By Patrick O’Connor – Aurora Rarities LLC ……
During a recent discussion, the subject of counterfeit coins arose – specifically, the odd circumstance whereby prices for certain counterfeit coins have occasionally exceeded the prices for genuine examples. As the subject of fake coins has been a growing concern among collectors, this seemed an ideal opportunity to review the issue of fakes in general and, by way of example, those from one specific era.
For the purpose of clarity, it is worth noting the distinctions between various types of non-authentic coins. The term “fake” may be used to refer to any kind of coin or item that is not a genuine original. Within this general classification are found several, more specific, categories. Primary among these are: contemporary counterfeit coins, forgeries, and reproductions.
Contemporary counterfeit coins are fake coins made for the purpose of passing in everyday commerce at face value. Contemporary counterfeits were made during the same time period (hence, contemporary) as the genuine government-issue coins they attempt to mimic. They are, therefore, as much a part of numismatic history as the coins they imitate. It is largely for this reason that contemporary counterfeits recently have seen a rise in interest for certain countries and series, accompanied by a corresponding increase in prices for certain pieces.
Forgeries are made with the intent to sell to collectors, generally long after the genuine coins stopped circulating.
Reproductions are generally made for museum purposes, as theatrical props, or for promotional events. Though the original intent of reproductions may not have been to deceive a collector, it was intended to convince viewers on some level that it was very like an original. When such items enter the numismatic marketplace they may, depending on the level of quality, end up fooling some collectors less familiar with the particular series of coins in question. As such, with respect to valuation, reproductions and forgeries may be considered together. Forgeries and reproductions have no value in the marketplace, primarily because paying any amount for such items would encourage their production and harm the hobby.
Throughout history, periods of political and economic turmoil have proven ideal for unscrupulous persons to pass counterfeit coins at face value in commerce. The era of Queen Isabel II of Spain (reigned 1833-1868) is an excellent example of the circumstances in which contemporary counterfeits thrive. Let us review the history of Spain prior to and through her reign to gain a better understanding of the forces at work before delving into the counterfeit coins themselves.
The early part of the 19th century saw the invasion and occupation of Spain by the French, who imported French coinage in large quantities to pay French troops. The aid of British and Portuguese forces in fighting Napoleon also brought coins of those countries into Spain. The return of Spain’s King Ferdinand VII in 1814 did not improve things, as he was an unenlightened and absolutist king in a Spain struggling to cope with the modernizing forces of the industrial revolution.
This period also saw the loss of most of Spain’s colonies to revolutions and independence movements. This, in turn, cut off the steady supply of silver from South American mines and ended the relative economic stability Spain had enjoyed from those imports. While less than a century before Spain had been perhaps the largest and most powerful empire on earth, it was now among the poorest and least advanced in Europe.
The transition from Ferdinand VII to his daughter Isabel II was extremely contentious. Her uncle Carlos was considered the rightful heir by the most conservative faction. The more moderate and progressive factions rallied around Isabel II in hopes of securing a constitutional monarchy. The resulting Carlist Wars scarred the political and moral soul of Spain as horrid brutality often marked the interaction of the battling factions. It was amidst this maelstrom that Queen Isabel II began her reign.
Without silver from her colonies, Spain had to rely on local mines – not to mention the melting of church- and state-owned silver objects, or whatever silver that private parties were willing to sell to the mints. The number of silver coins produced was severely limited. Coins of other countries circulating in Spain actually increased in number as Spain struggled to meet demand for coinage. For a time, the proud country even officially acknowledged French coins as legal tender. By the 1840s the myriad issues of Spanish maravedís, reales, and gold escudos prior to the French invasion were now combined with coins of Ferdinand VII and Isabel II and foreign coinage, primarily from France. Calculation of values of the pre-war gold escudos and reales de plata fuerte into the newer reales (reales de vellón), or to French francs, British pounds, and even cuartos and pesetas of the Cataluña region was a part of daily life for Spaniards.
Continually struggling to improve its economy, Spain’s government implemented four different monetary systems during Isabel’s 25-year reign.
While counterfeiters have practiced their art in many places and times, during this era (and the decades following) the wide array of coins circulating in Spain made it an ideal place to pass counterfeits. The motivation to create and pass counterfeits was simple financial gain, but the method by which this was achieved could vary considerably. This is why many contemporary counterfeits are easily identified as fake while others may be more convincing. Some are of very good quality, some less so, and others are downright crude.
