Tag Archives: Nomos AG

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

UPDATE 8/5/14: The federal government has returned to Greece five ancient coins that were seized from Dr. Weiss after his arrest in Jan 2012. They are among 23 coins Weiss was forced to forfeit during the investigations detailed below, according to ICE.  

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.

The Case of the Dodgy Drachmas: Arnold Peter Weiss, Prominent Rhode Island Surgeon, Pleads Guilty; “Looted” Coins Prove Forgeries.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon and dealer in ancient coins, pleaded guilty in New York City Tuesday to three counts of attempted criminal possession of ancient coins he believed had been recently looted from Italy.

“Attempted” possession because the coins in the case were not actually looted — nor ancient. In Tuesday’s court hearing, the New York District Attorney’s office revealed that all three coins in the case were in fact modern forgeries.

Weiss was arrested at the Waldorf Astoria hotel on January 3rd while trying to sell ancient coins at the 40th annual New York International Numismatic Convention. According to the criminal complaint, Weiss believed at least one of the coins had been recently looted and smuggled out of Italy. “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” the complaint quotes Weiss telling a confidential informant. “This was dug up two years ago. I know where this came from.”  Weiss told an undercover investigator that he also knew the coins belonged to the government of Italy, which claims state ownership of all antiquities found since 1909.

On Tuesday, Weiss entered a guilty plea to the three misdemeanor counts and was sentenced to 70 hours of community service, which he will serve as a physician treating under-insured patients in Rhode Island. He will pay a $1,000 fine for each of the three coins in the case and forfeit another 23 ancient coins seized from him at the time of his arrest.

The court also required Weiss, the former treasurer of the American Numismatic Society, to write a detailed article in the society’s magazine detailing the widespread practice of dealing in coins with unclear ownership histories. It will describe the corresponding threat to the archaeological record and propose solutions for reforming the coin trade. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office said, “Thanks to today’s disposition, the article to be written by the defendant for a coin trade magazine will raise needed awareness about unprovenanced coins, and will promote responsible collecting among numismatists.” We’ve asked Weiss’ attorney for a comment and will post anything we receive.

We were the first to report the details of the criminal complaint here, and have written about Weiss’ ties to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was board chairman and a prominent donor;  to Harvard University Art Museums, where he was a member of the collections commitee from 2006 until his arrest in 2012; and to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where one of his partners at the Swiss coin dealership Nomos AG got his start. We also reported the case had started with federal investigators with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

We’ll have more information about the case and its implications soon.

UPDATE: The DA’s office informs us that the New York Post report that the fake coins would be destroyed is inaccurate. The coins will be preserved and the investigation is on-going.

UPDATE: Paul Barford makes a good case that the fake coins seized by the DA should be retained for future investigations rather than destroyed, as the court has ordered. [See clarification from DA's office above.] Given the facts of this case, numerous private collectors and museums that did business with Weiss must be wondering how many other ancient coins that passed through his hands could also be forgeries.

UPDATE:Rick St. Hilaire has an interesting analysis of the legal implications of the Weiss case, calling it “a breakthrough for the successful application of state criminal laws, as opposed to federal criminal laws alone, to combat international cultural property trafficking.”

NOTED: Peter Tompa, the numismatist and lobbyist for coin collectors at Cultural Property Observer, has yet to mention the Weiss verdict — or the existence of the case at all. The Ancient Coin Collector’s Guild has not mentioned the verdict either. Paul Barford has a longer list of ancient coin-oriented websites with no mention of the verdict. Why?

NOTED: Larry Rothfield has some good questions about the next steps in what the DA’s office has described as “an on-going investigation.”

Federal Investigators Behind Criminal Case Against Coin Dealer Arnold Peter Weiss

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

[See below for updates.]

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss, the Rhode Island doctor arrested in New York City on Jan. 3 for allegedly trying to sell a looted ancient coin, had his first court appearance in a Manhattan criminal court on Wednesday. The case was adjourned until July 3rd, and no additional documents have been filed in the case, according to the District Attorney’s office.

We first reported on the case in January here, and have posted the criminal complaint in the case here. You can find our reports on Weiss’ ties to RISD and Harvard here and here; and on a link between his Swiss coin dealership Nomos AG and the Getty Museum here.

