Tag Archives: ancient coins

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Arnold Peter Weiss on the Dangers of the Ancient Coin Trade

UPDATED BELOW.

Caveat Emptor, the court-mandated essay written by Rhode Island coin dealer Arnold Peter Weiss, is a long-overdue call for collectors of ancient coins to begin following the law.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Weiss is the prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon and ancient coin dealer who was arrested on January 3rd at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of an ancient coin recently looted from Sicily. He has served as a board member of the American Numismatic Society, the founder of a Swiss coin dealership and a prominent donor to American universities. According to the criminal complaint, he was caught on tape telling a police informant that he knew the coins had been recently looted in Sicily: “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago.” In July, Weiss pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted criminal possession of ancient coins. It turned out the “looted” coins were clever forgeries.

As part of Weiss’ plea bargain, he agreed to write an essay that “will raise needed awareness about unprovenanced coins and will promote responsible collecting among numismatists.” That article has now been published in the American Numismatic Society Magazine. (See the complete article below.)

The situation recalls a scolded student being forced to write a half-hearted apology on the chalkboard. But Weiss’ essay is worth reading for what it reveals about the trade in ancient coins.

Weiss opens with a candid admission: “I was very active in the ancient coin marketplace and paid little attention to foreign cultural property laws, as if they really did not matter within the U.S. Well, they do.” Weiss is not alone — coin collectors have often displayed a surprising ignorance of the laws that govern their hobby, or open disdain for them. Weiss’ arrest has become an object lesson for the field, and Weiss uses his essay to underscore the point:

“Until recently, the prevailing view among coin dealers and collectors in the US has been that such foreign laws do not affect the purchase of objects in the US….Whether one agrees or not with the various laws of Italy, Turkey or China, for example, this must take a secondary role in this debate. The US honors the laws of cultural patrimony of foreign nations where those laws are in place and enforced by the source country.”

He is referring, of course, to the McClain Doctrine and the National Stolen Property Act, which makes it a crime to purchase or possess looted antiquities taken from a country with patrimony laws that are reasonably enforced. (See here and here for more on the law.)

Weiss goes on to expose the coin market’s dirty secret: the hoards of ancient coins that regularly appear on the market today are almost certainly the product of looting.

“Dealers and collectors with any reasonable experience can tell that such a simultaneous offering just does not happen naturally, except after a recent hoard of coins has been found and dispersed into the marketplace….The purchase of coins that derive from hoards is likely to be illegal and detrimental to scholarship, and these might be reasons enough for the buyer to be aware.”

This admission — both obvious and long-denied by collectors — is reminiscent of another remarkable whistle-blower moment: Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True’s June 2000 speech before the Assoc. of Art Museum Directors, in which she told museum officials that it was time to accept the fact that most, if not all, undocumented antiquities were the product of looting.

But Weiss notes another reason for careful collecting: The prevalence of sophisticated forgeries on the market, like the ones he was trying to sell in New York City. Weiss notes such forgeries share something in common with looted coins: the lack of a clear collecting history.

They come with fantastic stories…From personal experience I can say that these forgeries are stunning and are being introduced into the coin market with fake provenance information…Forgery is often the domain of highly-organized criminal enterprises, most often based in the source countries themselves, but now occurring worldwide due to the spread of high-tech machinery.

Weiss concludes his essay with a call for “a different kind of collecting requiring a proactive rather than passive approach to provenance” and outlines six steps every collector of ancient coins should take:

1. Research the history. No excuse not to — the ANS has a complete set of auction catalogs dating back to the 18th Century.

2. Ask questions. Weiss notes coyly that “sometimes dealers or curators know more about the coins than might be published.”

3. Beware the Old Swiss Collection and other bogus provenance. As Weiss notes, “the words ‘collection of’ for a coin that has never been previously published or documented ought to be a sign that further research is required.”

4. Know the Law. Weiss notes the “complex” and “contradictory rules” on what is legal to acquire, but offers 1970 as an accepted cut-off date for when an object should have left its country of origin.

