ANCIENT COINS & MODERN FAKES
How To Tell The Difference
An Authentication Primer
by Dennis J. Kroh
The summary of a talk given at the Numismatic Theatre during the 99th Annual American Numismatic Association Convention in Seattle on Friday, August 24, 1990
There have been forgeries of Ancient Coins for as long as there has been coinage. This program will not explore the contemporary counterfeits (those made in Ancient times), but only the items made in recent times for purposes of fraud. This is not intended to be an end-all monograph on the subject (as such can never be), but it is simply an elementary synopsis on authentication to assist collectors from being deceived when obtaining coins from unusual sources, and to help them to discover if they have been already victimized.
Class 1: Those intended to deceive the general populace (such as tourists), who will most likely be many thousands of miles away before they find out they've "been had".
Class 2: Those intended to deceive collectors in the Numismatic marketplace, who purchase coins at either auction, directly from dealers, or from various suppliers to the trade.
I will briefly describe the characteristics of both classes of forgeries, and then give some pointers on how to avoid these pitfalls.
Most forgeries of Ancient Coins are not in the least deceptive to the trained eye. These are the "Class 1" counterfeits, and many are currently being produced in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Egypt and other countries in the Middle-East, where there are lots of ancient ruins and therefore a good supply of tourists to buy them. In most of these countries the selling of an authentic ancient artifact (such as a coin) is a very serious crime, but the sale of an imitation of the same thing (even though it may be represented as authentic) is legal. In my personal travels throughout the Ancient World I have seen numerous "tourist stands" selling these "coins" (sometimes by the hundreds), but I have never seen an authentic Ancient coin offered in any of them unless it was so worn and corroded as to be absolutely unidentifiable! Any authentic coin encountered by these merchants are thought by them to have a value considerably exceeding reality (regardless of condition), and he couldn't possibly offer to sell it to you because (besides breaking the laws), if you were to accept he would certainly be selling it much too cheaply!
Another popular "scam" involves a "peddler" who will (for a measly Thousand Dollars or so) take you to an ancient ruin where there are "Ancient Coins" laying all over the ground (right where his children probably scattered them just an hour or so before). This happens more often than a reasonably educated person would believe, and every dealer has heard this story (or a variation of it) at one time or another. It doesn't make much sense, but it "works".
Most regular people (meaning non-numismatists) have absolutely no idea of the value of Ancient Coins, and we are continually approached by people who are amazed that coins of the Ancient World are obtainable at all for any price (they are all in museums, aren't they . . .), much less at the low price-levels they are currently. It is really no wonder that, when a tourist in one of these countries purchases an "ancient" coin or two, more often than not paying many multiples of what a genuine item of the same type would cost, and they just "must have got a bargain".
Only later, when they are back home, do they discover that they have been "taken", and then they are usually reluctant to trust any ancient coin no matter how reliable the source. More often than not, when they have been advised by a dealer or other knowledgeable numismatist that their item is false, it provokes anger and denial ("it just has to be real . . . I bought it in Rome"). We have even been personally threatened for telling someone that their "treasure" is an obvious forgery, and once, at the Baltimore A.N.A. a few years ago, an elderly gentleman began shouting at the top of his lungs that "if his coin was a fake, so was every coin in the room". No matter how many experts he asked, no one would tell him what he wanted to hear.
In most cases the "coins" obtained are complete fantasies (Alexander The Great or Athenian tetradrachms in bronze or gold, for instance), or are poor cast copies of genuine items. Many are treated to give them a false "patina" (one popular way is to feed them to a goat). They may look "odd" to anyone who has ever handled an ancient coin, but to a novice they look "old".
There is no need to go into detail about these items. You may assume that every item offered you in ANY of the above-mentioned countries by ANYONE (other than a licensed coin-dealer) is a modern forgery. The chances of your buying a genuine coin are 100,000 to 1 (or worse), and if you happen to get "lucky", you will be in violation of the local laws (with severe penalties including imprisonment if caught), and will probably pay too much anyway for "junk".
