The Downfall of an Ancient Coin Dealer Who Defrauded Customers of Millions and Lost a Bronze Head
Illustration by Jon Krause
The Ancient Coin Club of Los Angeles meets on the second Sunday of every month in the so-called “community room” of the Sherman Oaks Galleria.
The Ancient Coin Club of Los Angeles meets on the second Sunday of every month in the so-called “community room” of the Sherman Oaks Galleria.It’s an antiseptic, heavily air-conditioned conference room with an entrance near the Cheesecake Factory. A typical meeting consists of each attendee — mostly older men — telling the others about their recent purchases. They pass to one another the newly bought coins, for example, a denarius, a silver Roman coin about the size of a dime with the thickness of a poker chip.
At a recent meeting, members passed around an ancient, Roman Empire bronze sestertius, about the size of a silver dollar, with a portrait of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“That’s a beautiful patina,” one member said, referring to the coin’s surface area, which he held about 2 inches from his eye.
The second half of the meeting is devoted to a “seminar” on Sulla, a Roman general who invaded his home country and had the Senate declare him dictator in 82 B.C. (or possibly 81 B.C., history of that era is a bit fuzzy), briefly interrupting the Roman Republic. The members of the club slog through Sulla’s biography, from his early childhood and his wars with Gaius Marius to his bloody reign, when he sought to undo the populist land reforms of his predecessors. Especially noteworthy to this group is that Sulla is believed to be the first living Roman to put his face on a coin, a silver tetradrachm struck around 85 B.C. Another coin depicts a dream Sulla once had, in which he envisioned a goddess placing a thunderbold into his hands to strike down his enemies.
“That coin is extremely rare,” says David Michaels, the director of classical coins at Heritage Auction Galleries, who attends the Ancient Coin Club’s meetings whenever he’s in town. “There are fewer than five in the world. If one came on the market today, it would probably sell for a quarter million dollars.”
Nearly everyone at the coin club’s meeting has heard of Rob Freeman, a noted coin scholar, or numismatist, and the owner of Freeman and Sear, formerly one of the top five ancient-coin dealers in the country. About half the people in the room knew Freeman personally. Michaels was the sales director of Freeman and Sear for nine years. Another man in the room was, for a time, Freeman’s lawyer, and many of the others were loyal customers.
“He was the finest dealer I’ve ever worked with,” says Barry Rightman, who’s been collecting coins for half a century and has known quite a few dealers. “I have a number of coins in my collection that I bought from him, or he got for me in European auctions. I had exceptional trust in him.”
Most of Freeman’s peers and customers felt this way, which is why they were so surprised when rumors about him began to circulate, citing missing coins, bounced checks, cheated customers, some sort of Ponzi scheme. Then there’s the mystery of what happened to the head of the Roman Lucius Aelius Verus, a larger-than-life bronze head depicting the adopted son of Emperor Hadrian and the father of Co-Emperor Lucius Verus.
“There are so many rumors going around, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction,” says Victor England Jr., co-owner of Classical Numismatic Group, one of the nation’s top coin dealerships.
At least 20 lawsuits have been filed against Freeman in the last four years, alleging such acts as breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, misrepresentation, negligence and fraud. One such complaint, filed in January 2016 by Marie Rosales and Jack Luu, alleges the two plaintiffs were victims of a “Ponzi scheme,” and were “swindled out of more than $1 million by con men passing themselves off as legitimate dealers of ancient coins and antiques.”
“I’ve known Rob for probably 25 years,” says Ira Goldberg, who with his cousin Larry owns an auction house. “I would say he just went bad. He was a fine numismatist, always honorable and hardworking. That all changed about three years ago.”
Reached by phone, Freeman was reluctant to talk. His lawyer had advised him not to. He said he couldn’t discuss anything mentioned in any of the many lawsuits filed against him. But he was eager to salvage what he could of his tattered reputation.