5. Trust your Gut. If a coin feels “wrong,” don’t buy it.

6. Avoid recent hoards. Look out for coins with gleaming smooth surfaces, come in multiples and offered by the dozen.

This is a decent checklist for all antiquities collectors to obey. But what is perhaps most remarkable is that in 2012 this needs to be explained to coin collectors. One is left to wonder whether the problem with the market today is really ignorance of the laws or merely a stubborn unwillingness to obey them.

Will Weiss’ essay — published by the official organ of the US coin collecting community — mark a turning point? It should. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, the executive director of the American Numismatic Society, took the opportunity to announce the ANS’s new collecting policy, which is more strict that the steps outlined by Weiss.

In a strongly worded editorial, she too calls for a new era of collecting — “a path of responsibility, careful research, and best practices to enhance numismatics and the responsible collecting and caring for of ancient coinage and history.”

“Collecting ancient coins will be different,” she assures her members, “but will not die out.”

Ultimately, the success of Weiss’ statement and the ANS’s new policy at changing the culture of American coin collectors will be measured by the time. If criminal cases continue to reveal collectors buying unprovenanced coins like those Weiss warned against, we’ll know that ignorance was never the problem with the market in ancient coins.

UPDATES:

Archaeologist Paul Barford has written about Weiss’ essay here, noting several things Weiss has omitted: details on his own case; the role of dealers like himself; the importance of precise find spots, not just hoards; the role of ethics that go above and beyond the letter of the law.

Coin collector lobbyist Peter Tompa has (finally) written about the Weiss case. He says he “doesn’t have much to quibble with” about Weiss’ advice, but notes that the statement was made under duress and questions whether the “archaeological lobby” might have edited it.

Ute Wartenberg has responded to Tompa on his blog, saying, “ANS staff and I edited the piece after it was submitted, but the people acknowledged in my editorial preface such as John Russell, who is a professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, kindly provided illustrations at my request. Their names can be found with the relevant photos. None of those acknowledged read Weiss’ article or provided editorial comment.” So much for that theory.

Ever the provocateur, Arthur Houghton (who describes himself as a friend of Peter Weiss) picks up Tompa’s theory in the same thread and runs with it: “Who else may have intervened in the article’s wording and who may have cleared it for publication…And did those or any other person in authority then coerce, by subtle suggestion or by direct demand, the Society to publish? Could we have a little transparency please?” Houghton goes on to tell Col. Bogdanos to “man up” and “come out of the shadows.” “…Let us know exactly what your role was in creating, framing and clearing Peter Weiss’ article? But could we have a little confession from you at an early moment?”

Tompa has the last word, saying he has confirmed with Wartenberg that “the articl [sic] had to be approved by Col. Bogdanos as part of the plea deal, but any changes to the article based on comments from the NY District Attorney’s office or any sources the DA consulted, took place BEFORE the ANS accepted the article for publication and it was edited by ANS staff.”

Our final thought: No one would dispute that Weiss’ essay was “coerced” — it was a condition of the plea deal after he was caught breaking the rules he claims to promote. We are far more interested in Tompa’s and Houghton’s thoughts on the worthiness of those rules and the new ANS policy. Helpfully, Tompa has offered this link. For those wondering about Houghton’s views (and actions) on the law, we offer this.

A few additional questions we’d welcome thoughts on: Are ancient coin collectors often ignorant of the law, as Wartenberg suggests? Or have they flouted it knowingly, perhaps because they think it’s unfair? Have the ANS and other leaders in this area done enough to educate their members about the law and enforce a code of ethics in the field? And if Weiss hadn’t written as a condition of a plea deal but instead was whispering to a trusted friend, what would he have said?

Arnold-Peter Weiss and the Rhode Island School of Design

*UPDATED: See below for additional information from RISD and Harvard Art Museums.

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, the Rhode Island coin collector arrested Jan. 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin that authorities say he knew was recently looted from Sicily, has deep ties to the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a former trustee of the university and currently serves as former* chairman of the board of the university’s museum, to which he has donated several objects.

