Prominent coin dealer and hand surgeon thought he was selling real stolen coins

Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss, a prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon, a professor of orthopedics at Brown University School of Medicine, and a dealer in ancient coins, pleaded guilty on July 3, to attempted criminal possession of stolen property, a misdemeanor offense, for trying to sell what he thought were authentic ancient Greek coins that he believed had been looted from Sicily. But the coins are, in fact, forgeries. Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos told the court, the coins are “exquisite, extraordinary, but forgeries nonetheless.”

Dr. Weiss was arrested on January 3 during the 40th Annual New York International Numismatic Convention at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in possession of a silver coin that purported to be an early 4th century BC Greek type known as a Katane Tetradrachm, which he valued at $300,000-350,000. According to the criminal complaint, Dr. Weiss told a confidential informant: “there’s no paperwork. I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago…. I know where this came from.”

Authorities seized the coin, having been informed by Captain Massimo Maresca, of the Italian Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, that “Italian law, namely the Code of Cultural and Landscape Heritage, has vested absolute and true ownership of all antiquities found in Italy after 1909 in the Italian government, and that the Italian government never gave Dr. Weiss or anyone permission, consent or authority to remove said coin from the ground or removed it from Italy,” according to the criminal complaint.

Investigators soon discovered that Dr. Weiss was also trying to sell another coin, an Akragas Dekadrachm, purportedly dating from 409-406 BC, which Dr. Weiss valued at upwards of $2.5 million, and a third coin, which were soon to be auctioned by Nomos AG, which is co-owned by Dr. Weiss, as part of a collection dubbed “Selections from Cabinet W.” At the request of the NY District Attorney’s office, the three coins were examined by academic experts, who considered the coins to be genuine. To be certain, Assistant District Attorney Bogdanos had the coins analyzed using an scanning electron microscope, which revealed them to be modern forgeries.

News that the Weiss coins are forgeries — and so well made that even leading experts could not detect them — has the close-knit fraternity of high-end coin collectors abuzz. Surely coin collectors must be asking:

1. Where did these top-quality forgeries come from? How were they made (pressure molded or struck)? How many more examples by the same forger have circulated, and when did they first appear?

2. If experts who examined the coins at the request of the NYDA’s office were unable to determine the Weiss coins are forgeries, what hope do dealers, auctioneers, and collectors have when the next undocumented Greek or Roman coin with scant provenance and a six-figure price tag appears on the market? Will this case prompt coin dealers, auctioneers and collectors to agree that verifiable provenances and scientific testing are necessary for all coins above a certain price level.

Dr. Weiss was sentenced to 70 hours of community service (providing medical care to disadvantaged patients in Rhode Island), was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each of the three coins in the case, and forfeited another 20 ancient coins that were seized from him at the time of his arrest. The judge also ordered Dr. Weiss to write an article for publication in a coin collecting magazine or journal warning of the risks of dealing in coins of unknown or looted provenance. The awareness raising impact of that article should be significant.

Contrary to a report on the case published in the July 3 New York Post, no order has been issued by the Court for the forgeries to be destroyed.

Cultural heritage attorney Rick St. Hilaire provides a cogent legal analysis of the Weiss case here.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos is a 2006 SAFE Beacon Award recipient and the author of “The Thieves of Baghdad,” about the looting of the Iraq Museum and resulting exploding black market in its antiquities in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Read more about the case and Dr. Arnold-Peter Weiss here.

“Retentionist” or just doing the right thing?

According to article “Stolen Italian antiquities recovered from Oregon home” Phillip Pirages, the book dealer whose manuscript pages were forfeited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “was very impressed with how serious the (Italian) government was about reclaiming these[.]”

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
A Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa first century, showing a depiction of an old and young satyr, is one of several cultural artifacts taken from Italy that are being returned to Italy, seen during a repatriation ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2012. The objects were seized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Italy's Carabinieri.

Indeed, Italy is not alone in its determination to reclaim its cultural patrimony. In recent years, many culturally rich “source” countries are quite serious as well in their call for repatriation. While dealers, collectors, and other stakeholders— such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property— may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by some 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end. Criticism of source countries as “retentionist”; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit “hobbyist” collectors and “world museums” to stock their galleries with “artistic creations that transcend national boundaries” are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

“Once we established that they were stolen, he voluntarily agreed to surrender them,” said ICE special agent Melissa Cooley. “He didn’t fight the forfeiture.”