At issue is the fact that a counterfeit need only be passed in commerce once. If a person were able to sufficiently distract those with whom they traded, then perhaps neither party would look at the coins nor recall later from which transaction they came. How often do you look closely at money given to you during a cash transaction? How familiar is the average person with the fine details of coins they accept in commerce?
Some counterfeits may have been produced by individuals or small groups in small quantities. Others, it appears, were masterminded by groups with more resources; this may have included capable engravers, minters, and possibly the use of government dies. Unfortunately, since most counterfeiters do not keep records of their production we have little evidence to go by beyond inference from contemporary news articles, government documents, and the coins themselves.
Contemporary Counterfeit 2 1/2 centimos de escudo 1867B-OM – courtesy Aureo & Calicó
Although counterfeit coins in gold and silver would provide the greatest profit for a counterfeiter’s effort, even low-value copper coins were imitated in mid-to-late 19th-century Spain. The demand for small change and the wide array of coins from different Spanish monetary systems in circulation meant that most any copper that resembled a coin would likely have passed without scrutiny.
Contemporary Counterfeit 40 centimos de escudo 1864M – courtesy Aureo & Calicó
While there were counterfeits of most Isabel II silver issues, the most prevalent are the 4 reales and similarly sized 40 centimos de escudo along with the 10 reales and similarly sized 1 escudo coins. We may surmise that counterfeiters wanted to maximize profit by producing as large a coin as they dared without going all the way to a 20 reales or 2 escudo silver coin that may draw close scrutiny, as these largest silver coins were somewhat less common in commerce.
The reason for this scarcity includes the scarcity of raw silver already discussed, but it was exacerbated by the fact that silver coins of Spain during Isabel’s reign still had a silver content higher than coins of similar face value from France or other countries. Therefore, many silver coins of Isabel II were taken out of circulation and exported to be melted or traded as bullion. Because the amount of silver value above face was relatively small, it would take fairly large transactions to yield a sizable profit. Both for expedience and due to the consistently high silver content of the larger silver coins, it was primarily the 20 reales and 2 escudos and, to a lesser extent, the 10 reales and 1 escudo that exporters favored.
As you might imagine, this resulted in the remaining silver coins circulating heavily. The 4 reales and later 40 centimos de escudo–along with the remaining 10 reales and subsequent 1 escudo silver coins–were the workhorses of daily commerce and it was relatively easy to introduce counterfeits of these denominations. Based on these facts, one theory as to the role of many gold counterfeits at this time suggests they may have been combined with genuine gold coins and traded in bags for large quantities of silver coins of Isabel II.
Authentic gold 80 reales dated 1835, Madrid mint 80R-1835M-CR – courtesy Aureo & Calicó
Authentic gold 10 escudos dated 1865, Madrid mint 10E-1865M – courtesy Aurora Rarities LLC
It is among her gold coins that we find some of the most interesting counterfeits from this era. The primary gold coins of her reign were the pre-decimal 80 reales, the decimal 100 reales, and the 10 escudos. The latter two coins share the same size and weight and both bear the attractive draped laureate bust design of Luis Marchionni. These were the largest denomination coins of Isabel’s era. Beginning in 1861 Spain also issued smaller 20 and 40 reales and, later, 2 and 4 escudos gold coins in an attempt to address the chronic shortage of large silver coins.
Contemporary Counterfeit 80 reales 80R-1843B-PS (no such date with these assayers) – courtesy Aureo & Calicó
Contemporary counterfeit gold coins of Isabel II appear in a wide array of metals and styles with dates spanning much of her reign. Many are silver, copper, or a combination of precious metals, or base metals such as brass or pot metal, which were covered with a thin layer of gold. Some are actually made of gold, but of lesser purity than authentic coins. Many of these are thicker, thinner, heavier, or lighter than authentic pieces. Many are also crude and relatively easy to identify by appearance alone, including some with dates or mintmark combinations that did not exist. However, there were a few with designs that closely mimicked authentic coins.