“I’ve been in this business for 35 years,” Freeman said. “I’ve been very upstanding in this business. I’m a great numismatist. I didn’t suddenly become a treacherous villain.”
Ira Goldberg, coin and antiques collector
Rob Freeman grew up in West Los Angeles and was valedictorian of the Venice High School class of 1978. When he was 10, he spent $3 at a shop on Venice Boulevard for his first ancient coin: a small bronze coin with the face of Emperor Valens.
“I was amazed at how inexpensively one could acquire a coin that was 2,000 years old,” Freeman noted. “There’s a misconception that because of the age, they’re of extreme value. But the Romans struck coins in the millions. They were like the pennies of the ancient world, some of these bronzes. They’re easily obtainable.”
Ancient coins were made by literally striking a hammer against two hand-made metal dies, which created an impression upon the heated flan — the gold, silver, bronze or combination thereof. Civilizations of the ancient era — Greeks, Romans, Macedonians, Celts — made millions and millions of coins in this fashion, paying for armies and fueling regional commerce. The coins also served as mass communication and propaganda. When Mark Antony and Cleopatra formed an alliance after the death of Julius Caesar, they had a coin minted that featured each of their faces on opposing sides.
“If you go back, there are no newspapers, no records, nothing in writing,” Kenneth Edlow, chairman of the Board of the American Numismatic Society, says. “The messages that the government wanted to get out were put on coins.”
Freeman studied history at UCLA, specializing in Celtic history and languages, and perhaps would have gone on to a life in academics had he not been offered a job at Numismatic Fine Arts, a prominent coin dealership owned by Bruce McNall.
Today, McNall is best known as the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings, and as the man who shocked the world by signing the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky. He was also, however briefly, a Hollywood player who helped produce such films as Weekend at Bernie’s, Gleaming the Cube and Mr. Mom.
But McNall’s fortune was built on ancient coins. He was no ordinary dealer. His company, Numismatic Fine Arts, had a storefront on Rodeo Drive; his clients included film producers like Sy Weintraub (who held the rights to the Tarzan franchise for about 25 years), and billionaires like oil executive Nelson Bunker Hunt — men who knew nothing of coins but wanted to build massive collections.
“Bruce dealt with a crowd of L.A. people,” says the New York–based coin dealer Victor England Jr. “He dealt more with a group of people who were interested in investing in coins.”
England’s business is more or less a retail operation. He sells to hobbyists, the kind of people who attend the Ancient Coin Club of L.A. “I sell to people who have a passion to collect,” he says. “I sell stress relief. I sell escapism. I’m just as happy selling someone a $2,000 coin as I am a $200,000 coin.”
The focus of McNall’s business came to be something much different. From his perch in Beverly Hills, he was selling investment vehicles. He even started two multimillion-dollar investment funds with Merrill Lynch, in which investors could buy shares of a pool of ancient coins that he managed (both funds lost money for investors, though McNall himself was paid to manage the fund).
Freeman would later do something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. Many of the people suing him allege that they bought shares in pools of coins but never saw returns. Marie Rosales and Jack Luu bought a percentage of a pool of coins for $1.25 million. They allege that Freeman promised a 30 percent profit in one year, which would have been a remarkable return.
It was too good to be true.
In 1997, McNall pled guilty to multiple counts of bank fraud. He spent five years in prison. One of his victims was Goldberg, who has the dubious distinction of allegedly having been ripped off by both McNall and Freeman. Goldberg had sold a controlling interest in his company, Superior Stamp & Coin, to McNall. Short on liquidity, McNall forged Goldberg’s signature and used Superior’s line of credit to borrow millions of dollars — doing so, according to court documents, “to maintain his other ventures and his extraordinary lifestyle.” Superior was forced into bankruptcy.
Freeman worked for Numismatic Fine Arts for eight years, starting as an assistant to the president, then working his way up to sales manager and vice president.