Citing cooperation, the book dealer will not be charged. Perhaps Pirages has the right idea: doing the right thing is never wrong.

Returns to Italy from North America


Various antiquities from Princeton University Art Museum, a healthcare company, a New York gallery, and a New York private collector linked to the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been returned to Italy.

It is hoped that a more detailed list will appear shortly.

The museum and gallery have already returned items to Italy.

"Chasing Aphrodite" Fall Book Tour comes to NYC

The 2011 SAFE Beacon Award Winners are busy traveling the East Coast this fall discussing their book, Chasing Aphrodite. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet Jason Felch this October in New York City.

Lecture and Book Signing
October 24, 6 pm
Silver Center Room 300
Washington Square East
New York University

“Jason Felch will give a presentation about his non-fiction book Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, which details how the J. Paul Getty Museum became the epicenter of an unprecedented scandal over the acquisition of looted Greek and Roman antiquities by their Los Angeles Times coverage of the controversy, including stories revealing how the Getty, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and other leading institutions patronized a black market awash in illicit objects. The revelations forced American museums to return more than 100 of their finest antiquities-valued at nearly a billion dollars-to Italy and Greece. Their new book lays bare the roots of the scandal with fly-on-the-wall accounts gleaned from hundreds of additional interviews and internal Getty documents spanning four decades. Their presentation-which includes slides of the key characters and looted objects-will touch on the origins of the scandal, the efforts of senior Getty officials to continue buying looted artifacts while appearing ethical, and the tragic consequences the strategy brought to the museum’s collection and its highly regarded antiquities curator, Marion True. The presentation will also address how the scandal has ushered in a new era of cooperation between Italy and American museums through cultural loans.”

For information about the Fall Book Tour visit the Chasing Aphrodite website.

"She is the property of Italy…and they have every right in the world to put her in that museum. It feels right to have her there."

Senta German interviews Ralph Frammolino, co-author with Jason Felch of the recently published Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum in the latest installment of SAFE podcasts. Professor German had recently reviewed the book on SAFECORNER. The topic has also been discussed here. In this clip, Frammolino recalls the ceremony unveiling the statue’s recent return to Aidone and describes how the Italian people react to cultural patrimony. “There is a connectivity to the earth, to the ground to the civilizations that were there.” The full podcast can be heard here.

Photo: SAFE

The importance of documenting cultural heritage

In 1957 the British archaeologist John S.V. Bradford – a pioneer in the use of aerial photography for the documentation of archaeological landscape – published the map of the impressive walls surrounding the ancient city of Arpi, the most important centre of the pre-Roman Daunian culture flourished in the Italian region of Apulia between VIII and IV centuries B.C. At that time the archaeological site, including the necropolis, was still unexcavated, but the Daunian material culture was already internationally known, and highly demanded, for its striking pottery with geometric patterning and crude depiction of humans, plants, and birds. When many years later the local office of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage started some field excavation in Arpi, the savage looting of the site started as well.

The looting, and the intentional destruction of archaeological artifacts considered “non-marketable” continued for years, paralleling the growing demand for any Apulian artifacts, without exception, by the international antiquities market, both legal and illegal: it has been calculated that during the last twenty years about 200.000archaeological artifacts have been looted from the area surrounding the ancient site of Arpi.

Infamous is the case of the vandalization of the Tomb of Medusa, probably one of the most remarkable underground burial chamber, first cleaned out of the funerary objects, and then excavated with a digger that knocked down the columns decorating the entrance, in order to remove the capitals and tympanum (gable) with the relief of Medusa’s head.

Luckily, the looters were stopped by the police, and so the artifacts recovered and transferred in a museum. After such an event, the archaeologists immediately started a systematic exploration and documentation of the site, in order to gather as much information as possible from what had survived of the site’s mutilated original context.

Documenting cultural objects, and especially archaeological artifact, means gathering and recording all pertinent data and information, both in written and visual forms, accumulated during the examination and treatment of a cultural property. Documentation enables us to physically preserve a cultural object, and more importantly enables us to understand and preserve the history, and so the memory, of the cultural environment, the context, that produced and used that object, especially when the object, for whatever reasons, becomes no longer physically available. Also, the information acquired can be presented to the general public in order to promote understanding and appreciation for the ancient culture to which the artifacts belong.