The second class of forgeries are the only really dangerous types . . . . the ones created to deceive collectors and dealers for enormous profit. These "Class 2" counterfeits are not nearly as prevalent in the current marketplace as many may imagine (and their frequency has fallen drastically during the last two decades), but they do exist and can easily still be the bane of our hobby by undermining the confidence of the collector.
There are very few collectors of Ancient coins who have not, at one time or another have thought "I bet could make one of these". Well, there actually are people without scruples who have tried to do just that, but very few who have really succeeded to any extent.
Numismatics is truly a science however, and there are those of us who have dedicated much time to the study of ancient coins and their characteristics, and, utilizing scientific analysis as well as die-studies of each coin-issue, these forgeries have been and are being discovered and published as such and removed from the market nearly as fast as they appear.
Many of the "Class 2" forgeries were produced after 1820, and we are fortunate that most of these products (such as those struck by Becker, Cigoi, Christodoulos, and Caprara) have been published in various available books (see the Bibliography following for details). The IBSCC is invaluable in that it also publishes frequent updates on the latest forgeries to hit the market, entitled Bulletin on Counterfeits, although these are not very accessible to the general collector.
Beirut has traditionally been the center of counterfeiting, but in the last decade or so (due to the unrest) most of the forgeries have evidently been emanating from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Sicily. Although these forgers are skilled, it is nearly impossible to completely convey the "style" and create the proper surfaces that natural aging (of 2,000 or so years) produces.
This is the part you've been waiting for. In this section we will examine some of the most common signs of a counterfeit Ancient Coin. The different types of forgeries are:
Cast: The "coin" is made by making an impression of a genuine coin (or a good-quality counterfeit, like a "Cavino"), creating a mold, and pouring molten metal into the cavity. There is always a seam around the edge where the two sides of the mold join together, and the surfaces of the "coin" created are usually pitted from air-bubbles as it hardens. The details are usually softened and lack "sharpness". The silver and gold coins are nearly always the wrong weight.
Centrifugal Casting: This is a rather recent process, wherein the coin is whirled in a centrifuge while being cast. This often eliminates air-bubbles while adding sharpness. The edge and weights are still most likely wrong, however.
Electrotype: Created by subjecting a genuine coin to "spark erosion" utilizing electrolysis. This process only creates a very thin shell, one side at a time, and they still must be filled and joined together (creating a seam). These must then be plated to resemble authentic coins, but their weights (especially of precious-metal coins) are always wrong.
Struck: The dies are carved (usually using modern tools) or molded in hard plastic, and flans are made and "coins" struck in the ancient manner. Sometimes a genuine but common coin is used as a flan (to create a rarer type), but more often a flan is cast using modern silver (or gold) alloys. When handmade flans are used, the metallic composition is usually "off", and there are always traces of modern metals not used in Ancient times which can be detected by spectroanalysis. The surfaces of a freshly-struck coin also do not show crystallization, a good determination of age, although they are often subjected to "artificial wear". Again the weight (or weight standard) is often wrong.
Altered: The lettering and/or device on a genuine coin are re-engraved to create a rarer item. This is usually done with Roman sestertii. Magnification can usually detect this.
These are indications of both genuine and forged coins. There is no substitute for examining:
Weight: The weight of silver and gold ancients is the single most important indicator of a coin's authenticity, and should comply to the standard utilized in ancient times, which can be determined by consulting the standard reference for that type of coin. This is the hardest part to get right for the counterfeiters, and should be one of the first things examined. If you do not know (or cannot find out) the weight of a silver or gold item, (especially if it is a "choice" or expensive piece), do not buy it! The weight of base-metal coins (such as bronze) are not usually as critical, as they can, and do, vary greatly.
Edges: Often examination of the edge will show a seam around it, indicating that it may be cast. If there is a flan-crack in the edge, check if it goes completely through the coin, and that it is ragged (a good sign) rather than smooth (as if cut). Often cast-coins will have flan-cracks which go only halfway through the edge, and sometimes they begin again on the other side. I have seen many where the cracks are misaligned by ¼" or more. This is not a comforting sign. As a general rule, all coins with file-marks around their edges are suspect.