According to the criminal complaint against Weiss, he told a confidential informant wearing a wire that he knew where the coin “was dug up two years ago.” Weiss is innocent until proven guilty, and his lawyer has not responded to two requests for comment. If the allegations hold up in court, its appears to be a fresh example of the alarming link between the black market in looted antiquities and (apparently) respectable collectors and museums that we detail in Chasing Aphrodite.

By participating in the illicit antiquities trade, museums and collectors betray  their professed educational mission and encourage the destruction of context that happens as objects are looted and laundered through the black market.

Weiss appears to understand the importance of context in ancient art. In September 2010, when RISD reinterpreted and reinstalled its gallery of ancient, medieval and early Renaissance art, Weiss and his wife, Dr. Yvonne Weiss, a pediatrician in Barrington, RI, were major sponsors of the renovation.

“As a collector of ancient coins,” Dr. Weiss said in a press release from RISD, “my hope for this gallery—and for the entire reinstallation of the Radeke Building—is to provide visitors of all ages with context for understanding these fascinating and beautiful objects.”

The museum describes its collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art as “one of the finest collections of any university museum in the country,” and contains about seven hundred ancient coins spanning more than 1500 years. Among the collection highlights on the museum’s website are several recent acquisitions. Collecting histories are not provided for most objects.

In 2010, Weiss donated a silver Greek tetradrachm, ca. 460 BCE from Naxos. The obverse is shown here. Details and the reverse, showing Silenos holding a kantharos, can be found on the museum’s website here.

A similar coin is listed here on the website of Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership that Weiss launched around 2007. The Nomos coin is said to be from the Randazzo (Sicily) Hoard of 1980 and is described as “one of the greatest and best known of all 5th century Greek coins.” It sold at auction recentlyfor  775,000 CHF, well over the 400,000 CHF estimate. Weiss’ partners at Nomos are Victor England and Eric McFadden of the Classical Numismatics Group and Alan Walker, who has a doctorate in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Note: The Syracuse Decadrachm previously listed here was not a donation by Dr. Weiss but an acquisition made by the museum in 1940, according to RISD director of marketing Donna Desrochers. 

Another Weiss donation to RISD is a Flemish oil painting by artist Hendrik van Steenwyck, ca. 1550-1603. Details can be found here.

We’ve contacted the museum’s curator of ancient art, Gina Borromeo, to request additional details about these objects and any others Weiss may have donated.

We’ve sent a similar request to the Harvard Art Museums, where Weiss’ bio says he is was on the collecting committee until this month. The collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, in particular, has an impressive collection of ancient coins.

We’ll post answers here when we get them.

*Harvard UPDATE: Jennifer Aubin, the Harvard Art Museums public relations manager, provided the following information: “Dr. Peter Weiss was a member of our Collections Committee, an advisory group, from 2006–2012. We have no objects in our collections donated by or purchased from Dr. Weiss.” The Harvard Art Museums did acquire two coins through Weiss’ firm Nomos AG in 2009, both of which appear to have a long provenance. The first, a Drachm of Argos dating to 370-350 BC, can be traced back to an 1886 auction. The second, a fragment of a dekadrachm of Athens dated to 470 BC – 460 BC,  is seen in a 1968 edition of Revue Numismatique. (No images are available.) In addition, a gold wreath was loaned for exhibition by Drs. Yvonne and Arnold-Peter Weiss to the Harvard Art Museums from 2008–2010. No additional information was provided about the wreath.

Harvard UPDATE #2: In response to a follow up question about Weiss’ resignation “in 2012″, Aubin says Weiss resigned from the collections committee on January 9, 2012 — six days after his arrest.

*RISD UPDATE: Donna Desrochers, the director of marketing at RISD’s art museum, noted that Weiss’ online bio is out of date: His term as chairman of the board ended last June, and he no longer sits on the museum’s board. In addition, the Syracuse Decadrachm we listed above was not donated by Dr. Weiss. We’ve corrected the post according, and look forward to additional information from RISD.