There have been few other public developments in the case since January. But we have confirmed that the investigation was initiated by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

“Agents with HCI’s El Dorado Task Force Cultural Property group did arrest Dr. Weiss on Jan. 3rd,” according to agency spokesman Lou Martinez, referring to ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations directorate. “This was an HSI lead investigation.”

The El Dorado Task Force is a multi-agency group formed in 1992 described as “an aggressive, multi-agency approach to target financial crimes within the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area.” It includes more than 250 law enforcement agents from 55 local, state and federal agencies in the region.

Among the members of the El Dorado Task Force are a half-dozen agents focused on the illicit trade in cultural property, Martinez said. Here’s how ICE describes their mission:

ICE takes pride in bringing to justice those who would trade in such items for personal profit and in returning to other nations these priceless items.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items is a practice that is older than history. What is new about it is how easy it is for cultural pirates to acquire valuable antiquities, artworks and artifacts, fossils, coins or textiles and move them around the globe, swiftly, easily and inexpensively without regard to laws, borders, nationalities or their value to a nation’s heritage.

Fortunately, ICE agents are better prepared than ever to combat these crimes. Our specially trained investigators and attachés in more than 40 countries not only partner with governments, agencies and experts who share our mission to protect these items, but they train the investigators of other nations and agencies on how to find, authenticate and enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Customs laws allow ICE to seize national treasures, especially if they have been reported lost or stolen. ICE works with experts to authenticate the items, determine their true ownership and return them to their countries of origin.

Recent ICE cases involving the illicit antiquities trade include:

  • The 2009 return of 334 Pre-Colombian artifacts to Peru. The objects were found during a 2007 raid of the Laredo, TX home of Jorge Ernesto Lanas-Ugaz, who received one-year probation and a $2,000 fine.
  • The 2008 return of 79 objects to Egypt. Edward George Johnson, an active duty Chief Warrant officer in the U.S. Army who had been assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 2002, had used his diplomatic status to illegally ship the Ma’adi artifacts he had acquired in Egypt to the U.S., in violation of Egypt’s export laws, diplomatic protocol as outlined in the Vienna Convention, and U.S. law for smuggling the artifacts into the country. He then sold them to a dealer claiming that they were family property dating back to the early 20th century. An expert on the Ma’adi excavations later recognized the items were from an excavation. In July 2008, Johnson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession and selling of stolen antiquities. He was sentenced in September 2008 to 18 months probation and was ordered to make restitution to the antiquities dealer to whom he sold the artifacts.
  • The 2008 return of  1,044 cultural antiquities to Iraq that were seized in four separate investigations dating to 2001. The items, which included terra cotta cones inscribed in Cuneiform text, a praying goddess figurine that was once imbedded in a Sumerian temple and coins bearing the likenesses of ancient emperors, are an illustration of the long and varied history of the country now known as Iraq. Remnants of ancient Cuneiform tablets, which were seized by the Customs Service in 2001, were recovered from beneath the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001 and will be restored in Iraq. The objects were turned over in a ceremony at the Embassy of Iraq, where Iraqi Ambassador Samir Shakir al-Sumaydi accepted on behalf of his government.
  • The 2008 return to the Colombian of 60 artifacts that were seized in a joint 2005 investigation with the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office. The artifacts, which included ancient pottery, gold pieces and emeralds, some as old as 500 B.C., were stolen from Colombia and smuggled into the United States. ICE agents arrested and charged a 66-year-old Italian national, Ugo Bagnato, with sale and receipt of stolen goods. He was convicted and served 17 months in federal prison, after which he was deported.

The New York City District Attorney’s office also has a significant background in these investigations. The Assistant District Attorney assigned to the Weiss case is Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine Corp. Colonel who led the search for antiquities looted from the Baghdad Museum, as chronicled in his 2005 book Thieves of Baghdad, co-authored with William Patrick.

UPDATES:

Rick St. Hilaire has a good analysis of the important legal precedent this case could establish: “Federal prosecutions involving international theft or trafficking of cultural objects are rare. State prosecutions [like Weiss] are novel. That is why the current case against Arnold-Peter Weiss, involving New York state law, is worth watching. with its novel use of state law.”

NY Post headline: “Doc nab in coin caper.” Weiss was released after posting  $200,000 bail.

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

RISD.2007.89.2

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.”