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.
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.
I recall a number of cases I learned about as exec director of IFAR (1985-98) where people selling fakes told stories of looted or otherwise suspect provenance. Why? So the buyer was complicit in a suspect transaction — i.e. fake Faberge, made in the USA, sold as the heritage of Jewish refugees from the USSR who could not export cash.
“This illustrates the first lure of loot: In a market rife with forgeries, evidence of looting is the ultimate badge of authenticity.”
The ultimate badge surely would be evidence that the provenance of the artifact led back to a sanctioned archaeological dig or went back far enough to make forgery unlikely.
On the other hand, as Connie Lowenthal notes above, telling the buyer a piece was looted insures that the nervous and unsavvy buyer will think twice before trying to authenticate, since the authenticator might then be trusted to keep his/her mouth shut.
It strikes me that there really is not much difference in some sense between looting archaeological sites or purchasing looted artifacts, than is also the case in the illicit fossil or mineral trade. In all these instances there is a mix of getting value and owning the unique. At times the allure of fame may be too much to overcome. The case of perhaps the most famous fossil forgery, “Piltdown Man,” is an excellent example, perhaps comparable to the “coins” noted above or perhaps the Getty supposed relic. In the case of Piltdown, the arrival of new analytic techniques exposed the fraud, although the perpetrator remains mostly unknown to this day. As in the archaeological examples, there is also real value associated with purloined materials especially when they are genuine. The latest Mongolian dinosaur case involved millions of dollars. At the same time, a good deal of fabricated (composite) fossils are always on the market, mostly arriving from North Africa, and sometimes also commanding substantial prices. We live in interesting times.
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You are too certain here, and don’t allow for more scenarios. Let’s assume the Getty actually knows it is real: Getty keeps the world’s most amazing known Kouros if there is doubt about its authenticity. If it sows certainty that it is ancient, but without provenance, then Getty is in the business of promoting the loss of its greatest sculpture. They aren’t that stupid
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