Philadelphia to Gertrude (Roberts) Eisenberg, a teacher, and Samuel Eisenberg, a printer. He was raised in Revere, Mass., and became smitten with the ancient world during a childhood visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He returned to Philadelphia as a teenager to attend the prestigious Central High School and lived in the city with an uncle. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Boston University and later took graduate courses in art history at Columbia University and Pennsylvania State University.
In 1953, he married Betty Weiner; she died in 2018. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Chelsea Roberts, and two grandchildren.
A student of archaeology (he studied under the Czech curator Jiri Frel, who was later fired from the J. Paul Getty Museum in a tax evasion scheme), Mr. Eisenberg specialized in Etruscan bronzes and Roman sculptures.
He was the editor of Minerva from its founding in 1990 until 2009. In 1993, he was a founding member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity for his contribution to the promotion of Italian culture.
Mr. Eisenberg denounced the unlicensed excavators who plundered ancient artifacts, smuggled them to other countries and sold them on the black market or camouflaged their provenance.
He went so far as to leave the antiquities business for a time and turn to natural history artifacts, his son said, because he no longer believed it could be conducted ethically. He wrote “A Collector’s Guide to Seashells of the World” in 1981.
When he returned to the business, Alan Eisenberg said, what meant most to him was “to do it ethically and persuade others to do it ethically.” He described himself in his antiquities catalogs as “a leader for several years in the promotion of the ethical acquisition of antiquities by museums and collectors.”
But while he prided himself on his ethics, Mr. Eisenberg understood that as different countries altered their standards and laws, the definition of ethical behavior could become blurry.
“I have tried,” he wrote, “to comply zealously with all of the American regulations and international treaties governing objects of cultural importance. I am unfortunately both an idealist and a hypocrite, since I have no doubt unknowingly bought many objects legally from galleries and auction houses in England, Germany, France and Switzerland that were once exported illegally from their country.”