Sharpness: The lettering and fine details on an Ancient Coin should be crisp and well-formed. The size of the letters should be uniform, and the edges of the letters, under magnification, should have the same amount of wear as the rest of the coin.
Die Axis: The relative position of one side to another can be determined by holding a coin by the edge with thumb and forefinger (held at 12:00 and 6:00), and spinning the coin around to see the reverse. For instance, all U.S. coins are struck with an axis of 6:00 (the reverse is upside-down when you rotate it sideways), while the coins of Great Britain all have a 12:00 axis (the reverse is right-side up when rotated sideways). Ancient coins were often (but not always) consistent in their die-axis, and this is usually stated in catalogues. This is something that forgers often neglect to check. For instance, if you see that nearly all (98%) published new-style tetradrachms of Athens have an axis of 12:00, and you are offered one with an axis of 4:00, you should be more than a bit suspicious of its authenticity. This is generally more true of Roman coins (which tended to have hinged dies) than of Greek coins, but it can still be valid (as in the above example).
Surfaces: The fields should be free from pitting unless the coin as a whole shows porosity throughout. Also worth examining are the "high points" for traces of pitting (an indication that it may be cast). Crystallization of the metal (most often noticed on the edges) is usually a good indication of authenticity, but only experience can differentiate crystallization from corrosion brought on by acids in an attempt at artificial aging. Small "waves" in the fields of gold coins are a good sign, as they indicate the flow-lines of the metal when the coin struck by the die.
Patina: Improvements are being made all the time in the creation of artificial patinas, but they are still a good indicator of authenticity. Check to see if it is a true patina (which should be quite thick), and not simply a coloration of the metal itself. Cracks in the patina, while perhaps not pretty, are a good sign. False patinas are more often applied to authentic coins to enhance their beauty (and value), so it isn't a certain condemnation of a coin to have one, but a good thick patina is comforting.
Style: This is the hardest attribute to put into words. Basically, the treatment of the hair, eyes, nose, and mouth of an Ancient coin should be similar to other published examples, and the posture of the figures and fine details of the garments are also often misinterpreted or invented by the forgers (who may be using as their prototype a worn example). Experience is the only teacher for style, and by handling many examples of the coinage (such as we do) it just "jumps out" at you when it is wrong. This is how we can often spot forgeries "a mile away"!
Die Studies: Nearly ALL Ancient coins, especially the Greek series, have been thoroughly studied and illustrations of many examples of each type are in the published catalogues of most of the great museum and private collections. By comparison to these illustrations, it is often possible to find coins struck from the same dies as your example, which is a BIG indication of authenticity. Of course, if the coin is cast, a genuine coin may have been the prototype (and will have the same dies). A safeguard is to measure the distance between devices on both items to ensure that they are the same (many microscopes have a built-in scale for measurements in fractions of millimeters). Since, during the casting process, the flan shrinks slightly while cooling, there will be a noticeable difference in measurement where there should be none.
References: There is really absolutely no substitution for owning and being familiar with the proper references for the coins you are buying. AT LEAST 10% of the money you spend on your collection should be invested in reference-books, without question. Yes, they seem to be somewhat costly, maybe even very expensive, but they usually hold their value (very often surpassing the coins they describe in the appreciation department) and they can keep you from making even more expensive mistakes. Just last month we had a customer wanting to consign a choice gold aureus to our auction. We were reasonably pleased until we learned it featured a portrait of Julius Caesar on the obverse, and a seated figure on the reverse with S C in the exergue. This "coin" simply was impossible and did not exist, and any decent reference on that period would have told him that! You can find out which references are suitable for your chosen field of collecting from any knowledgeable dealer, who can often obtain them for you as well. Many of the most important references are Out of Print and elusive. We have a massive library, and yet there are some references that we have been seeking for many years without success. Along with references on authentic coins, you should acquire as many volumes on forgeries possible (most listed in the Bibliography following). Many of these are currently in print and available (but for how long?). Numismatic works go out of print rather quickly.