As the international news from Egypt remind us these very days, we live in a contemporary world where the cultural heritage (whether a museum artifact, a monument, an archaeological site, or a cultural landscape) is more than ever threatened by an array of dangers mostly due, apart from natural disasters, to human negligence and insanity, a systematic documentation represents a crucial aspect of its understanding, protection and preservation on a global scale.

Photo: The entrance of the looted “Medusa’s Tomb” in the ancient Daunian site of Arpi (Apulia Region, Italy) ©Associazione ONLUS MeteoNetwork

Import restrictions on Italian antiquities extended

Today’s Federal Register announced that import restrictions imposed on certain archaeological material originating in Italy have been extended for another five years. The material represents the pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman periods of its cultural heritage, ranging in date from approximately the 9th century B.C. through approximately the 4th century A.D. The determination was made under the terms of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act that implemented the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

In addition, coins have been added to the list of items covered by the restrictions.

SAFE supports the decision and applauds the Cultural Property Advisory Committee for continuing to recognize import restrictions as an effective deterrent against the destruction of cultural heritage, and the fact that coins “are an equally important historical source and are no less important ‘antiquities’.

Time ran out in the case against Marion True

As previously reported here the trial against Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum ended on Wednesday, October 13. After five years, the True case, which would set a precedent for the prosecution of a museum curator for knowingly acquiring looted artifacts, ended on the grounds that the statute of limitations has expired.

As quoted in the New York Times, Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, said that True “sacrificed herself on behalf of other museum directors in America,” while Paolo Ferri, the now-retired prosecutor for the case, was quoted as saying “the trial had served as a signal to museums that buying objects without provenance had to end.” For more about this and other cases related to museum acquisitions, please visit SAFE’s web site here.

Will the high visibility of this case alter museum acquisition practices? This much is certain: the case against the plunder of cultural heritage continues and has no statute of limitations.

Photo: Steve Pyke in The New Yorker

Colin Renfrew asks: What about ongoing looting?

Professor Colin Renfrew, 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Winner voiced his concerns that the problems of ongoing looting of archaeological sites around the world were not addressed in the lecture Looted art and its restitution: moral and cultural dilemmas for the twenty-first century, given by Professor Richard J Evans on Monday 7 June 2010 at Wolfson College, Cambridge. Professor Renfrew also spoke about the fact that although repatriation of looted antiquities from Iraq were mentioned, no reference was made about “the Metropolitan Museum’s being constrained to return antiquities to Italy, which had been illegally removed… in recent times.” (View video clip here. © Wolfson College, Cambridge)

Professor Evans focused on historical looting giving examples dating back to Jason and the Argonauts, and issues related to repatriation and restitution of Nazi art loot. Also brought up was contentious topic of the Parthenon sculptures, more commonly (but some believe, misguidedly) known as the “Elgin marbles” and whether they should be returned was the first question from the audience. Professor Evans will become Wolfson College’s fifth president in October, 2010.

Italy’s Financial Police Recognized for Cultural Heritage Protection

Those responsible for protecting Italy’s cultural heritage have once again been given center stage in Rome this summer – this time in the form of an exhibition honoring the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s Financial Police.

The celebratory exhibit, entitled “Dal sepolcro al museo. Storie di saccheggi e recuperi” (“From the grave to the museum. Stories of pillage and recoveries”) will be housed in the Vittoriano complex at Piazza Venezia through 12 September 2010. The Sala Gipsoteca has been filled with remarkable pieces recovered by the Guardia di Finanza’s Division for the Protection of Archaeological Patrimony.

The exhibit includes numerous treasures which were put at serious risk by looters but recovered before leaving Italy. Perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is a 1.55 x 1.60 meter marble relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the archaeological park at Veio and recovered by the Guardia di Finanza in March 2009 just before its intended export to Asia through a channel in the United Arab Emirates. The piece was then brought to the Villa Giulia in Rome and the scheme resulted in four prosecutions in Italy.

The Guardia di Finanza’s Division for the Protection of Archaeological Patrimony, though perhaps not as well-known as the National Police’s Art Squad (Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela Patrimonio Culturale), is a key player in the prevention of illicit trafficking of cultural material because of its role in enforcing tax law, which is inevitably disobeyed in illicit export.

Statistics given at the exhibition state that, in 2008-2009, recoveries by the Guardia di Finanza included 11,258 archaeological pieces and 416 paintings. 136,783 forgeries were confiscated and 294 people were charged with criminal violations, a 50% increase from the previous 2-year period.

