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.
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This was an excellent article, and you are a good writer. I was surprised to read the derogatory term “coiney” at the end of it, as that takes the article away from being a nice piece of reporting and into the realm of opinion.
One critique, you use inductive logic in this statement: “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.” Taking one (reportedly) bad apple and then applying their actions as a way to critique a statement of fact – that most coins in the US don’t have a provenance, isn’t good logic. It’s like a person who is trapped on a island with a black volcanic sand, who then determines that all the sand is the world is like that on the island.
Bill, thanks for your comment. I removed the “coiney” reference after you pointed out it is derogatory, not just slang. I disagree on your second point — we don’t have enough information to conclude whether Weiss is a “bad apple” or part of a broader problem with the coin trade. Our work in this area suggests it is likely the tip of a very large iceberg called the illicit antiquities trade. Regardless, cases like this often influence policy decisions, inductive reasoning or no.
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1. Italy is in no way a descendent of the peoples nor the governments that created or owned the coins in antiquity.
2. There would be no such issue if Italy had the same finders laws as in the UK.
3. Our government has no business colluding with the Italian government in the seizure of the personal property of Americans.
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If he did in fact know that they were looted then he should face criminal charges!
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