One of the main advantages to membership in the A. N. A. is their extensive lending-library. They have thousands of reference-books that can be borrowed by members (for 30 day periods) for the cost of postage, which is at the thrifty library rate (it averages about $1.00 per volume or less). You can then have the opportunity to view (and utilize) each reference before you buy it. Libraries are useful for that purpose, but they are not as convenient as owning the references yourself (and having access to them at any time). Membership in the A.N.A. is $26 per year.
Note that authenticity cannot be determined by a photograph or digital-image. . . only by physically handling it can one truly make a determination one way or the other.
1. Buy your coins only from a knowledgeable and reputable dealer. Every dealer (no matter who they are) has unknowingly handled a counterfeit coin at sometime or other, but all legitimate dealers will immediately refund your money if by chance a forgery should somehow slip by them. This guarantee is always without time limit (with the exception of certain "big" auction-houses, who after they have paid their consignors could care less). Another advantage of buying your coins from dealers who publish illustrated price-lists (or from auction) is the excellent chance that, should a forgery slip by, it will be spotted by another dealer (or other classical numismatic expert) and it will be withdrawn, or if it has been sold already the buyer will be immediately informed and offered a refund. We once tracked down a customer after eight years when we recognized a coin we had sold back then had only recently been condemned. He of course got a full refund (with interest). Full recourse is to be expected!
2. Educate yourself. Do not hesitate to purchase specialized references concerning your collecting field, and above all don't be afraid to ASK QUESTIONS, no matter how dumb they may seem. Most dealers want their customers to be informed, but if your dealer cannot (or will not) find the time to answer your questions, find yourself another dealer.
3. Handle as many coins as possible. Support and attend coin-shows in your area to encourage dealer attendance, and try to get to one of the larger national (or international) shows, such as the A.N.A. (whose locale varies each year), Long Beach (CA), C.I.C.F. (Chicago), New York International (every January), and COINEX in London every October. All of these shows have a large amount of dealers in Ancient Coins present, and you can take the opportunity to view and handle many different types of coins. Experience is the best teacher.
4. If a deal looks "too good to be true", it probably is! Trust your dealer though . . . if he has a reputation to uphold. As a general rule all coins illustrated in auctions and price-lists are "safe" as they are vetted by fellow dealers and forgeries seldom slip through if illustrated.
There are several organizations that will authenticate your ancient coins if you have some doubt (or want some assurance). Most actually know what they are doing, and several will give you a photographic Certificate of Authenticity as part of their services.
ACCS (The Ancient Coin Certification Service) is supervised by the famed numismatist David R. Sear. Full-page sized photo certificates with grading and a short historical essay on each coin is $35 fee per coin plus a handling charge from $6.50 to $22.50 based on the value of all coins submitted at one time. A basic service (without the historical essay) is $25 plus fees. Address: PO Box 5004, Chatsworth, CA 91313-5004.
ANAAB (American Numismatic Association Authentication Bureau) has many outside consultants (such as yours truly) to ensure the accuracy of their findings. Authentication is $30 per coins with valuations of $5,000 or less, $50 for coins valued over $5,000. Nice color photo certificates. Address: 818 N. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903-3279.
ANACS, which was sold to Amos Press in 1990, authenticates and grades all types of coins, although their expertise as far as ancient coins go is extremely limited and therefore their opinion concerning authenticity of ancient coins is not respected at all (and their certificates consequently are virtually worthless). Authentication only is $15, grading (which is in our opinion extremely useless for ancients) is $8 extra. They do have nice color photo certificates, and will "slab" U.S. coins (only) if desired at an additional cost.
IBSCC (International Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins). Authentication available only for dealer members of the I.A.P.N. No certificates issued.
The British Museum offers their opinion on authentication only for fellows of the Royal Numismatic Society. Your favorite dealer is most likely (or should be) a fellow of the R.N.S., although he is forbidden according to their policy to use their name in ads. Their only charge is the cost of return postage. No certificates issued, but theirs is the most valued opinion of all.
ANS (American Numismatic Society). The ANS, based in New York, as a matter of policy does not offer their opinions on the authenticity or valuation of any numismatic item.