Contemporary Counterfeit in brass (thin gold layer worn off): 10 escudos dated 1868 missing inscribed date in stars on reverse – courtesy Aurora Rarities LLC
Among the cruder examples of such counterfeits are the gold-coated brass 100 reales and 10 escudos that are commonly encountered by Isabel II collectors. Coronado identifies these as contemporary counterfeits and depicts numerous examples with different dates ranging from 1850 to 1868. Some appear with holes punched at the top and some without. Though interesting, they are relatively common and generally sell for just a few dollars.
Some numismatists suggest these may have originated as some sort of jeton or gaming token that was either gold coated for its original purpose and found ready use as a counterfeit, or later coated and passed as counterfeit. Corroboration of this theory cannot be found in Russell Rulau’s Tokens of Spain, which makes no mention of tokens or jetons of this type, but the crudeness and abundance of these pieces begs explanation. Whether they began as counterfeits, tokens or perhaps jewelry is not certain, because thus far no definitive information on their origins or precise history has been found.
Perhaps in the future, a contemporary source of information will be uncovered that may shed more light on this particular conundrum.
Platinum Contemporary Counterfeit Coins?
And finally, we come to what are among the most curious counterfeits of Isabel’s reign: the gold coins of Isabel II composed of platinum covered with a thin layer of gold. During this period platinum was far less valuable than gold. Despite efforts to refine and make it more workable in the preceding century, the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars and limited uses for the metal left Spain with a surplus of platinum in the 1820s.
Up to that point, many refiners discarded it as a waste product, oftentimes at government direction. In the 1700s the Spanish government had recognized the potential for mixing platinum with gold to imitate gold items. In fact, a few counterfeit gold coins of Spain did appear in the 1700s and early 1800s. As its density is slightly greater than gold, coins made of platinum and covered with a thin layer of gold could be made to nearly match the proper weight for coins of the type with minimal difference in thickness or diameter. When this idea was paired with high-quality designs and production methods, a most devious counterfeit was born.
As with most counterfeits of the period, the platinum contemporary counterfeits of Isabel’s era are encountered with varying degrees of quality. Some are readily identified by flaws in their artistry or legends while those of higher quality are difficult to distinguish save for certain design features or the appearance of the platinum core when the gold layer is disturbed. Among collectors of Isabel II and, more particularly, collectors of contemporary counterfeits, the most attractive examples of these platinum Isabellas have sold for prices in excess of authentic examples of the series in similar condition. This has been due in part to the modern valuation of platinum near or above that of gold and also due to demand among collectors of these pieces, most notably in the period from 2010 to 2013. Although in general authentic coins of Isabel II are much more sought after than counterfeits, prices for an especially attractive example of these platinum pieces may occasionally rival their authentic counterpart.
* * *
Burkett, Russell. Everything You Wanted to Know About Gold and Other Precious Metals. Glendora, California, 1982.
Coronado, Luis Barrera. Catálogo General de la Moneda Falsa Española: desde los Reyes Católicos a Juan Carlos I. Madrid, Artis Traditio, S.A., 2000.
Dasí, Tomás. Estudio de los reales de a ocho, también llamados pesos, dólares, piastras, patacones o duros españoles: Volume 5. Valencia: Tipografía Artística, 1951.
Doty, Richard G. The MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1982. Hardcover. English. 1st Edition.
Frey, Albert. Dictionary of Numismatic Names. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1947. Hardcover. English. 1st Edition.
Heiss, Aloïss. Descripcion General de las Monedas Hispano-Cristianas desde la Invasion de los Arabas. Artegraf, 1865. 1975 reprint. Spanish. Three volumes. 1262 pages; 228 plates.
McDonald, Donald; Hunt, Leslie. A History of Platinum and Its Allied Metals. London: Johnson Matthey, 1982.
Ministerio de Hacienda, “Parte Oficial”, Gaceta de Madrid. Madrid, Spain. (16 April 1848): No. 4963, Front page. (from Agencia Estatal Boletín Oficial del Estado – public records) (translated)
O’Connor, Patrick. The Coins of Queen Isabel II of Spain. San Antonio, Texas: Aurora Rarities LLC, 2017.
Rulau, Russell. Tokens of Spain. Numismatics International, 2003.
Van Ryzin, Robert R. Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001.
Images are copyright Aureo & Calicó and Aurora Rarities LLC. Used herein with permission of their respective copyright holders.