ALSO:  Paul Barford at his Portable Antiquities Collecting blog reports an unconfirmed rumor on coin discussion groups that Interpol arrest warrants may have been issued for an American dealer and two Italian dealers. He has additional thoughts and information here, here and here.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters digs up this quote from Weiss from a 2002 NYT story: “They [ancient coins] have good rates of return — not as good as when we were riding the Internet bubble, but the coin market hasn’t burst.”

EXCLUSIVE: NYC DA Says Prominent Surgeon Knew He Was Selling Looted Coin

A prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins was arrested on January 3rd in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of an ancient coin recently looted from Sicily.

Arnold-Peter C. Weiss, a world-renowned hand surgeon who teaches at Brown University, was selling ancient Greek coins at the 40th annual New York International Numismatic Convention. Weiss is the former treasurer of the American Numismatic Society, chairman of the board at RISD’s art museum and on the collecting committee of the Harvard Art Museums, according to his bio.

According to a criminal complaint filed with the NYC District Attorney’s office, Weiss was secretly recorded telling a confidential informant that he knew one of the coins he was selling had been recently looted: “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” the complaint quotes Weiss telling the informant. “This was dug up two years ago. I know where this came from.”

Weiss also told DA investigator John Freck that he knew the coin had been recently looted and belonged to the government of Italy, the complaint alleges. Under Italian law, all antiquities in the ground belong to the Italian state.

The coin in question was a 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane, listed at $300,000 in the auction catalog. Weiss said he had bought the coin in 2001 for $250,000 and hoped to sell if for $350,000, the complaint says. According to Coin World, that and a second coin were seized: a 4th century BC silver decadrachm from Akragas, one of the most coveted coins in the world. It was listed at $2.5 million and expected to be the most expensive Greek coin ever sold.

Weiss has been accused of one count of criminal possession of stolen property, a felony. He is due in court on March 21 for “possible grand jury action,” said NYC DA’s spokeswoman Diem Tran. (Case number 1299081) We’ve posted a copy of the complaint here.

Weiss’ attorney Helen Cantwell did not return two calls seeking comment. We’ll update this post if she gets back to us. Coin World quoted Alan Walker, director of Nomos, the coin dealership where Weiss is a partner, saying: “All the coins are in the U.S. legally. All of the coins left Europe legally. It was all handled 100 percent by the law, as far as we know.”

The case is in the early stages yet, but given Weiss’ prominence in the numismatic community, it bears some early similarities to the criminal case against Fred Schultz, the head of the national antiquities dealers association, who was  convicted in 2002 of knowingly trafficking in looted antiquities from Egypt. The Schultz case proved a watershed in the art world, underscoring the fact that trafficking in looted antiquities was a violation of American law.

The case could also influence the on-going battles over whether coins should be included in bi-lateral agreements between the US and foreign nations aimed at preventing the traffic in looted antiquities. Numismatists have long argued that coins should be exempted from import restrictions. As the American Numismatic Society states on its website, “…Because most coins in private collections have been traded and held without any provenance, it is unreasonable to assume that a coin is stolen, illegally exported, or illegally imported merely because the holder cannot establish a chain of custody beyond receipt from a reputable source.”

That position may be more difficult to maintain in the face of a criminal case against Weiss, who was treasurer of the ANS from 2005 – 2009.

Hot Doc: US vs. Weiss criminal complaint

Hat-tip: David Gill at Looting Matters was the first to break the news of the arrest. His blog has excellent analysis of the illicit trade.

Update: Cultural Property Attorney Ricardo St Hilaire has a good analysis of the legal implications of the case, apparently a novel use of state law, at his blog. Paul Barford has also been following the case closely on his blog.

Update #2: In other news, Swiss authorities have seized a valuable 5th Century silver Thracian octadrachm that was recently sold at auction in Switzerland. The move came at the request of Greek authorities, who claim the coin was  illegally removed from the country. The name of the owner, who is facing criminal charges, was not released. See the AP story here.