Bad Money: Ancient Counterfeiters and Their fake Coins by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series on Ancient Counterfeiters by Mike Markowitz ….

 

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur
“The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.”
attributed to Petronius, 1st-century Roman satirist

AROUND 650 BCE, on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, coinage was invented. Very soon afterward, Ancient Counterfeiters and their counterfeit coinage appeared, and it has been with us ever since. Counterfeiting has been called the world’s “second oldest profession”[1].

ancient_fouree Ancient CounterfeitersThere were two basic ways of counterfeiting ancient coins.

The first method used by Ancient Counterfeiters was to cover a base metal core with a thin layer of precious metal and then strike it between engraved dies. If the coating was seamless, the dies of good quality, and the weight of the finished piece close enough to the official standard, such coins might pass as genuine. They are known as fourées, from a French word meaning “stuffed.”

ancient_moldA second method used by Ancient Counterfeiters was to make clay molds from an original coin, and then pour molten metal into the molds, usually leaded copper alloy. Ceramic molds could be mass-produced cheaply, so low-value copper coins could be counterfeited profitably. There was a chronic shortage of small change in ancient economies, so even poor quality fakes were accepted in markets for lack of anything better. Authorities tended to ignore such forgeries, even when they enforced savage penalties against counterfeiting precious metal coins.

The First Fakes

Fourées are even older than coinage itself – plated base metal bars have been found that were made to imitate ingots of precious metal used as currency before the introduction of coins.

electrumThe earliest Lydian coins look like metal nuggets (electrum, an alloy of gold and silver) with faint ridges (“striations”) on one side and rough punch marks on the other. Amazingly, there are counterfeits of even these primitive pieces.

Some fourées of tiny early electrum coins[2] were struck with the very same dies used to produce official issues. This has been taken as “proof” that mints simultaneously produced genuine and “counterfeit” (official fake?) coins. Perhaps the ruler’s need for cash exceeded the supply of precious metal. Other interpretations are possible; perhaps these dies were stolen or “borrowed” by moonlighting mint workers and Ancient Counterfeiters.

The Greeks

The Greek city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily issued some of the most widely admired ancient coins of the fifth century BCE, notably a series of tetradrachms bearing a quadriga (four-horse chariot) on the obverse and the head of Arethusa[3] encircled by four swimming dolphins on the reverse. High-quality ancient counterfeits of these coins were produced, and they are quite collectable: one example sold for over US$2,500 in a recent auction[4].

ancient_fake_owlThe “owl” tetradrachms of Athens enjoyed a reputation as good silver and circulated widely in the ancient world. Imitations were so common that in 375 BCE the city enacted “Nikophon’s Law”, establishing official coin testers in the agora (public market):

If anyone brings forward [foreign silver currency] which has the same device as the Attic, [if it is good,] let the Tester give it back to the one who brought it forward; but if it is [bronze at the core] or lead at the core, let him cut it across [immediately]…if the Tester does not sit at his post, or if he does not test according to the law, let the {official} beat him fifty lashes with the [whip]. If anyone does not accept whatever silver currency the Tester has approved, let everything that he offers for sale on [that] day be confiscated.[5]

The Tester would carefully inspect suspected coins, weigh them against the official standard (an “Attic” or Athenian tetradrachm was supposed to weigh 17.24 grams), and perhaps make test cuts on the edge with a small chisel to see if there was a plated core.

Many surviving owls bear such test cuts, which greatly reduce their value to collectors. Some counterfeit owls, even with noticeably deficient weight, managed to survive intact and be collectable today — a 12.44 gram example sold for $300 in a recent auction[6].

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta drained the Athenian treasury. In 406 BCE, Athens was forced to mint “money of necessity”: containing a little silver, plated over a copper core. When peace returned the economy gradually recovered and by 393 BCE Athenians could exchange their emergency coins for good silver.

Romans

Like so many other aspects of their culture, silver coinage was an idea that the Romans adopted from the Greeks, beginning about 290 BCE. Counterfeiting inevitably came along with the innovation.

Pliny “the Elder” (Gaius Plinius Secundus, lived 23-79 CE, died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius) noted that some Romans of his era collected high-grade counterfeits:

It is truly marvellous, that in this art, and in this only, the various methods of falsification should be made a study: for the sample of the false denarius is now an object of careful examination, and people absolutely buy the counterfeit coin at the price of many genuine ones![7]

A noteworthy counterfeit from Pliny’s time is the rare “Judaea Devicta” denarius of Vespasian, issued to celebrate the defeat of the Jewish rebellion. Most of the specimens that appear on the market are ancient fourées – an example with only a few breaks in the silver sold for $2,200 in a 2011 auction[8].

ancient_counterfieters_die

A handful of ancient counterfeiters’ dies used to strike denarii have survived to command high prices on the antiquities market; the example illustrated went for $4,000 in a 2014 auction[9]. There are even fake ancient counterfeiter’s dies (used to strike modern fakes of ancient Roman coins – a topic we will explore in a future article)[10].