“He was extremely knowledgeable, probably the brightest person there,” McNall says. “The best coin cleaner in the business. When the shit hit the fan for me, I later found out that some of my people were less than honest from me, getting kickbacks from dealers. The only person that never had done that was Rob Freeman.”
In 1993, Freeman left to form Freeman and Sear, along with David R. Sear, perhaps the most noted coin scholar in the world, author of the book Roman Coins and Their Values, and someone who had also been at Numismatic Fine Arts.
His time working for McNall had given Freeman contacts with ancient-coin dealers all over the world. In the eyes of any knowledgeable collector, Sear’s name gave the new business instant credibility.
“It was just the two of us for many years,” Freeman recalled. “We would call it probably a vest-pocket dealership. There was no brick-and-mortar presence. We ran it out of the back of his house. Most of the time, it was us trying to figure out where we would go to lunch that day.”
Today, if you go to Sear’s personal website, a message in bold lettering at the top of the page reads: “I wish it to be known that David R. Sear has no connection with the company currently doing business as ‘Freeman and Sear,’ this association having been terminated in 2001.” The site makes no other mention of what happened to the partnership.
Freeman said the parting was amicable, and that he continued to do business under the name Freeman and Sear, up until recently, with Sear’s permission.
Reached via email, Sear wrote curtly but politely: “At the time we parted company, Mr. Freeman had a flourishing and successful business, and I felt I had assisted him sufficiently in establishing himself. As a published author in London, I had more pressing demands on my time, and I felt it was time to move on. As to why he continued to use my name to do business, you will have to ask him — it was certainly not with my consent.”
The bronze head of Aelius Verus, which has gone missing.
Courtesy Ira and Larry Goldberg Auctioneers
The trouble began, according to Freeman, in 2007, when he started a new company, Helios, based in Munich, closer to where the majority of the world’s most valuable coins first hits the market. But Freeman lived in Los Angeles. Helios was run by a few employees in whom Freeman had placed great trust.
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His friend and former boss, Bruce McNall, recalls being skeptical of the German venture: “At the time I said, ‘Rob, when you’re dealing with companies that far away, what controls do you have in place?’ He said, ‘Oh I trust this guy running it.’”
“I was very slow to realize the ineptitudes and improprieties being undertaken there,” Freeman said. “Specifically, by the management team. The expenditures were tremendous. There were improprieties of some significance. I can’t go into the details with you.”
That’s more or less the tale Freeman has told everyone who asks why he did it, why he started playing games with people’s coins and writing bad checks and acting like some third-rate Bernie Madoff of the ancient-coin world.
Not everyone buys the Helios story.
“I don’t believe it for five minutes,” says Deborah Klar, a lawyer who represented a doctor, Jack Turner, who sued Freeman. The Helios story, she says, is too vague. “No one has ever been able to provide an explanation for what happened to all the money.”
Others have wondered why Freeman didn’t try harder to go after his German employees.
“He didn’t handle it the way I would have handled it,” says one wealth manager, whose client was allegedly defrauded by Freeman. “He was like, ‘I asked and I didn’t get it.’ It seemed so casual.”
“A good businessman would have shut it down, fired them all, sued them all,” McNall says. “He didn’t do that. He thought, ‘It’ll all be OK.’ And it never was. Therefore all the things that people lost, he ended up taking the hit for it.” Then again, McNall says, Freeman was never a very good businessman: “He was more of an academic coin guy.”
Goldberg thinks Freeman’s troubles began not with bad employees but with bad coins: four silver Athenian decadrachm, very rare, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Goldberg says he bought one of the coins, which later turned out to be a fake.
Freeman won’t comment on the Athenian decadrachms, except to say that they were bought by Helios’ managing director. When he was deposed by Goldberg’s attorney, Arnold Gold, in 2013, he was questioned about the coin.
“Was it genuine?” Gold asked.
“It was at the time I gave it to him,” Freeman said.
“As you sit here today, is that coin genuine?” Gold asked again.
