Tag Archives: Bruce McNall

Castor and Pollux, Forgeries and Loot: Reflections on the Arnold Peter Weiss Case

original art by Elli Crocker (http://www.ellicrocker.com)

Looting and forgery are the Castor and Pollux of the antiquities trade, bound together by a love of murky origins.

That appears to be the lesson of the guilty plea earlier this month by coin dealer Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, which came with a twist – the “looted” coins he was hawking at the Waldor Astoria were actually forgeries.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

But why would Weiss brag so openly – to both a confidential informant and an undercover agent posing as a buyer, according to the complaint – that the ancient coins he was trying to sell had been recently looted in Sicily? Wouldn’t that fact lower the value of the coins and made them harder to sell?

And how could the three coins – which were proved forgeries by a scanning electron microscope only after being found authentic by several experts – fool so many, including Weiss and his Nomos partners and Herbert Kreindler, Weiss’ reported source for the coins? Who was duped, and who was complicit in the fraud?

The answers may come out as the on-going investigation unfolds in the coming months. But the case of another famous fraud, the Getty Kouros, offers some interesting hints.

The outlines of the Kouros story are well known: In 1985, the Getty paid $9.5 million for a 7-foot-tall Greek marble youth with a thoroughly detailed ownership history, amid speculation that the piece was a modern forgery. There are only a dozen such intact kouroi, making the Getty’s a truly remarkable find. The question of its authenticity has been hotly debated ever since. Today most are convinced the statue is a fake, though it remains on display at the Getty Villa, labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery.”

In the opening chapter of his bestselling Blink, Malcolm Gladwell suggests Getty officials were blinded by bad science in their decision to buy the statue. In Chasing Aphrodite we revealed that science was the public reason to justify the purchase, and the one given to the Getty board. But behind the scenes, museum officials concluded the Kouros was authentic because they heard from the dealer that it had been recently looted in Sicily.

As we write in Chapter 4:

Speaking in confidence, [Sicilian dealer Gianfranco] Becchina had cautioned [Met curator Dietrich] von Bothmer to ignore the cover story about the statue coming from Greece or being in the family of a Swiss doctor. He suggested instead that the statue had been found recently in Sicily, an origin that would explain many of the stylistic anomlies that had initially troubled him. It also suggested that the piece was freshly excavated and, by extension, authentic. The statue’s suspiciously voluminous ownership history must have been forged to cover the kouros’s illicit origins. Bolstered by the new information pointing to authenticity, [Getty director John] Walsh once again recommended the purchase of the kouros.”

This illustrates the first lure of loot: In a market rife with forgeries, evidence of looting is the ultimate badge of authenticity.

It is worth noting that one of the Weiss coins in question was a silver decadrachms of Akragas. Before being confiscated by authorities, it was given a record-setting estimate of $2.5 million because it was one of only 12 known such coins. That happens to be precisely as rare as an intact Kouros. When trying to explain the appearance of a rare masterpiece out of thin air, looting is the most palpable answer. The only other is forgery.

The second lure of looting is the uncanny appeal that “fresh” antiquities have long had for collectors and museums. Few have explained this better than Bruce McNall — who coincidentally used to employ Weiss’ Nomos business partner Eric McFadden.

McNall proved prescient in our January interview  about the Weiss case:

“[As a collector in the 1980s,] any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

Perhaps another lesson from the Weiss case, then, is that in the world of ancient coins, these two lures of loot appear to be as strong today as they were in 1985.

You can find all our coverage of the Weiss case here.

Arnold Peter Weiss’ 46 donations to RISD Museum of Art

The Rhode Island School of Design has provided a complete list of donations made by former museum chairman Arnold Peter Weiss, the Providence doctor and collector of ancient coins who was arrested in New York last month for possession of a coin he allegedly knew had been recently looted in Sicily. (See our earlier stories here, here and here.)

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Weiss donated 46 objects to the museum between 1997 and 2010, according to museum spokeswoman Donna Desrochers. Sixteen of those donations were ancient coins. We’ve posted the complete list of the Weiss donations, with images, here.

Below are the ownership histories for the ancient coins, with select images:

Six Lycian staters, 1997.42.1-6 cf. L. Mildenberg, “Mithrapata und Perikles,” Atti, Congresso Internazionale di Numismatica, Roma 11-16 Settembre 1961 (Rome 1965), 24, pl. 4; N. Olçay and O. Mørkholm, “The Coin Hoard from Podalia,” Numismatic Chronicle, 1971, nos. 26, 27, 414-418.

