Since the very beginnings of coinage around 600 bc, unscrupulous individuals have imitated ancient coins to defraud others. No doubt the practice dated back even before the first coins, to imitations of other objects valued as money, such as the ring money used by Egyptians.
Ancient coins were valued at their bullion weight, plus a slight premium called seignorage. Thus there was little or no incentive to imitate bronze coins, at least until the inflation-wracked Roman Empire switched from silver coinage to silver-washed bronze in the late third century. At that time a vast proliferation of counterfeiting occurred. Precious metal coinage of the Greeks and earlier Romans was commonly imitated by making blanks or planchets from bronze sheathed in a thin foil of precious metal, then striking these composite planchets to form deceptive imitations of coins. Such foureés, or false coins, are quite common in some series, Roman Republican denarii being one example.
Ancient counterfeiters were not liked by the authorities, who put them to death in various unpleasant fashions. Even the possibility of being crucified or thrown to the lions did not stop the practice. Life in those days was hard, and policing resources were far less efficient than they are now.
Ancient bankers also did not like counterfeiters. Basically moneychangers, they would swap your Athenian owls for electrum hektes (or whatever currency was used locally) for a slight exchange premium, just as currency exchange kiosks in cities such as Paris still do today. If they took in counterfeits it was not at all in their interest to pass them on to their customers, so they examined coins carefully, often defacing them with “test cuts” to verify that they were not foureés. Then they impressed a cabalistic stamp known as a “banker’s mark,” like the chop marks found on U.S. trade dollars, so that if the coin turned up again they could know they had already checked it. One very old electrum coin I handled, struck in Lydia in the days before Croesus became its king, had no fewer than nine bankers’marks. Only one was in the design, so it was not really defaced. Indeed, these marks – witnessing the centuries it had spent in bankers’ trays – instead added to its historical charm. You can see this coin at http://www.classicalcoins.com/product40.html.
Republican denarii with multiple bankers’ marks are also very common.
During the Italian Renaissance the practice of coin forgery – imitating ancient coins for sale to collectors – began in Padua when a group of sculptors and artisans, of whom the most famous was Cavino, began imitating Roman sestertii and medallions. Paduans are highly collectible in their own right, often being worth more than the authentic coins they imitated.
The subsequent development of ancient coin forgeries has been described by Wayne Sayles in his excellent book Classical Deception (Krause 2001). I won’t repeat it here, other than to observe that during the 19th and 20th centuries numerous extremely deceptive die struck forgeries were produced that still turn up in major collections and auction sales today, despite the fact that nearly all of the dies have been published. One such imitation of a rare Athenian coin even made it into the British Museum’s collection, where it resided for several years before being exposed.
Recently a forgery ring passed extremely deceptive forgeries pressed from dies made from the fine elctrotypes sold by the British Museum in the early 20th century. These British Museum Forgeries deceived many experts, and found their way into major sales, even onto the covers of some of the finest auction catalogues ever issued. Major numismatic firms suffered millions of dollars in losses when these forgeries were eventually exposed. Like all ethical dealers including Classical Coins, they guaranteed that their coins were authentic and refunded the money paid for them. The consequences of this expensive lesson are still echoing through the halls of firms such as Bank Leu.
Today Bulgaria has become a hotbed of ancient coin forgery. Some examples of coin imitations made there (and books written about them) can be seen at http://www.classicalcoins.com/bulgarian.html. The best known Bulgarian imitator is Slavey Petrov, and such imitations are generically termed “Slaveys” despite the fact that relatively few are actually from his hand. “Slaveys” really are not very deceptive, despite the fact that he has become perhaps the most famous forger since Becker.
Only a few days ago, an experienced collector was offered some Parthian coins which he took to Dr. Farhad Assar, a noted expert in this series, who after close study determined that all but one were deceptive forgeries. They were published in the Arsacids-L group: http://ph.groups.yahoo.com/group/The-Arsacids/photos/view/43a9?b=1&m=f&o=0, and an extensive discussion followed. It was terminated due to topicality issues before I could fully establish my point of view, i.e. that even the best forgeries can be detected with close expert scrutiny. That must be true, for otherwise counterfeiters of modern coins and currency could make undetectable counterfeits. No one has ever done so, even though the full resources of governments have been devoted to such attempts in Nazi Germany and North Korea.
In the case of the British Museum Forgeries, surface characteristics of these “die struck” forgeries became a primary diagnostic for recognizing them. The best modern forgery dies are formed by replication processes, touched up by the hand of a master engraver. Dies may be made from ceramics, electrotypes supported by a matrix of castable material, or even hard plastic. Such structures cannot tolerate the shock of hammer striking, so the forgeries are instead impressed - slowly formed in a mechanical or hydraulic press, like proof coins and medals. As a result they tend to have unnaturally flat fields, without the lustre and flow lines found on genuine hammer struck ancient coins.
Diagnostic instruments developed for microelectronics and microoptics manufacturing are now capable of making detailed profile maps of surfaces with resolutions of a few millionths of an inch. That is enough to resolve the finest details of the tiny surface features we describe as “lustre” and “flow lines.” Even if a forger could somehow make a perfect replica of the cavity sunk into an ancient coin die, that would not suffice to make a perfect replica of the coin itself. It would also be necessary to make a perfect replica of the die blank and the flan, or planchet that was struck (relatively easy) and to precisely replicate the striking process (extremely difficult).