“It’s uncertain, the authenticity,” Freeman said. “It’s being discussed, investigated. I agreed with Mr. Goldberg to try to get my monies back for it… No, we did not succeed in getting it back.”
It was the decadrachms, according to Goldberg’s theory, that first plunged Freeman into debt, allegedly causing him to begin cheating people.
“I think that’s what got him in trouble,” Goldberg says. “I’m speculating. If he knew they were bad, I don’t know, but he got caught, and he could not pay back the people he sold them to. Then he started robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Freeman’s alleged victims include millionaires and prominent businessmen, people like Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber (who was introduced to Freeman by Bruce McNall); Win Neuger, who ran AIG’s global investment portfolio for many years preceding the housing crash (and whom Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi has castigated for AIG’s role in the global financial crisis); film producer/nightclub impresario Victor Drai; and film producer/investor Steve Markoff. They also include small-time investors and vest-pocket coin dealers like Merrill Gibson.
When he was 11 months old, Gibson was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that attacks the central nervous system. The disease left him severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair.
Gibson didn’t start collecting ancient coins until about 15 years ago, but when he did, he was immediately transfixed. “It’s like traveling to a different country,” he says. “People in the ancient world were motivated by some very base instincts, some very root human impulses. There’s just so much of the raw humanity that’s exposed.”
One of the first coins he bought was from Freeman. That relationship continued for years, well after Gibson had himself started a coin dealership, Apollo Numismatics.
“When I started off as a dealer, he was kind of a mentor to me,” Gibson says. “I admired him. I thought of him as a brother.”
Ancient-coin dealers all know one another. A well-connected dealer like Freeman would often take coins from other dealers, like Goldberg or Gibson, and sell them on consignment.
“He could reach customers I couldn’t, he had certain expertise that I didn’t have,” Gibson says. “I thought he would do a better job selling certain coins.”
Then, a few years ago, Freeman stopped returning Gibson’s emails. Gibson called. Freeman didn’t answer. He waited a few days, called back, and Freeman’s voice mailbox was full.
“I just became more and more worried,” Gibson says. “He did have quite a lot of coins of mine.” Some 30 coins, he says, mostly Greek, worth maybe $50,000. Gibson figured maybe Freeman was dealing with an emergency — that is, until he discovered that many of his coins had been sold at auction more than a year before, without his knowledge.
“It felt terrible,” Gibson says. “Nobody before that had ever ripped anything off of me for any significant amount. I prided myself on being an exceptional judge of character. And that all came crashing down.
“I really let myself be fooled.”
Gibson went to the cops. In December 2014, Santa Monica Police arrested Freeman and charged him with felony grand theft, the first and apparently only criminal charge to have been filed against him. Freeman spent two hours in jail before being released on $20,000 bail.
Last month, Freeman pled “no contest” to one count of grand theft. As part of the plea deal, Freeman paid Gibson the $40,205 he owed him, making Gibson one of the few victims (if the not only) to have successfully recovered his money from Freeman. The charge, meanwhile, was reduced to a misdemeanor. Freeman was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to complete 300 hours of community service at a nonprofit of his choice.
Gibson says Freeman has never apologized or expressed remorse: “He doesn’t acknowledge wrongdoing.”
Merrill Gibson, coin collector
During his 2013 deposition, Freeman was asked by Gold, “Do you know the sheikh of Qatar?”
“What sheikh of Qatar?” Freeman responded.
“Do you know any sheikh of Qatar?”
“Yes, I do.”
Gold was trying to tease out the identity of a supposed buyer of the bronze head of the Roman Lucius Aelius Verus.
At least two people have claimed to be the rightful owner of the head — Goldberg, and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Guber, co-owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Dodgers, and author of The New York Times best-seller Tell to Win — Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story.
