Walter Breen, a nationally heralded rare coin expert whose eccentric personality has made him the "guru of numismatics," has been arrested and charged with eight counts of felony child molestation, Los Angeles police juvenile detectives said Wednesday.
Detective Wayne Wealer said Breen, notorious in normally buttoned-down numismatic circles for his long white beard, shaggy hair and open-neck flowered shirts, was arrested last Thursday as he was reviewing coins at the Superior Galleries on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
Breen, 61, was being held Wednesday on $200,000 bail, Wealer said. Part of the case against the scholar and author involved the fact that he had been on felony probation for a similar child molestation conviction a year ago in the Berkeley area, Wealer said.
Declining to provide many details about the alleged victim, the detective said the case surfaced when a 13-year-old West Los Angeles boy told his parents that he had been victimized repeatedly by Breen over the last four years. Wealer said the boy's parents apparently were friends of Breen and may have known him through his work cataloguing, researching and grading rare coins.
Breen's Oakland attorney, Lincoln Mintz, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The arrest has drawn the concern of other national coin experts and collectors.
Ed Rochette, president of the 31,000-member American Numismatic Assn., said Wednesday that his organization's board of directors will vote Friday on whether to expel the longtime researcher.
"I'm surprised, yes, but I've also heard rumors about this over the last year," Rochette said. "This is going to shock some people, so that's sad. It really is. And he is highly regarded by a lot of people. But we have bylaws that say you must act in the best interests of the association."
Since he began as a numismatist in 1950, Breen has worked as a researcher at the National Archives and spent several years cataloguing auctions for the New Netherlands Coin Co. In the 1960s, after he moved to Berkeley, he forever embraced the hippie counterculture. Soon his appearance became distinctive at coin exhibitions; he looked more like the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia than the stereotype of the serious collector in pin stripes.
He published more than 40 works on coins, including the massive and critically acclaimed "Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins." He also won many prizes, including the American Numismatic Assn.'s Heath Literary Award and the Fifth Award in Poet Laureateship of California.
"If you want to get down into the hobby and the history of U.S. coinage," Rochette said, "Walter was the person you'd turn to."
Another expert, who edits an East Coast coin publication, said Breen's reputation as a coin scholar and author has been "brilliant."
"He is considered the guru of numismatics," the editor said. "Walter has long been recognized for his superior knowledge and his absolute brilliance in this field."
Breen, however, has said in the past that he does not even collect coins. "That's for rich people," he said.