Money has been counterfeited and imitated ever since its inception and counterfeit money will stay with us until it is completely replaced by other methods of payment. Counterfeiters and imitators were, and are, more or less gifted. The more talented ones who specialized in ancient coins deserve, on the one hand, to be condemned by the community of collectors and scientists, while on the other hand we must admire their talent. The line that distinguishes an artist from a rogue is very thin – it depends whether their products are passed off as originals or whether they are set out as reproductions. Although, admittedly, a rogue can be a great artist and vice versa.
Ancient coins that are not original can be put into a number of categories and subcategories which can partly or completely overlap, depending more or less on the opinion of different collectors or scientists than on objective reality. Below I present my own view of the issue of “non-original” ancient coins.
Main groups of non-original ancient coins:
- Contemporary (ancient) forgery: cast, struck
- Modern forgery: cast, struck, partial forgery i.e. modifying originals
- Contemporary (ancient) imitation: imitations based on political, economic, and business relationships, memorial coins, barbarian imitations
- Modern imitation
- Modern copy
- Contemporary (ancient) forgery
In the ancient world, counterfeiting coins was, along with other serious crimes, punished with the death penalty. Even then, various legal and non-legal measures were sought to eliminate forgeries. Official mints would produce the so-called serrati, coins with a reeded edge. Forgeries do not include artificially invalidated coins issued by an “authorized” emitter. It seems that one of the greatest counterfeiters of money was often the official state itself. None of the types of contemporary forgeries are completely valueless, as they represent original evidence of the condition of the state and society.
Cast forgeries were quite common in the antiquity and they can be relatively easy distinguished from originals by their overall appearance.
Struck forgeries produced in antiquity can be detected only with difficulty and are often indistinguishable from the original. The counterfeiters profited from the difference between the weight of the genuine and false coin or from the different metal purity. The so-called suberati, coins with cheap metal “sandwiched” between a valuable surface, were quite common. The valuable silver or gold-plating was applied either before or after the planchet/coin had been struck.
Modern forgeries are produced and offered with the purpose of deceiving collectors whereas modern reproductions are marked or sold with a statement that they are not genuine coins.
Cast forgeries are very frequent and can be easily detected except some fakes of originally cast coins (e.g. Roman aes grave). But even these can be identified by their patina, shape of the planchet, edge, and metal content. The castings of originally struck coins exhibit properties corresponding to the production technique. The coin surface is brittle, often uneven, rough with visible dents caused by air bubbles. The seam or its remains on the coin perimeter can also help in determining a fake. However, counterfeiters often polished the coins to remove the traces of casting. A cast forgery can be detectable at first sight by the overall softness of the relief and lettering. Here I would like to draw attention to the growing occurrence of very accurate castings of golden, especially Celtic, coins. These forgeries are produced using sophisticated, up-to-date technology and are difficult to detect.
Struck forgeries were made as early as the Renaissance period and have been produced up to today. Italian medallists would specialize in making mainly Roman Sesterces. Exquisite counterfeiters of that period include the antiquarian Giovani Cavino of Padova, the archaeologist, builder, and painter Alessandro Bassino, the painter and writer Pirro Ligoro, whose forgeries are called Paduani based on the town of their origin. Other counterfeiters include the painter Marmita of Parma and his son Lodovico. Paduani are in fact Renaissance medals mostly modelled on scarce large bronzes of Roman emperors (Augustus, Caligula, Galba, Vitellius, Vespasianus, Titus). Paduani differ from the originals in the use of a Renaissance type of lettering and illustration and are rare today.
One of the best known counterfeiters of the later period is the German C.W.Becker (1772-1830), whose work is highly valued today for its perfection and as an expression of exceptional talent. The Italian engraver L. Cigoi (1811-1875) produced fakes of late Roman minting, including modifications of and engraving over genuine coins.
In 1914 the Greek counterfeiter K. Christodoulos of Cyprus was exposed. He would cast coining dies based on genuine coins and hand strike the fakes. As a result, his counterfeits of Greek coins are very close to the original.
Partial fakes of ancient coins used to be made by engraving over the coin illustration, modifying the text, or adding mintmarks, etc. Sometimes the forgers would split two coins and join an obverse and reverse that did not belong together.
At present there are probably a number of anonymous forgers at work whose artefacts are of varying technical and artistic prowess. The number of fakes on the market increases in proportion to the growing interest in ancient minting. Detection of modern forgeries is, due to their perfect rendering, often difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes the only help is to compare a suspected fake with the original in the museum, etc.
Contemporary (ancient) imitation
Imitations would appear almost instantaneously with the minting of the original coins, however not with the intent of deceiving their receiver. Imitations are not precise copies of the model and it is often obvious from their appearance that it is not original coinage. At any rate, they are original antiquity coins, not forgeries. Imitations formed sometimes, (for a limited period), the basis of a minting system of some states or tribes (Celts, …).
In ancient Greece imitations emerge as part of the political, economic, and trading relationships of the states (towns), their colonies, associations, and ruling dynasties. Popular types of coins (Stater of Corinthia, Tetradrachm of Athens, Lysimach‘s coins …) were imitated by numerous rulers and towns for their general validity in the world of that time, while the inherent beauty of Sicillian coins accounts for their being imitated in the state of Carthage where they were highly esteemed.
Restitution coins are minting that follows, after a longer period, the minting of the original issue, repeating the illustration and sometimes the text (Alexander the Great – Agathocles and Antimachos…). Frequently, Roman restitution coins were designed as a form of permanent tribute to past rulers.
„Barbarian“ imitations mostly differ from other imitations by their rougher “barbarian” style, rendering, and origin at the boundaries of the civilized world. Celtic, Dacian, and Scythian tribes and rulers would imitate Greek (Stater of Alexander the Great and Philip II. …) and Roman coins (Denarius of the Roman republic …). Some, in particular the earlier Dacian imitations from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, are nearly indistinguishable from the originals. These and other imitations would serve as models for later imitations so that, in the end, they would considerably depart from the original model. The local engravers of the later times probably were not sure what exactly they were to copy and embellished their art with their own fantasies and typical art motifs. We can discover coins (mostly of Celtic origin) with giant heads, deformed animals and figures, or just circles and points. Later on, one encounters the mass production of mostly German imitations of Roman minting from the 4th-5th century AD which would form the complete minting system of the German kingdoms at that period.
Reproductions of ancient coins and other antiquities are made by many individuals and firms throughout the world. Their “artefacts” differ in quality from the simplest machine-made copies to real works of art. Probably the best-known engraver is presently the Bulgarian Slavey (Slavei) Petrov. Web pages of some other producers (dealers) of reproductions, mainly from Western Europe and the USA, can be found on the Internet: Steve Millingham Pewter Replicas, Gallery Mint Museum, Museum Reproductions, Chard, etc. When buying a reproduction care must be taken to distinguish between merely exact technical copies of originals (see below) or real, struck reproductions, that are, in character, works of art.
These are exact technical copies of coins supplied to museums, for study and as gifts. All the copies are stamped by the producer to prevent their abuse.
Galvanoplastic copies are produced mainly for museums. The edge clearly reveals the joint between the two sides of the coin. The metal content is of high purity.
(c) Pavel Neumann