Officials seize two ancient coins at NYINC

Detain owner of coin with $2.5 million opening bid
Published : 01/09/12
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Individuals identifying themselves as law enforcement officials on Jan. 3 seized two ancient Greek coins of Sicily at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan one day before they were due to be offered at auction and detained their owner and seller, Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss.

The coins included one of 12 known silver decadrachms of Akragas, which has a reported provenance dating to the 1960s, according to the auction catalog from Nomos AG and Classical Numismatic Group, the auction houses that were planning to offer 19 coins in a collection dubbed “Selections from Cabinet W.”

The auction was scheduled in conjunction with the New York International Numismatic Convention.

That coin, Lot 1008 in the sale, had an opening bid of $2.5 million.

The other coin that was confiscated, a silver tetradrachm from Katane, was cataloged as Lot 1009 and had an opening bid of $300,000. According to the auction firms, that coin was purchased privately in 2010.

The seizures were the latest action in the ongoing fight over cultural property as it affects coins, and the most visible action since the recent announcement of broader import restrictions of ancient Greek coins, which was made Dec. 1 in the Federal Register.

Reasons for seizures unclear

But exactly who seized the coins, and why they targeted Weiss (who is a partner in Nomos AG), is unclear. Despite multiple telephone calls to law enforcement agencies in the New York City area, Coin World has been unable to confirm the identities of the authorities making the seizures and detaining Weiss.

Alan Walker, director of Nomos, said: “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.”

Later, Walker added, “He [Weiss] has very good legal counsel and is 100 percent innocent.”

Dr. Weiss is a world renowned hand surgeon, a professor of orthopedics at Brown University School of Medicine and Rhode Island Hospital, both in Providence, R.I.

He is also a trustee of the American Numismatic Society.

Victor England Jr., senior director of CNG, confirmed that several officials who identified themselves as representatives of the Department of Homeland Security and the New York County District Attorney’s Office entered the lot viewing room while CNG was conducting other auction sessions and escorted Weiss out, and at the same time seized the two lots.

Tracy Goldman, spokeswoman for New York County District Attorney (Manhattan) Cyrus R. Vance Jr., told Coin World Jan. 6 that the office does not comment on cases, and would not confirm or deny England’s statement.

A spokesperson for New York Customs and Border Protection office, Anthony Bucci, did not return Coin World’s telephone call as of Jan. 6.

England declined to answer any more questions about the situation, saying, “Until we have talked to our attorney, we have no comment.”

As of deadline the morning of Jan. 6, Coin World had not been able to determine the status of Dr. Weiss, although it had placed calls to his office.

Akragas decadrachm

Silver decadrachms of ancient Greece are among the most coveted and rare of ancient coins. The circa 409 to 406 B.C. silver decadrachm from Akragas is “one of the most artistically exciting of all ancient Greek coins” and a “masterpiece of late 5th century engraving,” according to CNG before the auction and seizure of the coins.

CNG officials had anticipated the coin would become the most expensive coin of ancient Greece ever sold.

The coin weighs 43.31 grams and measures 35.5 millimeters in diameter (slightly smaller than a Morgan silver dollar but heavier). It is among a class of commemorative issues struck in the late fifth century B.C. by several of the wealthy cities of Sicily.

A left-galloping chariot appears on the obverse, soaring upward in the sky and driven by a youthful male recorded as Helios in the chariot of the sun, while the reverse shows “the classic badge of the city,” two eagles perched on a dead hare in triumph.

Decadrachms are unusually large in size and face value compared to all the other coins minted in Sicily, and the best artists were employed to engrave the dies used to strike these coins.

The designs for this Akragas issue are attributed to the engravers Myron (the side with the chariot) and Polykrates (the side with the eagles).

The examples from Akragas were reportedly struck to celebrate a single event: the victory of Exainetos, a citizen from Akragas who won the chariot race at Olympia in 412 B.C.

While some decadrachms circulated, most, including the issues of Akragas, were commemorative in nature. The first silver decadrachm emerged in Syracuse in the 460s; the coins apparently circulated in Syracuse for a long period of time, according to the catalog.

In Good Extremely Fine condition, the coin that was seized is only the third example offered at auction in some 31 years.

A “dreadful example” was offered by CNG in a 1998 Triton auction. A piece in better condition was part of the famous Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection sold in 1990. The Hunt example realized what was then a record price for a Greek coin, $572,000, and the Hunt example “is no match for the quality of the present piece,” according to CNG.

Of the 12 examples known, six are in museums. The other six include the offered piece, the Hunt and Triton coins, two other examples privately held in the United States, and one “apparently in Switzerland,” according to CNG.

The example that was confiscated has been in unnamed collections in the United States and Switzerland after being part of an English collection in London in the 1960s.

The coins are rare today because their issue was likely limited, based on die evidence that points to the coins being struck using only two obverse and three reverse dies. The coins would have been issued for only a short period of time before the Carthaginians captured and destroyed Akragas in 406.

Katane tetradrachm

The other coin that was confiscated was a circa 405 to 403/2 B.C. silver tetradrachm of Katane in Sicily.

The obverse of the coin depicts a facing head of Apollo, turned slightly to the left, with his hair falling in curls and locks around his head, according to the catalog description. An inscription in small Greek letters appears to the right.

The reverse shows a quadriga racing to the left, with Nike flying above the scene. Nike is holding a crown for the charioteer in her right hand and a kerykeion (caduceus or staff of Hermes) in her left hand.

The exergue of the reverse of the coin features an inscription and below that, a fish swimming to the left.

The CNG catalog lot description for the coin said, “This is a splendid example of a coin that bears one of the finest facing heads ever to appear in Greek coinage.”

The firm added: “The rarity of this coin has a number of explanations. In 403, only a year or two after it was struck, Katane was captured by Dionysios I of Syracuse who pillaged the city and sold all its inhabitants as slaves — few local coins would have escaped being seized, brought back to Syracuse and melted down. Another factor was the technical problems the ancient minters had with facing head dies; some broke completely soon after they came into use due to the high relief, while others suffered from a myriad of tiny faults that increased over the die’s period of use.”

The tetradrachm is 30 millimeters in diameter and weighs 17.2 grams.

The coin is graded Extremely Fine and is cataloged as “Toned, and of Classical style.”

The high visibility of both of the coins — which received widespread press (including a story in the British media) — and the seller, altered the mood of the show. Discussions about the seizure of the coins quickly spread on coin collector chat forums.

More details about the seizure of the coins and the detention of Weiss will be published as they become available. ■

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