Stater of Locris Opuntia, 2001.81.1 ex CNG private purchase, 1999; ex US dealer; ex Edward Gans Collection, 1940s-50s

RISD 2001.81.2

Tetradrachm of Amphipolis, 2001.81.2 CNG Mail Bid Sale 49, 19 March 1999, lot 158 ex California collection, early 1970s-1990; ex English collection, 1940s

Decadrachm of Syracuse, 2001.81.3; ex CNG direct purchase; ex Zurich auction, late 1990s; ex Swiss collection, early 1900s

Tetradrachm of Amphipolis, 2007.89.1
ex Gemini III, 9 January 2007, lot 88; ex LHS Numismatik, auction 95, 25 October 2005, lot 559; ex MMAG auction XIX, 5-6 June 1959, lot 372; ex Charles Gillet Collection, Lausanne


Stater of unknown Ionian mint, 2007.89.2
ex NFA auction XVIII, 1987, lot 95 ex von Hoffmann Collection; cf. Price, “A Field in Western Thrace” (Coin Hoards 2, no. 1, 1976)

Tetradrachm of Thebes, 2008.60.1
ex CNG Triton IX, BCD Boiotia Collection, 10 January 2006, lot 439; ex BCD Collection; ex MMAG XXII 1961 auction, lot 467

Tetradrachm of Rhodes, 2008.60.2
ex CNG Triton IX, 10 January 2006, lot 966; ex CNG Mail Catalogue Sale 63, 21 May 2003, lot 557; ex Leu private purchase, 2001; ex Marmaris hoard 1970/71 (ICGH 1209)

RISD 2010.56.1

Persian daric, 2008.60.3
ex CNG private purchase, 2005
ex Edward Gans, 1964, lot 78

Bronze 2-litrae of Syracuse, 2008.60.4
ex Gorny and Mosch, auction 156, 6 March 2007, lot 1139
ex Gorny and Mosch, auction 107, 2 April 2001, lot 75
ex Moretti Collection, Basel, 1920s

Tetradrachm of Naxos, 2010.56.1
ex Leu private sale, 2010; ex Leu, 1980s; cf. Ludwig Grabow, Rostock, 9 July 1930, lot 196

RISD 2010.56.2

Stater of Mysia, 2010. 56.2
ex Jean Vinchon Numismatique, 2007; ex Bank Leu Numismatique AG, 1969; ex Charles Gillet, Lausanne, 1952

Stater of Mysia, 2010.56.3
ex Herren Collection; ex Ready (in commerce), 1929; ex Gulbenkian Collection, 1920s

Another donation of interest, not an ancient coin, is this:

Etruscan bronze relief, 2002.114.2
ex Denyse Berend Collection, Paris and Geneva, early 1960s; ex Cahn, Basel

RISD 2002.114.2

“Cahn” is likely Herb Cahn, the Classical numismatist and antiquities dealer who was investigated by Italian authorities for participating in the illicit trade, as recounted by Robert Hecht in his unpublished memoir.

Take away? Many of the coins appear to have ownership histories going back several decades. Others are vague (“ex-California collection”) or are linked to dealers whose names come up in the Italian investigation (Cahn; Bank Leu; NFA = Bruce McNall). We leave it to our more informed readers to draw their own conclusions about these donations, and welcome your thoughts in the comments field below. We are curious if Dr. Weiss took tax write-offs for these donations, and if so how the donations were valued.

We’re grateful to RISD for their transparency on this matter, and wish other universities would take a similar stance.

Arnold Peter Weiss’ Coin Partner and The Getty Connection

A surprising detail emerged while we were reading about Nomos AG, the Swiss coin dealership whose principal, Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, was arrested on January 3 for felony possession of an ancient coin allegedly looted recently in Sicily.

One of Weiss’ partners in Nomos is Eric McFadden, a senior director of Classical Numismatic Group, one of the world’s leading dealers in ancient coins. McFadden has an impressive resume — he received degrees in Classics from Pomona College and Oxford University before getting a law degree from Harvard University.

But here’s the detail that caught our eye, described in a 2008 profile of McFadden in Pomona College Magazine:

“McFadden began his career in the coin world in the summer of 1977, after graduating from Pomona College with a degree in classics. He volunteered to work on the coin collection of the then fledgling Getty Museum in Malibu. There, he learned that it’s virtually impossible for a new museum to build an outstanding collection of ancient statuary or ceramics, because the finest quality items are not available at any price. However, it is entirely possible for a well-funded museum to collect first-rate ancient coins, which are still regularly sold in the marketplace.”

At the Getty in 1977, McFadden would have been working under Jiri Frel, the rogue Czech antiquities curator who ran the department until he was chased out of town in 1984 amid a tax fraud investigation by the IRS.

