No small change, this

A major collection of ancient coins is to go on the auction block.

wolgang masser311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
wolgang masser311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Wolfgang Masser has spent decades assembling one of the best private collections of ancient coins in Israel. On September 27, the 83-year-old Ashkelon man will bid them good-bye; his vast collection will be sold in 112 lots at a major auction taking place at Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel run by the Archeological Center in Old Jaffa and its head, Robert Deutsch, a licensed antiquities dealer who teaches at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.
Masser said simply that he doesn’t wish to burden his children and grandchildren with the sale.
Born in Munich, Masser found a refuge from the Nazis in neutral Switzerland in 1940. Motivated by Zionism, 29 years later he arrived in Ashkelon’s half-built Afridar neighborhood as a new immigrant. There he recalled how his nosy neighbors wanted to know how much he paid for his bungalow villa. “The expression ‘single family house’ was unknown,” he recalled.
One of those inquisitive neighbors was Haim Yashin, who worked as a textile salesman in Tel Aviv but whose passion was his twin collections of old Russian and ancient Jewish coins.
Intrigued, Masser soon became a serious numismatic collector himself.
“I must admit that I became enthusiastic quite quickly,” he said. “Can one really find and acquire coins that lay in the hands of men and women who lived in this country 2,000 years ago and bore names from ancient writings such as Shimon Bar-Kochba, Pontius Pilate and Herod? “My Zionist idealism was mixed with curiosity and romanticism. The time was indeed opportune – the situation had ‘normalized’ after the events of the Six Day War. People from the “field” – Jews, Arabs and, of course, officials interested in archeology began to search for coins, and relatively many specimens came into the open.”
Since Masser had a car and Yashin didn’t, the two began to drive regularly to Bethlehem and Jerusalem on Saturdays in search of rarities.
“The main and richest source was a young Greek-Catholic Arab dealer from Bethlehem called Kando,” Masser recalled. “This slightly built young man had been introduced to the ‘profession’ by his father, Khalil Eskander, an antiquities dealer nicknamed Kando.

“The father became known in connection with the discovery and sale of the famous scrolls of Qumran near the Dead Sea to Hebrew University Prof. Eliezer Sukenik (father of Yigael Yadin). He made some money with the scrolls, which he used to set up an antiquities shop for his son in Bethlehem and to buy himself a hotel in Jerusalem, where he set up a similar shop – but where we only rarely found anything of interest,” continued Masser.
“The antiquities shop of Kando Jr. was a modest place in the main street of Bethlehem, not far from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. As you came inside, there were display cases on the right and left with ancient ceramic, glass and a few ancient metal artifacts. No coins in view. In the background stood an enormous desk and behind it, Kando Jr.”
Negotiations over a sale involved an elaborate and time-consuming ritual, recalled Masser. “If he had a visitor, then he would bid him a hasty farewell and turn to us. First coffee, family and politics. Then he would slowly bring out for us his latest acquisitions in a ceremony – the longer it lasted, the more beautiful and valuable were the coins he presented.
“This was intended, and put us in a heated state of anticipation. The coins were examined with a magnifying glass and their history and year of issue were discussed.
“Finally the price was mentioned. This part of the conversation was usually handled by Haim, who had much more experience than me. In most cases, there was a discount.
“Kando was, despite his youth, clever enough to know how to handle regular customers who were market-savvy. On especially successful occasions he made us a present of an ancient oil lamp from the same period, or invited us to lunch. He was a very good salesman. There was full trust on both sides.
“When he showed us especially valuable pieces which I desired but did not have enough money on me for – I never bought on credit – he would let me take the coin with me, saying, ‘So we shall meet in 14 days, with the money or with the coin.’ Everything took place without written agreements.”
The circumstances that allowed Masser and Yashin to painstakingly amass their collections have changed, the collector continued.
The first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, made visiting Bethlehem risky for Jews. But it also made life there problematic for Christians. Kando and his family, along with many co-religionists, abandoned their hometown to look for a safer haven in America. Other Christians fled to Europe, Australia and Canada, leaving Bethlehem today a city with a large Muslim majority.
The laws of supply and demand, moreover, have greatly inflated prices, while forgeries and sales of illegally excavated coins have become more common.
The Archeological Center’s 48th public auction will take place at the Dan Hotel, Rehov Hayarkon 99, Tel Aviv on Monday, September 27, beginning at 6 p.m. For more information, contact (03) 682-6243.