Nearly all other popular authentication services for U.S. and World coins (such as PCGS, NGC, NCI, INGS, PCI, etc.) do not offer authentication services for Ancient Coins at all, although PCGS has been sending out "feelers" to dealers about grading (and perhaps "slabbing") ancient coins in the future, a move that we are very much against due to their lack of expertise and the large amount of damage they have done to the stability of the U.S. coin market by "slabbing" those items since the early 1980's in a misguided attempt to turn coins into "sight-unseen" investments.
BIBLIOGRAPHY and Related Reading
I will make no attempt to be all-inclusive here, but I have listed most of the references that specifically deal with forgeries, and have tried to describe their contents in detail. Most of the published corpora (such as Hill: Gela, Barron: Samos, May: Abdera, Cahn: Knidos, Price: Alexander The Great, etc.) have all known (up to that time) forgeries of each series illustrated as well. These should of course be consulted and studied before purchasing coins with which you have no recourse to return.
Becker George F. Hill: Becker The Counterfeiter. London, 1924 (in two parts), Reprinted in one volume by Spink in 1955 (the best edition) & 1961, and by Obol International in 1968 (now out of print but still widely available @ $25 or so). 72 + 39 pages, 19 plates. Illustrates 360 forgeries struck by Carl Wilhelm Becker in the early 1800's, including 134 Greek Coins, 140 Roman Coins, 27 Visigothic gold, and the remainder Mediæval and Modern coins. Many of these are very deceptive and dangerous although the style is usually "too good to be true".
Caprara Philip Kinns: The Caprara Forgeries. London & Basel, 1984 (in print, $35). 59 pages, 8 plates. Describes and illustrates 91 Greek coins struck in the early 1800's. Many of these items are very deceiving, and quite a few of them had been offered in many major auctions up through the seventies and early eighties.
Christdoulos J. N. Svoronos: Christodoulos The Counterfeiter. Chicago, 1974 (OP, but around $15-$20 when found). 36 pages, 17 plates. (originally published as Synopsis de Mille Coins Faux, du faussaire C. Christodoulos in Athens (1922) and Reprinted in Basel & Amsterdam in 1963. Provides illustrations of over 530 forgeries which were struck from c.1895-1914. The illustrations are taken from plaster casts taken directly from over 1000 dies confiscated in by the Greek police 1914 from three workshops (in Athens, Pireaus, and Corfu). Many of these false dies were ordered returned to Nikolas Garyphallakis (nephew and assistant to Christodoulos) in 1939, and their present whereabouts are unknown (although they are no doubt still being used to manufacture fakes, see Dodson below). This work is essential.
Dodson D. O. Dodson: Counterfeits I have Known. CoinAge magazine, April 1967 (pp. 20-23, 66, 68, 70, illustrated) and May 1967 (pp. 20-23). A narrative and somewhat alarmist account: "The ghost of Christodoulos haunts the coin shops of Athens. His dies are still at work, producing rare coins . . . a tenacious counterfeiting gang has shown a remarkable ability to endure beyond the loss of their skilled engraver. In fact some of the coins of Garyphallakis are considered more dangerous than those of the old master, Christodoulos". Mostly entertaining reading, but still somewhat informative.
Friedlander J. Friedlander: Ein Verzeichniss von griechischen fälschen Münzen. Berlin, 1883. A brave attempt to publish all forgeries of Ancient Coins known (except Becker's and Renaissance medallions), he lists 125 items struck c.1550-1883, of which 57 were Caprara's. Unfortunately there were no illustrations, and it is generally unavailable.
Gaebler Prof. H. Gaebler: Fälschungen Makedonischer Münzen. Berlin, 1931-1942 in eight parts. Publishes many forgeries of Macedonian cities and tribes. Quite difficult (or impossible) to obtain (and some of his condemnations have been since rescinded), but very useful if this is your collecting area of interest.
