By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ….
“To declare that a forged coin is genuine is a mistake, but to declare that a genuine coin is a forgery is a crime.”
—Leo Mildenberg (1913 – 2001)
FOR CLASSICAL NUMISMATISTS any discussion of fake ancient coins is… a delicate subject. Dealers worry that fear of fakes will scare off potential collectors. Collectors worry that the prevalence of fakes could depress the value of their coins. In reality, most ancient fakes are not dangerous to an expert, or even to a well-informed beginner. In the eternal war between forger and authenticator, the good guys still hold the advantage.
“Some people differentiate between the terms “counterfeit” and “forgery”, using “counterfeit” to refer to fakes created to circulate and “forgery” to refer to fakes created to deceive collectors.”
Counterfeits are almost as old as coinage. Ancient counterfeits circulated widely in a world where small change was often in short supply. Whether, cast, struck or plated, such fakes are still ancient coins, and many are quite collectable today. Modern fakes, on the other hand, are usually worthless, unless they are precious metal with some melt value, or examples of the work of famous forgers of the Renaissance and early modern eras.
The rediscovery of classical antiquity during the Italian Renaissance (circa 1300 – 1500 CE) created a market for ancient artifacts. Princes and Popes vied with one another to assemble impressive collections of ancient marble statues, metalwork and coins. When the demand exceeded the supply, fakers were quick to exploit the opportunity.
The most famous coin artist of this era was Giovanni Cavino (c. 1499-1570) of Padua.
“Cavino’s imitations were not originally designed as forgeries, and it was against his wishes that they were passed off as genuine antiques. But as such many of them found their way into the most celebrated collections of Europe…”
Cavino’s coins were struck from finely engraved dies, some of which still survive in a Paris museum. Later, cheap cast copies known as “Paduans” (and often catalogued as “after Cavino”) were produced. These are easily distinguished from the originals.
Some of Cavino’s best-known coins were “fantasies” – designs that never appeared on any ancient coin, such as his “sestertius” of Otho, who never issued this denomination. Otho ruled only from 15 January to 16 April 69 CE – the “Year of Four Emperors”. The lack of a sestertius from this ruler left a gap in many collections, and Cavino filled it, by copying the design of a rare denarius with a left-facing bust (on most of his coins Otho faces right). Another Cavino fantasy pairs an obverse of Vespasian (69 – 79) with the very rare “Colosseum” reverse, which was only issued by his sons Titus (79 – 81) and Domitian (81 – 96).
The most famous ancient coin forger of the early modern era was Karl Wilhelm Becker (1772-1830), who produced high-quality, hand-struck struck fakes of some 300 different Greek, Roman and Medieval coins. Many of Becker’s fakes were struck in tin or “white metal” (an alloy of tin, lead, antimony and other metals in variable proportions). But others were overstruck on worn ancient coins of low value, so the metal is actually authentic. He simulated wear on his coins by packing them in a box of iron filings attached to the axle of his carriage.
Becker always insisted that his work was not intended to defraud collectors, but only to make great works of numismatic art available to collectors of modest means. In 1824, the Austrian Imperial Coin Cabinet in Vienna acquired Becker’s dies, and a detailed catalog of his work was published a century later (Hill, 1924). Becker fakes frequently appear (correctly attributed as fakes) in European auctions.
Peter Rosa (1926-1990) was born in New York City, where he lived most of his life. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II. After the war he worked in the Merchant Marine and often visited London, where he began collecting casts of magnificent ancient coins in the British Museum. He worked briefly for a metal stamping and casting firm, but he was mainly self-taught, learning die making and metallurgy from books and through trial and error (Sayles, 5).
In 1955 doing business as the “Becker Manufacturing Company” he began selling reproductions of ancient coins and Becker’s fakes. Over the course of three decades, he produced many hundreds of different coin dies; some 331 were acquired by the American Numismatic Society (ANS).
In 1973, the US Congress passed the Hobby Protection Act prohibiting the importation or sale “of any imitation numismatic item which is not plainly and permanently marked COPY”. Mainly intended to protect collectors of classic US coins from Chinese counterfeits, the act was amended by the 2014 Collectible Coin Protection Act.
Rosa insisted that his reproductions were never intended to deceive collectors, and freely donated specimens from his dies for use by certification services. But when worn, scratched and artfully patinated, Rosa’s reproductions can look convincing to beginners.
Rosa’s nephew and apprentice, Charles Doyle, continues to offer Rosa coin replicas, doing business as CoinReplicas.com.
The legal status of these products appears to be uncertain.
Most deceptive fakes of ancient coins originate in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but there is growing concern that East Asian counterfeiters may be entering the business as well.
The best way for a collector to avoid fake ancient coins is to purchase only from reputable dealers. How do you know a dealer is “reputable”? Dealers who are members of the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) and the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) are carefully screened and must comply with a rigorous code of ethics.
Now, we need to talk about eBay.
I know dealers who have purchased genuine ancient coins for remarkably low prices on eBay, but they knew exactly what they were doing. Many “ancient” coins offered for sale on eBay are deceptive fakes, particularly Roman denarii. A well-informed eBay user from the UK posted a detailed and helpful guide, “How to avoid buying fake ancient coins on eBay”, dated 15 April 2015, which I highly recommend (you can read it here).
Any serious collector of ancients should also read Wayne Sayles’ excellent book, Classical Deception (2001). Any serious collector of Biblical or Judaean coins should own (and study!) David Hendin’s book Not Kosher (2005). Any serious collector of Byzantine coins probably already owns David Sears’ indispensible handbook Byzantine Coins and Their Values (1987), but would be well advised to consult the 33-page appendix on “Forgeries of Byzantine Coins from the ‘Beirut’ and Other ‘Schools.’”
A good rule to remember is that if a deal seems too good to be true, it is very probable that it’s are neither good nor true.
* * *
 Cited in Hendin (2005), p. 37
 Lawrence (1883), p. 5
Golenko, Konstantin V. “The Method of Counterfeiting Ancient Coins of the Bosporous by M. Sazonov, as Told by Himself”, ANS Museum Notes 20 (1975)
Hendin, David. Not Kosher: Forgeries of Ancient Jewish and Biblical Coins. New York (2005)
Hill, George F. Becker the Counterfeiter. London (1924)
Innes, Brian. Fakes and Forgeries: The True Crime Stories of History’s Greatest Deceptions. New York (2005)
Jones, Mark. Fake? The Art of Deception. Berkeley (1990)
Lawrence, Richard H. Medals by Giovanni Cavino, The “Paduan”. New York (1883)
Prokopov, Ilya S. Counterfeits of Roman and Byzantine Gold Coins. Sofia (2015)
Prokopov, Ilya S., Kissyov, K. and E. Paunov. Modern Counterfeits and Replicas of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins from Bulgaria. Sofia (2003)
Prokopov, Ilya S. Modern Forgeries of Greek and Roman Coins. Sofia (1997)
Prokopov, Ilya S. and E. Paunov. Cast Forgeries of Classical Coins from Bulgaria. Sofia (2004)
Sayles, Wayne G. Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins. Iola, WI (2001)
Sear, David. Byzantine Coins and Their Values. London (1987)
Ancient Roman Imperial Coins Currently Available on eBay
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