Just last year, Castel Sant’Angelo hosted a similar exhibition celebrating the 40th birthday of the Carabinieri’s Division for Cultural Heritage Protection.

Italy’s support for the law enforcement bodies that combat the illicit antiquities trade is commendable. SAFE would like to recognize individuals in U.S. law enforcement who have dedicated themselves towards the protection of cultural heritage. To celebrate their success, this year’s SAFE Beacon Awards will be given to Robert E. Goldman, David Hall, James E. McAndrew, and Robert K. Wittman. With these selections, SAFE aims to honor the defenders of the laws that protect our cultural heritage.

Christie’s: "we plan to proceed with the sale of these lots"

Dalya Alberge has written about the forthcoming antiquities sale at Christie’s New York for the Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2010). She quotes Paolo Ferri, the Italian prosecutor, on the three lots that appear to have similarities with objects featured in the Medici Dossier.

Reflecting on Seized Antiquities from 2009

In 2009 three antiquities were seized from a single New York auction-house: one just prior to the sale, and two subsequent to it (after being sold for c. $120,000). The auction-house co-operated fully in 2009 and subsequently stated (over the later seizure) that “the transparency of the public auction system combined with the efforts from the U.S. ICE and foreign governments, in this matter, led to the identification of two stolen artifacts”.

Earlier this month (May 2010) the same spokeswoman stated that “we do not sell works that we have reason to believe are stolen”.

Presumably any objects that have parallel collecting histories (“provenances”) to those seized in 2009 will be dealt with in a similar fashion.

Two of the pieces reported to have been seized in New York during 2009 [ICE].

Speaking of partage….when’s the Met going to start digging?

I had occasion to reread an article in The New York Times outlining the “Italian Agreement” and was reminded of something that surprised me at the time: part of the agreement includes the Met beginning excavations in Italy. From the NY Times, Feb. 22, 2006 (Arts section, “Italy and U.S. Sign Antiquities Accord”):

The agreement also allows the Met to conduct authorized excavations at its own expense in Italy, the fruits of which would be lent to the Met “for the time necessary for their study and restoration.”

Mr. de Montebello said that because the museum’s antiquities department was busypreparing for a major reorganization of its Greek and Roman collections, it had not decided which digs it would participate in.

Now that the reorganization of the Greek and Roman galleries is over, one wonders if this is in the works. And, for the Met, certainly partage would be a nicer arrangement than a long-term loan for study and restoration, as was the case with their Egyptian excavations at the beginning of the 20th century.

Due Diligence, Antiquities and Auction-houses

The decision by Bonhams (London) to withdraw a Roman statue from its sale of antiquities this month has reminded us that auction-houses have yet to take the problem of newly surfaced antiquities seriously. The marble youth featured in the dossier of Polaroids seized from the premises of Giacomo Medici in the Geneva Freeport. Its collecting history (misleadingly termed as “provenance”) showed that it had surfaced at a Sothebys London auction in December 1986. 

Last year three antiquities were seized from Christies in New York. They too are reported to have featured in the Medici “archive”.

Has the time come for auction-houses to adopt 1970 as the benchmark for collecting histories? It would certainly avoid the bad publicity generated by the withdrawals.

Charges against True and Hecht to be dropped

Sources close to the case have confirmed that Marion True’s and Bob Hecht’s conspiracy trial in Rome will not end by October 2010. At that time, further prosecution will be barred by a statute of limitations; the case will be dismissed and charges dropped.

How will this development affect museum acquisitions? Read about the case in The Medici Conspiracy, winner of SAFE’s 2006 Beacon Award.

CPAC review of MOU between U.S. and Italy

Last week, the U.S. Department of State issued a Notice of the Meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to take place May 6-7, 2010. The committee will review a proposal to extend the MOU between the U.S. and Italy concerning the current import restrictions on archaeological material. You can register to speak or simply sit in during the public session (May 6th 9:30-11AM) by calling the Cultural Heritage Center. Note that if you do wish to speak at this meeting, comments are limited to 5 minutes and must be submitted for the committee’s review by April 22, 2010. Even if you cannot be attendance at the CPAC meeting, you can still make a difference by faxing a letter to the Cultural Heritage Center (also by April 22). Please refer to SAFE’s “Say YES to Italy” page and to the AIA’s guidelines to write an informed and effective letter expressing your hope that the U.S. will extend their bilateral agreement with Italy.