From the beginning of metallurgy, the craftsman had to choose among various methods for covering a base metal surface with thin layers of precious metal(s). The aim of both the legitimate artisan and the counterfeiter was to find a technology which permitted the minimum use of precious metal, while at the same time ensuring that their layers adhered as closely as possible to the base core to provide resistance to wear over long periods of use (Gadzac, 126).

It appears that many ancient counterfeiters used “fire gilding[11] to apply the coating.

Mercury readily forms a very soft alloy (called an “amalgam,” it has the consistency of butter) with gold or silver. This was smeared evenly over the surface of the base metal core, which was then heated in a furnace to drive off the mercury as a vapor, leaving the precious metal firmly bound to the surface. An example is a gold plated quinarius[12] of Augustus, described by the cataloguer as “amusing,” that sold for $254 in a recent auction[13].

Collecting Fakes

A favorite coin from my own collection is a counterfeit gold semissis of Theodosius II, purchased in 2002 for $275 – less than half of what a genuine example of similar grade would have cost. The weight (2.12g) is a bit short of the 2.25g standard, and the base metal core shows through the gold on the edge – perhaps where it was filed or clipped in antiquity.

ancient_gold_fakeRemarkably, the coin survived!

The obverse die is well executed, but some letters were engraved backwards on the reverse die and needed to be recut. Reverse dies wore out more quickly, and were usually assigned to less talented apprentices.

Many museums, dealers and old-time collectors have a “black cabinet” of known (or highly suspected) counterfeits, ancient and modern. On CoinArchivesPro.com (a database of ancient coins that have appeared in major auctions over the past two decades) the search term “counterfeit” produced 177 hits as of 3 January 2016. “Fouree” generated 105 hits, and the German equivalent “subaerät[14] returned 513 results. The British Museum collection database listed 584 entries under “coin -forgery.”

Ancient counterfeits are a special case, since they are authentically ancient and therefore of considerable historical interest. When they come on the market, they are usually quite inexpensive compared to their official counterparts.

* * *

Notes

[1] http://www.worldalmanac.com/blog/2007/11/the_second_oldest_profession.html

[2] 1/24 staters weighing about half a gram.

[3] The nymph who presided over the city’s vital freshwater spring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arethusa_(mythology)

[4] Roma Numismatics Ltd., Auction 6, Lot 438, 29 September 2013

[5] The text survived on a marble tablet found in the agora in 1970 (Stroud, 159).

[6] CNG Electronic Auction 348, Lot 237

[7] Natural History, Book 33, Chapter 46 (John Bostock, transl). Online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/.

[8] Goldberg, Auction 65, Lot 4092 (6 September 2011). For comparison, a genuine example, UBS Numismatics, Auction 52, Lot 208 sold for over $5,000 (11 September 2001).

[9] Triton XVII, Lot 518 (7 January 2014)

[10] Gitler, et. al. (1999)

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilding#Fire-gilding

[12] Worth one-half of an aureus, the gold quinarius was rarely issued.

[13] Nomos AG Obolos 2 Sale, Lot 207 (14 June 2015)

[14] From a Latin word meaning “bronze underneath.”

References

Bastien, Pierre. “Imitations of Late Roman Bronze Coins, 318-363” ANS Museum Notes 30 (1985)

Botre, Claudio and Silvia Mani Hurter. “The earliest Roman counterfeit by means of gold/mercury amalgam.” Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau (Swiss Numismatic Review) 79 (2000)

Esty, Warren. “Ancient Imitations of Roman Coins: An educational site about genuinely ancient coins that were imitations or counterfeits in their day”. http://esty.ancients.info/imit/

Gazdac, C. and C. Cosma. “A counterfeiter’s fingerprint on a forged denarius of Marcus Aurelius.” Numismatic Chronicle 174 (2014)

Gitler, Haim; Markus Peter and Matthew Ponting. “A group of false Roman coin dies.” Schweizerische numismatische Rundschau (Swiss Numismatic Review) 78 (1999)

Goldsborough, Reid. “Ancient Fouree Counterfeits”. http://counterfeitcoins.reidgold.com/fourrees.html

Hendin, David. Not Kosher: Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins. Amphora (2005)

Keyser, Paul. “Greco-Roman Alchemy and Coins of Imitation Silver”. American Journal of Numismatics 7-8 (1996)

Sayles, Wayne. Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins. Krause (2001)

Stroud, R.S. “An Athenian Law on Silver Coinage.” Hesperia 2 (1974)

van Alfen, Peter. “Problems in Ancient Imitative and Counterfeit Coinage.” In Zofia Archibald et.al. (eds) Making Moving and Managing: The New World of Ancient Economies, 323 – 31 BC. Oxbow (2006)

Vermeule, Cornelius. “Some Notes on Ancient Dies and Coining Methods”. (reprinted from The Numismatic Circular) Spink (1954)

Weir, Robert. “A Set of Coin Moulds in Winnipeg.” Phoenix 63 (2009)
 

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