Buyers Beware... [Stamp & Coin Mart, February 2010, Pages 98, 99 and 100]
Coin and antiquities dealer Brett Hammond offers you the benefits of his experience as he provides a guide to avoid counterfeit and forged coins
During the summer of 2005 an epidemic of counterfeit one-pound coins and five-pound notes hit the busy Sunday morning market around Brick Lane in London's East End. It's a colourful and vibrant spot, famous for its hot salt beef bagels, and always awash with hundreds of noisy stall-holders and tens of thousands of bargain hunting shoppers. But the counterfeits had everyone feeling wary, distrustful and suspicious as money changed hands. As a frequent visitor I couldn't help noticing the mood and sensing the atmosphere. However, I was delighted to observe that over a period of just four weeks spirits revived and trading was back to almost normal levels. What happened was that everyone very quickly became expert at recognizing the spurious money. I observed scores of people, young and old, passing a coin or note through their fingers and making a judgement within seconds on its authenticity. The epidemic soon passed by.
There's a valuable lesson in the Brick Lane affair for beginners at numismatics: look as closely as you can at as many collectors' coins as you can get close to. Familiarity breeds knowledge, and knowledge is your best defence against this type of crime. Of course, beginners - even quite experienced collectors - don't have so many opportunities to get close to fakes as those Brick Lane shoppers. Your very next-best defence, in that case, lies in putting your trust in an absolutely straight dealer who will give you the benefit of his long experience until your own skills at recognizing criminal coins grows. I hope that is what you will allow me to do in what follows.
Let's begin by clarifying those terms counterfeit and forgery. The Brick Lane coins and notes were counterfeits because their makers and distributors attempted to pass them as ready money with a face value of one-pound and five-pounds respectively. Traders and shop-keepers have always had to deal with counterfeits. In Georgian times they had to be on guard against spurious pennies and halfpennies. In Roman times most of the larger markets throughout the Empire experienced periods when floods of counterfeit bronze and silver money passed from hand-to-hand. In troubled times especially the counterfeits were often better made than the coins that came from official mints. But as counterfeits they never attempted to be worth more than the coins they imitated.
A forgery, on the other hand, is a copy of a (probably) old or ancient coin intended to deceive a buyer into believing it to be old or ancient and therefore worth many times what it cost to make. The practice probably began when ancient patricians decided to collect coins and were willing to pay more than bullion value to obtain specimens. By the time of the Italian Renaissance, when wealthy citizens of Padua began to collect ancient Roman coins, a group of sculptors, including Giovanni Cavino (1499-1570), began imitating Roman sestertii. Now known as Paduans, these medieval forgeries have become highly collectible in their own right, often changing hands for more than the authentic coins they imitated.
In the early 19th century a German engraver - Carl Wilhelm Becker - produced Greek, Roman and medieval forgeries to sell to rich collectors. He is known to have produced around 350 dies and to have struck the coins by traditional methods. Today most of Becker's output of forgeries have been identified and collected. Books have been written about his exploits; and any newly discovered Becker forgery grabs headlines in the hobby's press.
More recently a third name gained entrance to the Hall of Infamy by producing forgeries which became highly desirable as examples of the forger's art. Bulgarian, Slavey Petrov, - today so well-known he is referred to by his forename - shook the coin collecting world in 1992 when he began to offer what he called replicas of ancient coins and advertised them widely. They alarmed a number of ancient coin dealers who have since done their best to buy up all of Slavey's output in an effort to get them off the market. "Dangerously good", is how one dealer has described his workmanship.
Beginners, particularly the many who start on modest collecting budgets, often assume that forging coins at the lower end of the market would never pay as a criminal enterprise. In fact there are probably more forgers at work making coins that sell for under £100 than there are concentrating on coins with four-figure price tags. In reality those three big names I mentioned above failed as forgers because the ultimate undoing of a forger is to attract too much attention.
A wise forger aims to work anonymously while making a continuous and reasonable profit from his enterprise. And the coins most forged by most forgers are those that beginning and middling collectors mostly buy: moderately worn, but nicely struck, common ancients. If that is where you aim to collect then you must take the greatest care to heed the warning caveat emptor. At the same time you may take a crumb of comfort from the knowledge that very, very few of the crooks who forge coins at this level in the market are as dangerously good as the three highlighted above. And they almost all have an Achilles heel: they have to make many more than one of every design they decide to copy. Let me assure you at this point that a combination of an honest dealer's vast experience and your own ability to learn very quickly how to spot forgeries will safeguard you against most of the early pitfalls. Let me list a few things you can do long before you make even your first purchase: - begin at once to collect images from the internet of examples of fake and genuine coins in the series that most interests you. Create files and folders on your computer where you can store them in an orderly manner. Use the magic of image manipulation on-screen to enlarge the photos. Study and compare at full-screen size. A good dealer will always provide high resolution images, and it will not take long for you to notice that internet sellers of coins that arouse your suspicions often show you very poor quality images of their wares.
Caveat emptor! - buy the appropriate catalogue and make it a starting point for acquiring a library of information on what will become your area of specialization. You will find numerous books and publications about forgery you can refer to for free if you join a local numismatic society. On the internet there are websites and forums galore dedicated to forgery detecting. For ancient coin enthusiasts www.forgerynetwork.com is recommended.
- buy the best lens (loupe) you can afford and use it to examine as many forgeries as you can lay hands on. It will not take long for you to acquire the skill to recognize the commonest type of forgery, which is the cast coin, made by pouring molten metal into a mould. Casts will often lack definition, especially within the highly detailed parts of the design. Tiny surface bubbles or traces of a casting seam, or traces of filing where a seam has been removed round the edge, may be visible under magnification.
Even the more sophisticated forgery made by striking can often be identified by magnification that can reveal faults in lettering. In handling such forgeries you fingers will become sensitive to the too sharp feel of recently struck designs, or the too smooth feel of a casting. It will not take long to develop a sixth sense that tells you something doesn't look or feel quite right. That's the time for caveat emptor to guide your next move.
- Let me end this short list of things to do with a thing not to do. Don't make you first purchase of an ancient coin on eBay. It is not a market-place for the inexperienced collector, who will have to contend with poor quality images, vague descriptions and outrageous claims made by many sellers who use eBay for the sole purpose of foisting fakery on the unsuspecting. However, there is one good reason to buy low-priced ancient coins on eBay. It's a very good way to obtain a reference collection ... of forgeries.
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