As readers of Chasing Aphrodite know, Frel was charming, brilliant and deeply corrupt. A confidential Getty damage assessment later found that Frel had falsified provenances for recently looted antiquities, given inflated attributions to objects in the collection and recommended the purchase of several multi-million dollar fakes in exchange for kickbacks from dealers. (The assistant curator who exposed Frel went on to become a prominent name in the numismatic world as well: Arthur Houghton III, president of the American Numismatic Society from 1994-1999 and currently a lifetime trustee.)

McFadden’s work at the Getty is likely where he met Bruce McNall, the cherubic ancient coin dealer who ran Numismatic Fine Arts, the Beverly Hills gallery on Rodeo Drive. McNall had opened NFA in 1971 and built it into the world’s leading ancient coin dealership, eventually branching out into Classical antiquities (Summa Gallery) with the help of his silent partner, the antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr. Hecht had been selling recently looted antiquities since the 1950s, and his network of loyal suppliers reached deep into tombs across the Mediterranean.

As we recount in Chapter Two of Chasing Aphrodite, it was this crooked triumvirate — Hecht the supplier, McNall the salesman, and Frel the curator — that cooked up one of the largest tax fraud schemes in American museum history. Thousands of recently looted antiquities and coins were donated to the Getty Museum by Hollywood elites looking for a tax dodge. In exchange for donating objects they often never saw, they got tax write-offs at inflated values thanks to appraisals forged by Frel.

photo by Ed Alcock/NYT

Robert Hecht

Nomos’ McFadden worked for McNall during those years, first during his summer breaks at Oxford, then for another three years after completing his degree. In an interview this week, McNall recalled McFadden as “a knowledgeable, nerdy kind of guy,” which was helpful. “You don’t want to be looking like a slick car sales man selling ancient art,” McNall said.

McNall said that it was common knowledge that many of the coins he was getting in those days had been recently — and therefore illegally — excavated. “Fresh” coins were were more attractive to buyers. “Any time you find something brand new, it’s sexier,” he said. “Otherwise it’s been around, it’s been seen, and maybe there’s a reason someone else hasn’t bought it…Nobody wants some old broad that’s been around on the town for too long.”

Ironically, McNall thinks that may explain the case of Arnold-Peter Weiss, who was allegedly recorded by a confidential informant bragging that he knew the 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane he was selling was “a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago” in Italy. Such talk is common in the coin trade, said McNall, but “90% of the time it’s just a sales tool.” McNall also finds to be credible the rumor circulating in the coin world that one or more of the coins Weiss was offering for sale may have been fakes.

McNall, who no longer trades coins but still follows the market,  sees parallels to today’s coin market and that of the late 1970s, when he pitched ancient coins as safe harbor in a troubled economy. Investors “have gotten burned in supposedly safe sources, and they’ve gone back to things like coins. If your other investments hit the fan, you’ve always got these things, which have found a market for the last 2000 years.”

In time, authorities caught up with the triumvirate. McNall got out of the coin business after declaring bankruptcy and spending four years in federal prison for bank fraud. Frel left the country in 1984 amid an IRS investigation into the donation scheme, and died in 2006.  Robert Hecht, 92, has been was on trial in Italy since 2005 for trafficking in looted antiquities until Jan 16th, when his trial ended with no verdict.

Eric McFadden was never, to our knowledge, accused of a crime. He left NFA in the mid-1980s for Harvard Law School, and practiced in Los Angeles for several years before returning to the coin trade and joining CNG in 1990. He apparently maintained his ties to Bob Hecht. Over the years, CNG has sold several ancient coins tied to Hecht, including its 2008 sale of Hecht’s collection of Byzantine coins.

Most recently, McFadden has been a vocal opponent of import restrictions on ancient coins, submitting statements to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in opposition of restrictions for Greece and Bulgaria, calling them “unworkable, ineffective, and ultimately counterproductive.”

In his letter arguing against restrictions for Greek coins, McFadden wrote,” “…there is no simple way of determining either where or when a coin might have been found before being moved from its find spot.” The Weiss case, which appears to rely on the testimony of an informant, may test that theory.

We’ve reached out to Nomos and McFadden, who lives in London,  for comment and will post any response here.

ALSO: Attorney Rick St. Hilaire has posted a helpful update on the legal case of Ancient Coin Collectors Guild v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Department of State; Assistant Secretary of State, Educational and Cultural Affairs.

ALSO: David Gill at Looting Matters notes that Nomos AG is a member of  the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) which “has apparently paid $100,000 over the last two years for lobbying services in the US.”