Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is It Legit, or Is It a "Gee"?

Heads I Win
(Australia’s Most Audacious Coin Forger)
by Jeffrey Watson, Don Thomas and Jack Bennett
Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1986, hardbound

The charming and brilliant thief and forger David Gee had the advantage over many of his victims and legal adversaries. He was an expert and in some instances, the expert. His knowledge and other talents were the making of a forger who, with some ease, fooled the best and brightest in his field in the 1960s and early 70s.

Gee’s unconventional path to acquiring or re-creating the finest examples of early Australian coinage, with emphasis on gold, was hewed out in part by his charm and in part by his knack for making “a mockery of the security systems in some of Australia’s most prestigious museums and libraries.”

That is the assessment of the authors, two journalists and Don Thomas, detective chief inspector of the Commonwealth Police at the time of Gee’s escapades. Thomas may have played cat to Gee’s mouse but if so would have been one very frustrated and hungry cat before the game played out.

Evidence provided in the book details a fairly astonishing career, but, like Thomas’s investigation, this account seems a cautious effort. One has to wonder, beyond pillaging rare and valuable coins from the Royal Australian Mint and the world class and priceless Dixon Collection of the State Library of New South Wales, what other monumental crimes did Gee accomplish in his heyday? Only Gee could tell us for certain and, among his many talents, he was certainly a liar extraordinaire.

(I recently saw a note concerning the auction of a rare 1930 Australian penny. These were at first thought to exist only as proofs, I believe, and then later it was found that a very few, probably not many more that 50, had slipped into circulation…somehow. At any rate, the commentator mentioned Gee created a die for the 1930 penny that has never been found).

As to his two known targets:

The State Library of New South Wales houses the incredible coin collection of Sir William Dixon, a man possessed of the extreme wealth necessary to acquire the rarest coins and medals – as well as the dies and equipment necessary to produce more of those rarities. Access to the collection is restricted but that proved little barrier for coin expert Robert Low. And, yes, “Low” was among the 70 or so aliases of our clever friend Gee.

The other target was the Royal Mint where Gee became great friends with Director James Miller Henderson. With Henderson’s approval, Gee was able to bypass security routines to spend time among the Mint’s unique and priceless collection of rarities. It wasn’t always necessary for Gee to steal; his friend Henderson simply gave him certain quite rare coins as mementos. Henderson, it should be noted, operated as though he owned the national mint, and had many powerful friends in and out of government who supported or turned a blind eye to his autocratic behavior.

What was the secret of Gee’s knack for making friends among the high and mighty? Well, his expertise was no hindrance. And he threw fabulous parties. Another possible factor was his connection to the porn industry, where his screenings of top imported triple-X films attracted a well-to-do audience.

Gee’s downfall came as a result of the determined efforts of detective Thomas and his assistants. Thomas seems to have plowed ahead with his investigation even when lacking the support or encouragement of higher ups. Thomas tracked Gee’s thefts and forgeries not only in Australia but in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland as well.

The 50 charges brought against Gee were only those where Thomas felt he had an ironclad case. Nonetheless, prosecutors reduced those to fourteen. Following a trial involving some 90 witnesses and 1200 exhibits, a jury found Gee guilty on ten of the counts. During breaks in the trial, Gee and Thomas had many amicable chats.

Sentenced to seven years, Gee served three. During that time he became great friends with the prison superintendent and was often granted leave to go shopping or to attend classes outside the prison.

Gee’s forgeries are still sold now and then as genuine, according to knowledgeable observers of the coin market. It may be some comfort to purchasers, should their error be revealed, to know his forgeries are themselves sought-after collectibles bringing high prices today.

(By the way, I had quite a time tracking down a copy of this book, I wish you better luck).

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