Jerome M. Eisenberg, a leading New York antiques dealer who posed as a guard against the illicit importation and sale of antique art in the murky world of tomb robbers and smugglers, died in Manhattan on July 6, his 92nd birthday.
His son Alan said his death in a hospital was due to complications from pneumonia.
Mr. Eisenberg started an ancient coin mail order business with his father at the age of 12 and over the years sold an estimated 40,000 ancient artifacts – he insisted he never knowingly sold anything of suspicious provenance – and appraised countless other prospective buyers and insurance adjusters . He has testified as an expert witness in numerous court cases on the value and provenance of antiques.
As founding editor of Minerva, an archaeological journal, he questioned the authenticity of several prominent relics. One of these was the Phaistos Disc, a 15 cm diameter clay artifact adorned with mysterious symbols discovered in Crete in 1908; another was the serpent goddess of Knossos, found around the same time and exhibited as the disc in Crete in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Mr. Eisenberg, an expert in forgery, wrote in 2008 that the Phaistos Disc and its undeciphered symbols, which are not linked to any known script, were forged by Luigi Pernier, the archaeologist, who said he found it during an excavation in the Palace of Knossos discovered 100 years earlier. His analysis is still debated.
Often referred to in the press as the dean of New York’s antique dealers, in 1954, after his discharge from the army, Mr. Eisenberg founded the Royal-Athena Galleries in Manhattan, specializing in classical Greek, Roman and Egyptian art. In 1970 he founded Collector’s Cabinet, a natural history gallery featuring minerals, shells, fossils and butterflies. He later expanded Royal-Athena, opening offices in Beverly Hills, California and London.
He retired and joined Royal-Athena in 2020 when he was 90 years old.
Jerome Martin Eisenberg was born on July 6, 1930 in Philadelphia to Gertrude (Roberts) Eisenberg, a teacher, and Samuel Eisenberg, a printer. Raised in Revere, Massachusetts, he became fascinated with antiquity during a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
As a teenager, he returned to Philadelphia 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 archeology (he studied under Czech curator Jiri Frel, who was later fired from the J. Paul Getty Museum for tax evasion), Mr. Eisenberg specialized in Etruscan bronzes and Roman sculpture.
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 looted ancient artifacts, smuggled them to other countries and sold them on the black market or disguised their provenance.
He went so far as to give up the antiques business for a time and turn to natural history artifacts, his son said, because he no longer believed it was ethical. In 1981 he wrote A Collector’s Guide to Seashells of the World.
Returning to the business, Alan Eisenberg said what meant the most to him was “doing it ethically and convincing others to do it ethically.” In his antiquities catalogues, he describes himself as “a leader in promoting the ethical acquisition of antiquities by museums and collectors for several years”.
But while he was proud of his ethics, Mr. Eisenberg understood that the definition of ethical behavior could become blurred as different countries changed their standards and laws.
“I have tried,” he wrote, “to scrupulously observe all American regulations and international treaties governing objects of cultural significance. Unfortunately, I am both an idealist and a hypocrite, as I have no doubt unknowingly bought many objects legally from galleries and auction houses in England, Germany, France and Switzerland that were once illegally exported from their countries.”