Context and the Morgantina Hoard

The exhibition in Italy of the Morgantina Hoard has been in the news recently and David Gill discusses this on the Looting Matters blog (“Morgantina Hoard: on display in Rome “). This was a group of silver vessels that was reportedly dug up illegally some time before 1981 when the Metropolitan Museum of New York bought it. It turns out that it had probably been looted from the ruins of a Greek house in Morgantina, Sicily, and excavations in the building – on the basis of information received from artefact hunter Giusseppe Mascara – revealed traces of severe looting and two holes were found from which it seems the silver vessels had been taken. Eventually the Metropolitan Museum agreed to the material returning to Italy.

Gill points out that knowing precisely where this particular group of objects (or rather two separate groups of objects now muddled up) had come from allowed them to be seen in the context of other items from that same context and its surroundings, which reveals the capability of that other information to add to our understanding of the objects themselves.

Archaeologist Malcolm Bell had found names scratched on the bottom of several vessels. These showed that the silver had belonged to a Morgantina family, named Eupolemos. The same name was found inscribed on a lead tablet in the Morgantina museum, and the tablet is the deed to a house in the area where the excavations had revealed the looters’ holes.

Italy’s Art Squad Celebrates 40 Years of Success

On 3 May 1969, the Carabinieri (Italian National Police) instituted a 16-member unit within the Ministry of Public Education with the purpose of protecting cultural heritage. Predating the UNESCO 1970 treaty by a year, Italy became an early leader in the protection of cultural heritage and has since dedicated unprecedented effort to keeping Italy’s myriad artistic treasures safe.

40 years later, Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo is host to the exhibition “L’Arma per l’Arte – Antologia di Meraviglie,” or “Armed Forces for Art: Anthology of Wonders,” which highlights the growth and success of the now-called Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela Patrimonio Culturale – or division for the protection of cultural patrimony – by telling the stories of embattled masterpieces that have been looted, stolen, trafficked, or otherwise put at risk, and finally, through the investigative and legal efforts of the TPC, have made a homecoming back in Italy.

The show is organized into three sections: works recovered from abroad by means of legal action, works recovered from abroad by means of letters of request and cooperation, and works recovered within the Republic of Italy. The pieces range from paintings, spirited away from unprotected churches or museums in the Italian countryside and smuggled far from their homes, to ancient pieces that ended up in prominent foreign collections after being taken in illegal digs by tombaroli (tomb raiders) and smuggled out of Italy after the UNESCO treaty of 1970. Each piece on display has a narrative of the theft and recovery, highlighting the often long and complicated process of tracking down a painting after it disappears into thin air, or finding an artifact that was never even known to exist before being dug up by a tombarolo.

The exhibit also features a tour of the Carabinieri TPC’s online resources, where visitors can research a database of over 12,500 stolen works of art and also find advice about what to do in case of a discovered object of suspicious provenance or clandestine dig.

The most famous piece on display is the Sarpedon krater attributed to Euphronios, which was returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008 after some 35 years out of Italy. Other notable works include paintings by Raphael, Bellini and Van Gogh, and a marble statue of Hadrian’s wife Sabina, which the Boston Museum of Fine Arts agreed to return in 2006.

“L’Arma per L’Arte 1969-2009″ continues through 30 January 2010, at Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome.

"Wonderful objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction"

In June this year G. Max Bernheimer, Christie’s International Department Head of Antiquities, commented on the June 3 sale of antiquities that raised $3.4 million. He spoke positively about the sale:

“Today’s strong results show that wonderful objects with clear provenance continue to perform exceedingly well at auction.”

It now appears that two of the lots have been seized by agents of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). [For initial story with pictures see here.] The Public Relations section of Christie’s has confirmed the “identification” of “two stolen artifacts”.

The seizures appear to point back to the Summa Gallery, the source for the Kyknos calyx-krater that is due to be handed back to Italy from a New York private collector.

The seizures additionally raise a major issue of what can be termed “clear provenance” (or in some circles “good provenance” and even occasionally “fully provenanced“).

Provenance is a much misunderstood word. What I suspect is meant by the term is “collecting history”.

So what gives an archaeological object a “clear” or “good” collecting history? One answer is that it can be traced back to the period before the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

New Exhibition of Recovered Antiquities in Rome

A new exhibition of recovered antiquities and works of art opened in Rome last week. Further details are available from here.

The show includes the Sarpedon krater once owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are also pieces returned from other North American collections.