Geneva R. A. G. Carson: The Geneva Forgeries. 1958 Numismatic Chronicle, pp. 47-58, Reprinted by Attic Books in 1977 (OP, but available from Empire Coins for $3.00). A pamphlet of 14 pages and 2 plates, describing and illustrating dangerous false coins of Nigrinian, Julian of Pannonia, Alexander of Carthage, Valens, and Martinian produced in the 1920's. This is an accessible and very essential work.
IBSCC International Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins, publisher of Bulletin on Counterfeits issued twice yearly (or so) since 1976. Each Bulletin contains 20 or more pages of illustrations of forgeries which are "making the rounds" (both ancient and modern). Written almost entirely in English, subscription is 30 Swiss Francs or $20 per year, and many back-issues are available at the same price. Contact Ruth Schaub, c/o Leu Numismatik, P.O. Box 4738, CH-8022 Zürich, Switzerland.
Jenkins G. K. Jenkins: A Group of Bactrian Forgeries. 1965 Revue Numismatique, pp. 51-57, one plate of illustrations.
Klawans Zander H. Klawans: Imitations and Inventions of Roman Coins (Renaissance Medals of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire). Santa Monica, CA, 1977 (OP, about $25 when encountered). 136 pages, illustrated throughout. Illustrates many of the "sestertii" struck by Giovanni Cavino and his cronies in the mid-1500's.
Lawrence Richard H. Lawrence: The Paduans, medals by Giovanni Cavino. New York, 1883, Reprinted in New Jersey in 1964 and Chicago in 1980 (now OP, but only c.$10). A 31 page pamphlet listing 72 "sestertii" as well as a few medals. No illustrations.
O'Hara M. D. O'Hara: Forgeries of Byzantine Coins from the "Beirut" and other "Schools". pp. 487-522 of "Byzantine Coins and Their Values, 2nd edition, London, 1987 (in print, $100). An illustrated corpus of some 93 coins (mostly gold).
Price M.J. Price: Croesus or Pseudo-Croesus? Hoard or Hoax? Problems Concerning the Sigloi and Double-Sigloi of the Croisid Type. pp. 211-221 in "Studies in Honor of Leo Mildenberg", Belgium, 1984. A study of 81 "coins", now believed to be false, which appeared on the Numismatic market in 1981.
Ravel O. E. Ravel: Numismatique Grecque Falsifications, moyens pour les reconnaitre (Greek Counterfeit Coins and How to Recognize Them). London, 1946, reprinted by Obol International (Chicago), 1980 (OP, but only $20 when encountered). 104 pages, 10 plates, in French. Concentrates on Greek coinage, but is not very thorough nor easily read.
Robinson E. S. G. Robinson: Some Early Nineteenth Century Forgeries of Greek Coins. 1956 Numismatic Chronicle, pp. 15-18. A publication of six coins of Caprara.
Sazonov Konstantin V. Golenko: The Method of Counterfeiting Ancient Coins of the Bosporous by M. Sazonov, as Told by Himself. ANS Museum Notes Vol. 20 (1975), pp. 25-28. A very enlightening article (though not illustrated).
Shortt H. de H. Shortt: "Utmanzai Coins". 1963 Numismatic Chronicle, pp. 11-23. Publishes forgeries of 32 Indo-Greek Coins. 4 plates of illustrations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Jay Kroh has been a collector of ancient coins since 1960, and a serious student of Ancient Coinage continually since 1964. He studied Ancient History and Archaeology in college and as a professional numismatist he published several articles and was a consultant to ANAAB and ANACS for coin authenticity.
As the President of Empire Coins, Inc. of Ormond Beach, Florida 1977-1999, Mr. Kroh authored over 100 fixed price lists and 20 auction catalogues of ancient coins for Empire as well as many sale catalogues for other firms (on a consultation basis) both in the U.S. and abroad. He also attended over a thousand coin auctions worldwide during that period and acted as an agent for several kings, presidents, and prime-ministers of some of the world's most powerful countries.
He also is the author of the 1993 book "Ancient Coin Reference Reviews" which studies and critiques most of the literature concerning ancient coins it remains the standard reference on the subject.
Mr. Kroh can be contacted at 95 Seminole Ave, Ormond Beach, FL 32176-8124.
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