Counterfeits continue to threaten hobby: A cautionary tale

Published : 07/11/12
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The coin hobby’s attention has turned to counterfeits, once again.

June saw the introduction of legislation in Congress for an expanded Hobby Protection Act to cover sales of replica numismatic items and limit the ability of counterfeiters to fake third-party grading encapsulations (slabs).

The first week of July saw the continuation of the story of Dr. Arnold-Peter C. Weiss, a prominent hand surgeon and numismatist who was arrested in New York City earlier this year while possessing several coins that at the time of surrender were believed to have been imported into the United States illegally and as such, were illegal to own.

It turns out that the three allegedly ancient Greek coins — valued in excess of $3 million — were highly advanced forgeries, officials say.

The coins turned out to be much “fresher” than expected, and Dr. Weiss has been charged with attempted criminal possession of stolen property. It is “attempted” because the coins were not ancient treasures looted from their homeland, but modern forgeries; “attempted” because Dr. Weiss thought that the coins were authentic and that they were recently excavated from Italy.

One of the coins — cataloged as a silver decadrachm of Akragas — and (if genuine) one of 12 known examples, carried an opening bid of $2.5 million and was set to be offered in a Jan. 4 auction conducted jointly by Classical Numismatic Group and Nomos AG. It was described as “A Masterpiece of Classical Art” and “one of the most beautiful of all Greek coins.” It was offered as part of the auction of “Selections from Cabinet W,” which the introduction said was “one of the most important offerings of ancient Greek coinage in living memory.”

The provenance of the piece as listed in the catalog was rather vague, though not inconsistent with many coin ownership histories, reading, “From a collection in the United States, once in a Swiss collection and, earlier, in an English collection in London in the 1960s.”

The case points out the problems with increasingly advanced counterfeiters who are making highly deceptive forgeries.

As part of his punishment, in addition to a fine of $3,000 and community service, the court is requiring Dr. Weiss to write an article for the American Numismatic Society’s magazine detailing the prevalent practice within the numismatic trade of collecting unprovenanced coins, the continuing threat of this practice to archaeology, and necessary changes in the trade to stop this practice and promote responsible collecting.

Interestingly, the introduction to the “Cabinet W” Jan. 4 auction catalog cites the example of Jiri Frel, the first curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum and his unrealized plan to build a collection of coins of the highest caliber. The introduction stated that Frel used to say that it was no longer possible to assemble a first rate collection of sculpture or vases, because the finest pieces were already in museums, but that it was still possible to buy the finest quality coins, adding, “The collector of Cabinet W has understood and seized that opportunity.”

As his 2006 obituary in the New York Times noted, Frel resigned from the Getty amid revelations about unscrupulous acquisition practices, including forging documents related to acquisitions and working with dealers known for dealing with looted artifacts.

Let the story of Dr. Weiss be a cautionary tale of the dangers in dealing with objects of cultural importance with murky ownership histories. The story also serves the dual purpose of alerting the hobby to the increasing sophistication of counterfeiters and reminding us of the ongoing threat counterfeits pose to our hobby.


Steve Roach

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