A silver Athenian decadrachm of ancient Greece was withdrawn from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
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,”
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 www.geminiauction.com 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“This lot has been withdrawn from the auction.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.” ■