Guber, who’d done business with McNall, started buying coins from Freeman in 2008. According to a lawsuit he would later file, Guber bought 84 mostly Greek coins from Freeman over the course of a few years. In 2010, he decided he wanted to sell. According to the complaint, this was at Freeman’s own suggestion. Freeman sold 38 of his coins but told Guber that the market had “softened,” and that the coins weren’t getting the prices Freeman had hoped for. Freeman then suggested that Guber make a trade: 42 of his remaining coins in exchange for the bronze head of Lucius Aelius Verus.
It was a unique piece, in excellent condition. Antiquities like this don’t often appear on the open market. Guber, who has an extensive arts and antiquities collection, must have been excited. He agreed. He would trade the coins for the head, Freeman would sell the head, and Guber would get the money from the sale, up to $2.7 million. Any proceeds beyond that would be split.
Months passed, and the head didn’t sell. For more than a year, according to the suit, Freeman and his wife, Tory, told Guber and his representatives that they were trying to sell the head and the four remaining coins, but “the market was soft.”
In March 2014, Guber had had enough. He demanded that Freeman produce the head. Freeman agreed. But the head never arrived.
“Neither the bronze head nor the remaining coins have been returned to Mr. Guber,” read the complaint, filed in July 2014. (The suit was later dropped, as Guber shifted his focus to recovering his money through his insurance coverage. He recently filed a suit against his insurance broker, who he alleges gave him bad advice about coverage for the head.)
Goldberg, meanwhile, was also looking for the head. He and Freeman had done business for years, buying and selling coins for one another. According to a lawsuit filed by Goldberg, Freeman had racked up a debt of $2.7 million with Goldberg’s company. To secure more credit, Freeman needed to hand over some collateral. And so he did — 166 rare coins and the bronze head of Lucius Aelius Verus, which Freeman had delivered to Goldberg’s office in West L.A.
“It was magnificent,” Goldberg says. “A very important piece. I figured it was worth at least 2 million.”
Goldberg says he held the head for six months to a year, then told Freeman, “Let’s sell the head.” Freeman agreed but said it would get a better price if they sold it in Europe, and offered to handle the auction and the marketing. In January 2013, Tory Freeman cut Goldberg a check for $500,000, and Goldberg had the head shipped to Bonhams, a London auction house. The check bounced. Goldberg never saw the head again.
By the time Goldberg had Freeman deposed in November 2013, the head had been moved to a different warehouse, under Freeman’s supervision (and without the permission of Goldberg or Guber, who was still unaware of the head’s transatlantic adventures). Under oath, Freeman said he had an interested buyer. After repeated questioning, Freeman admitted that the buyer was “a museum in the former Soviet Bloc” (and not the sheikh of Qatar or any other Qatari sheikh), for the price of 1.5 million pounds, which, according to the pre-Brexit 2013 exchange rate, would have been about $2.4 million.
Today, the head’s whereabouts are a mystery. Freeman won’t say where it is or who bought it from him. Goldberg has tried but failed to recover the head through the European judicial system.
“I hired a barrister to go after it,” Goldberg says. “I’ve run into so many roadblocks.”
He did get a judgment from the L.A. Superior Court worth $2.1 million. He hasn’t seen a dime of it, he says: “I got a judgment, I can wipe my tuchus with it.”
The Freeman and Sear website is no longer online. Freeman said that both his businesses are essentially defunct, though he still does appraisals and helps individuals put together coin collections.
When prodded to discuss his feelings about his recent legal troubles, Freeman admitted: “I’m not happy about it. It was a wave that caught us off guard. We weren’t quick to act on it. It’s disassembled what we’ve built for years. It’s not a good thing.”
“He’s hurt a lot of people in this business, and he’s hurt a lot of collectors,” Goldberg says. “How he could do that to Merrill Gibson is beyond me. This is a man that’s just plain evil.”
Not all of Freeman’s alleged victims are as bitter and unforgiving as Goldberg.
“It’s very easy to be honest if everything is going right and you can pay your rent and feed your family,” says Steve Markoff, who has filed two lawsuits against Freeman, through his companies AMAG and Palm Finance. “When you can’t, that honesty seems to morph into self-protection."