Tag Archives: forgery

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?

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.

Hot Doc: A Damage Assessment at the Getty Finds Forgery, Fraud and Fabricated Histories

The true cost of looting has always been hard to measure: how does one account for what is lost? Perhaps this is why some — Americans in particular, it seems — tend to think of looting as a victimless crime.

In truth, looting has many victims — the artifacts lost or damaged during the act itself; the defaced monuments and pockmarked archaeological sites left in its wake. Then there is the more pernicious effect of plunder and the black market it fuels — the corruption of our knowledge about the past.

Jiri Frel with The Getty Bronze

This is what the Getty Museum confronted in 1984, after the hasty departure of its charming and crooked antiquities curator Jiri Frel. In his decade at the Getty, Frel had used any means necessary to build the museum’s antiquities collection into one worthy of the Getty’s wealth. In 1984, when his criminal activity was discovered amidst an IRS investigation, he abruptly left the country, leaving colleagues at the museum to clean up the mess.

John Walsh, Getty Museum Director

A confidential June 1984 memo from acting antiquities curator Arthur Houghton to museum director John Walsh was an early attempt to account for the damage done by Frel’s collecting practices. We’ve posted it below as part of our Hot Docs series, a effort to publish some of the key confidential files we used while reporting Chasing Aphrodite.

Arthur Houghton III

“Changes or additions to the central files registry should be recorded for many of the objects in the antiquities collection,” Houghton noted with characteristic understatement. “The scope of the problem is quite large and involved a number of areas.”

Among the problems Houghton reported:

Falsified provenance: Many of the ownership histories of objects in the collection were “mythical.” Frel and his trusted dealers had made a parlor game of inventing bogus European collections like “Esterhauzy” to cover the fact that the objects being purchased were fresh from an illicit dig.

Bogus attributions: Frel had often gussied up the attribution of objects to make them more palatable to the public or the Getty’s own acquisition committee. Roman copies were listed as Greek originals; a 3rd century BC sculpture became the only surviving piece by a Greek master.

The Getty bought the kouros in 1985 for $10 million. Today it is believed to be fake.

Forgeries: Frel had bought several multi-million dollar fakes, either because he was fooled or (more likely) in exchange for a cut of the purchase price. The most famous is the nearly $10 million Getty Kouros, still on display today at the Getty Villa. As Houghton noted, “Several [fakes] are of major importance and involve very high values and the Museum’s reputation.”

Then there were the lies that mostly hurt the Getty: Frel had convinced the museum to dramatically overpay for objects, with some of the money likely coming back to him in kickbacks. He had inflated valuations of objects as part of a tax fraud scheme and invented phony donors — many still honored on Getty display placards– who he used to launder objects coming into the collection.

The Getty bought his sculpture in 1979, believing it was a head of Achilles by Skopas, a famous Greek sculptor. Subsequent research showed that it was a modern forgery.

In time, some of the most egregious distortions were corrected. The Getty kouros today is awkwardly labeled “Greek, about 530 B.C., or modern forgery,” and several other fakes were taken off display. But in many more cases, Houghton noted the damage to the historical record was irreversible. “Much of the suspected provenance and acquisition (including donation) information is fragmentary; and while many records can be corrected in time and with reasonably diligent attention, it will not be possible with reasonable discretion to probe into the true provenance or acquisition history or many objects in the collection.”

The truth, in other words, was lost.

Today, similar distortions  and fabrications litter the antiquities collections of America’s great museums, which are tax-exempt because their public mission is education. In doing business with the black market, museums have betrayed that mission and filled their shelves with what amount to beautiful lies.

HOT DOC: June 1984 confidential memo from Arthur Houghton to John Walsh.

Article: “An Art World Detective Story: The Getty’s Head of Achilles” Suzanne Muchnic, LA Times, 11/3/88