Tag Archives: Eric McFadden

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’ 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.”

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.”