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Volume 23, Number 5September/October 1972

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The Gentle Art Of Forgery

Written by George Taylor

For 25 years Lebanon has gradually been superseding Egypt and Turkey as a trading center for ancient Greek and Roman coins. Today ancient coins are more plentiful and more readily available in Beirut than in Cairo or Istanbul.

It is also true, alas, that there has been a proportionate increase in the number of coins and other "ancient" articles whose pedigree might not always withstand a searching scrutiny. Some skeptics go so far as to suggest that many of these coins might be forgeries turned out by diligent local craftsmen reluctant to see avid collectors leave the area without the treasures they have come for.

It is not for me to affirm or deny such slanderous gossip, but I would venture to say this: it is not impossible. Forgers, if there are any, are heirs to a tradition nearly 2,000 years old. Indeed, forgery in the Mediterranean is almost as old as coined money itself.

Herodotus tells us that the first people in the Mediterranean to strike coins of gold and silver were the Lydians, a people who lived in what is now western Turkey, and who had access to electrum, the "white gold" found in the Pactolus River. What Herodotus doesn't tell us is that the Lydians were also the first people to forge coins; the earliest surviving forgery is a stater from Sardes, capital of Lydia, which was struck not much more than 50 years after the invention of coinage.

But if forgers were quick to spot a trend, the rulers of the day were equally quick to see the implications, so from the beginning forgers were threatened with dire punishment by the State. In Greece, according to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, in 583 B.C., nearly all states levied the death penalty for forgery or the adulteration of money. (This is confirmed in an inscription relating to a monetary union between Lesbos and Phocaea.) In Rome, lex Cornelia defalsis prohibited the manufacture of plated coins, and during Octavian's struggle for supreme power, Cicero recorded that the passing of false coins was forbidden. When Octavian became Caesar Augustus, his lex Iulia peculates was a precaution against the adulteration of state issues of gold, silver and bronze, and Tacitus, a later emperor, made such adulteration an offense punishable by confiscation of all the offender's property.

Even in those days there were two types of forgery. There were fakes and—by far more common—there were imitations. The imitations were circulated as official public money by, say, a provincial governor who had run out of State coinage. In Athens in an emergency in 406 B.C., plated bronze coins—quite a few of which have survived—were substituted for the familiar silver tetradrachms, and for 13 years, from 406 to 393 B.C., the Athenian mint struck only these plated bronze pieces in imitation of the normal silver coins. In the Roman period, particularly in the third century A.D., the financial straits in which the emperors found themselves necessitated successive issues of imitation Roman denarii. And finally it seems clear that forgeries were sometimes sold officially as token coins to be thrown as offerings into sacred springs, wells and pools.

The second type of forgery—the fake—is made to cheat the receiver. One early forgery of this type has already been mentioned, but the "trade" of producing faked coins really began in the 16th century, when interest in collecting coins became widespread. The upsurge of interest in all aspects of the classical world led Renaissance craftsmen to make accurate copies of paintings, sculpture and coins, to sell to those who had rediscovered the beauty of classical art. The engravers of coins quickly realized that those who would pay a high price for a reproduction of an ancient coin would pay an even higher one for a coin they took to be genuinely ancient. So lucrative did the trade become that "ancient" coins were soon being engraved in numerous Italian workshops, particularly in the city of Padua, which gave the name Paduan to all forgeries of this genre. The best known craftsmen were Giovanni Cavino and Alessandro Bassiano, whose copies of the sestertii of the early Roman emperors were so handsome in themselves that they are still sought after as beautiful specimens of Renaissance medals.

All Cavino's forged pieces have been listed and published—a rare honor for a forger, yet one which Cavino shares with the remarkable 19th-century German engraver, Karl Becker. Becker was far more prolific than Cavino: his forgeries numbered more than six hundred, ranging from rare ancient coins to medieval and Renaissance medals. His most successful dies were those which he cut for a series of Roman denarii, where the style and "feeling" of Roman protraiture were beautifully captured.

By comparison with the work of Becker and Cavino, most recent forgeries seem relatively crude, but forgers in this century have made up for this by their ingenuity in devising situations which blur the critical judgment of even experienced collectors. For instance, coins have been buried in likely places, dug up—sometimes by innocent people—and then sold to collectors who were convinced of their genuineness because they had witnessed the "chance" discovery or had heard first hand reports of it. And at ancient sites, where the man who sells guidebooks and postcards invariably offers a faked silver piece or two among a few genuine but nondescript bronze coins, the desire to have a tangible and contemporary record of the site visited leads to unwary purchases of the crudest forgeries.

Today, ancient coins can be forged to order. One hears of craftsmen who employ travelers to canvass dealers for commissions, and others who sell their matrices to less gifted artisans. If a collector inquires for a certain coin, that piece and its duplicates could well appear in the bazaar within a week of his inquiry. It is a sad moment when the jubilant collector—having ferreted out, he thinks, the coin he needed to complete a series—finds two or three identical copies in the bazaar.

Of course, reputable dealers will not wittingly handle forged coins, and most of them will take back a coin which they have sold if it should prove to be a forgery. But reputable dealers do charge the maximum current prices for their coins, and in areas where small hoards are frequently uncovered and brought to the bazaar by the finders there is a strong temptation to buy coins "from the soil" rather than from the dealer.

False ancient coins are so numerous that the great museums of the world keep trays of forgeries, or casts of them, for reference. The rate of increase in these coins is phenomenal; no museum can now boast a completely comprehensive collection of forgeries. It is an interesting fact that the least forged of all ancient coins are those of the Muslim rulers from the 7th century to the Middle Ages; copies of their gold pieces do occur from time to time, it is true, but they are very rare indeed. The reason for this is that since Muslim coins lacked "any likeness of any living thing, whether in heaven above or in the earth beneath," their appeal to collectors has always been limited to the few Arabists who could decipher the inscriptions which form the obverse and reverse types of the coins. Some astrophysicists postulate a "continuous creation" theory for the universe, with creation and disappearance matching in such a way that the total number of stars remains more or less constant. So it is with faked ancient coins: they are manufactured; they are circulated; they pass gently into the limbo of collectors' trays, and they disappear for ever.

George Taylor teaches at the American University of Beirut and, as a Fellow of the Royal Nusimatic Society, has written many papers on ancient coins.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the September/October 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: COINS

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