Auction firms withdraw highlight coin

Athenian decadrachm deemed deceptive forgery
Published : 05/01/11
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A silver Athenian decadrachm of ancient Greece was withdrawn from an April 14 auction by auctioneers after they learned it is a counterfeit.

The circa 465 to 460 B.C. silver Athenian decadrachm, a famed rarity in ancient numismatics, was the marquee lot in an ancient coin auction conducted jointly by Gemini Numismatics and Heritage Auction Galleries, in conjunction with the Chicago International Coin Fair.

Gemini is a partnership between Harlan J. Berk Ltd., B & H Kreindler (Herb Kreindler) and Amphora (David Hendin).

Berk said the piece “turned out to be a very deceptive forgery. It was our responsibility to the numismatic community, even though we took a more than half-a-million dollar hit, just to withdraw it, not try to save face.”

“It’s better to man-up and say ‘this thing fooled us, it’s fake,’ and pull it off the market so no one will have this problem again,” he said.

The item was pulled from the auction around April 4 or 5, according to David Michaels, director of classical coins for Heritage, once the partnership learned of details that cast its authenticity into question.

The decadrachm had a pre-auction estimate of $875,000 U.S.

Berk would not elaborate on how the partnership became aware of its questionable nature, who alerted them and what details placed under question a coin that multiple experts had previously examined and believed to be real.

“If we publish that [the diagnostics] then the forgers know how to correct their errors. We do not want forgers to correct their errors,” Berk said.

Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert, author of the 2008 book The Athenian Decadrachm (published by the American Numismatic Society), authored the lot listing that stated the coin provided new evidence to proved ancient Greeks performed die hubbing.

Michaels called Fischer-Bossert “the foremost expert on Athenian decadrachms,” but noted: “Another scholar did his own research and challenged that aspect of the coin. These disputes arise between people [in the numismatic and academic community]. The [other] scholar raised some points that we could not immediately dismiss out of hand.”

Upon making the decision to withdraw the coin, Gemini partners posted a statement at the website, stating:

“This lot has been withdrawn from the auction. Recent new information has come to light which points to the possibility that the coin is not authentic. Further investigation and research is needed.

“Both Heritage and Gemini have the utmost responsibility to ensure the authenticity of every lot sold and our decision to withdraw this lot is in line with that policy. We regret this new information was only discovered at the eleventh hour and apologize for any inconvenience resulting from the withdrawal of this lot.

“We remain committed to only offering the very best coins, in which our clients can have full confidence when it comes to quality, authenticity and value.”

Berk also would not reveal how and where he acquired the coin, other than to say he worked through an agent.

“It’s like if you have a very good fishing hole: do you tell where it is to everyone?” he said.

The chain of custody for ancient coins muddies the situation, Berk said.

“Generally I know who I’m buying it from, but not where I’m buying it from. Some of these coins go through four or five people before they come to the market. The supply is not a straight line.”

More study of ancients needed

The episode provides proof that more study of ancient coins is needed, said David Vagi, director of ancient coins with Numismatic Guaranty Corp., which graded the suspect Athenian decadrachm but, in accordance with its policies, did not authenticate it.

“When you have coins that are this unusual, to some degree you have to work with the consensus within the academic community and within the dealer community,” he said.

“Ancient coins are full of surprises. It’s not a field where the last ‘I’ has been dotted and the last ‘T’ has been crossed. [The coin] had some anomalies, but we went with the consensus in providing the photo certificate; it was appropriate,” Vagi said.

“A lot of people handled it directly and there was no serious objections,” he said. “Because there was such consensus among the leading experts for these coins, we felt the academic and commercial marketplace had accepted the coin.”

That the suspect coin displayed “anomalies” was not surprising, given the fact that “inconsistencies are prevalent in ancient coins,” Vagi said, even throughout the Athenian decadrachm series.

Because the coins were produced over a long period of time, this leaves open the possibility of anomalies like die rust and damage.

“There are no fast and hard rules about features of dies. The explanation for the anomalies is it’s either the result of ancient die manufacture or modern die manufacture, and the authorities have come to conclude its the result of modern die manufacture,” Vagi said. “Prior to being withdrawn, these anomalies were not substantial enough to call it into question, and at some point that changed.”

Vagi praised Berk for withdrawing the coin from the auction when new information surfaced.

“It took a lot of courage to do what he did. He took the high road and he deserves the credit for that,” Vagi said.

Scholarship in ancient coins is a moving target, he said, as the field “is literally living and evolving week by week.”

More than one defense

Berk said that relying on trusted sources generally is the best defense against forgeries, but not the only defense.

“If you get something through a very good source, sometimes you let your guard down and you find yourself asking, ‘how can I have been fooled by this?’ ”

“There’s always a couple of fakes in any auction, in any big sale. You’ll see a few coins withdrawn before the sale,” Berk said.

“Buying from someone like us or Heritage, you always have a lifetime guarantee,” whereas out in the marketplace, you’re on your own, he said.

Berk has 47 years of experience in the hobby, but said even he was fooled “because the technology is getting better. Anyone who says they’ve never been fooled isn’t telling the truth. And the technology is getting better, so we have to improve our ability to catch them.” ■

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