When hand held dies are struck with a hammer, against a heated flan set into an obverse die mounted in an anvil, the result is a very complex dynamic event in which shock waves propagate through the system. The striking impact is not a single event but many closely spaced impacts, both between the hammer and the upper die holder, and between the dies and the coin flan. This phenomenon can also be seen in high speed films of collisions. These shock waves cause the familiar “ringing” sound heard at a blacksmith’s forge. Their characteristics depend greatly upon the materials, shapes and masses of the dies, their holders, the hammer and the anvil. The results of this repeated contact can be seen in the coins, for example in a phenomenon termed “ghosting.”
It seems extremely probable that if modern surface profiling instruments are available, surface profiles will be found to have striking artifact patterns that can identify ancient mints (perhaps individual workshops) just as definitively as fingerprints identify individual humans. Since no one has yet found a way to undetectably imitate fingerprints without an authentic original finger, it seems impossible that any forger could succeed in precisely replicating striking artifact patterns. These also depend on the rate of striking, the rhythm of the striking team, the thermal profile experienced by the flan and even the characteristics of the oven. It would take an immense amount of investigative work, far more than has yet been devoted to study of ancient coining methods, to attempt to infer characteristics of striking tools and the striking team from evidence recorded in the coins.
Post striking conditioning has always been an extremely important factor in deceptiveness of forgeries. Other than an occasional FDC gold coin, genuine ancient coins lack the shiny pristine surfaces of uncirculated modern coins. The most famous forger of all, Karl Wilhelm Becker, put his imitations in a box of iron filings attached to the wheel of his coach, to create artificial wear. Then he would bury them in a manure pile to imitate the natural toning or patina of a genuine coin. More recently, cheap “tourist fakes” that abound in the Middle East have been “patinated” by feeding them to domestic animals such as goats. The result does seem to make them look old and abused.
Fakes good enough to deceive dealers in the constrained environment of a coin show have been made from moderately deceptive struck forgeries such as “Slaveys.” The secret lies in artificial wear, and “makeup” simulating natural patination or toning. Diagnostics usually used to recognize these forgeries can be obliterated or disguised by such conditioning.
Many neophyte collectors have been drawn to the thought of getting ancient coins at bargain prices on eBay. I think of their subsequent experiences as being similar to a herd of grazing animals trying to cross a river like the Zambesi, filled with crocodiles. Many make it across, but no few end up inside the crocodiles. Any one attempting the crossing repeatedly will become dinner for a crocodile. So it is with unwary new collectors, who ignore the danger signals such as private auctions, private feedback and one day auctions. Such measures are commonly resorted to by forgery sellers such as the “Toronto Ring” to thwart efforts of those who, offended by their criminal activities, seek to expose them and protect the unwary. The identity of the leader of this ring is well known to Canadian law enforcement authorities who so far, have done nothing to stop him. Neither have the authorities at eBay, despite their efforts to persuade bidders that they have enlisted the ANA in eliminating fraud:
“eBay has worked with the American Numismatic Association (ANA) to help improve overall trading safety within the Coins category on eBay. Together with the ANA, we developed a Code of Conduct for selling numismatic material on eBay. This has been drawn from the ANA Member Code of Ethics, ANA Dealer Code of Ethics, and specific terms of sale which are considered "general trade practice" within the organized numismatic community. It does not replace eBay's general seller rules and regulations, but rather supplements those rules. Sellers are encouraged to abide by these guidelines when selling items on eBay. Failure to do so could result in disciplinary action by eBay and possible suspension or loss of selling privileges. In addition, such failure may be grounds for further disciplinary action by the ANA against its members.”
That misleading statement literally isn’t worth the electrons it is printed on. eBay in reality is an unregulated thieves’ market, a “caveat emptor” venue in which any kind of collectible or designer item advertised for auction is more likely than not a forgery or imitation. Sellers of such items protect themselves by offering a refund to anyone who realizes they have bought a copy rather than an original. They continually switch identities, preparing their next identity’s positive feedback record by inexpensive trading in things like common postage stamps. By the time outraged buyers begin sending negative feedback, the seller is no longer using the identity being trashed, and if and when it is finally NARU’d that action is meaningless.
Recently eBay has been sued by Tiffany’s for allowing knockoffs of their designer goods to be sold, and Microsoft has gone after pirates hawking unauthorized copies of their software. Perhaps such actions will eventually have a positive effect in forcing eBay (which is very sensitive about legal liability) to do something about forgeries. Meanwhile I personally will not buy or sell any kind of collectible on eBay. I advise collectors who are not expert enough to separate wheat from chaff to go to VCoins instead, which is actively and effectively policed, or buy from reputable dealers such as Classical Coins.
Meanwhile, anyone wishing an education in eBay collector survival skills would be well advised to join http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ACFDL and perhaps also the similar group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CoinForgeryDiscussionList . The difference between the two is that the latter is run by a colorful individual who makes little effort to maintain decorum, allowing many unsubstantiated accusations against coins and individuals. The ACFDL is a spinoff started by former CFDL members who tired of the constant controversy and preferred a more traditional moderation approach.