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Ancient Counterfeits: Ignored and Nailed

By Tom Buijtendorp

Ancient counterfeits are not very popular by collectors, selling on average at 1/4 to 1 /2 of the normal value. And in ancient times they may have been nailed when their nature became clear. Still, they offer some interesting perspectives on the ancient coinage as this overview illustrates.


Fig 1 Fouree electrum 1/12 stater, with reverse core exposure (top). Minted in Sardeis (Sardes) around 650 - 600 BCE. Obverse head of roaring lion right; knob on forehead; reverse Square incuse punch. Weight 0.909g, maximum diameter 7.1 mm. At the bottom a normal electrum 1/12 stater from the same mint. Weight 1.178g, maximum diameter 6.9 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH57317 (top) and nr. SH17783 (bottom).

Fig 2 Fouree gold plated solidus (left), based on a solidus minted for Valentinian I (364-375 CE) in 364-367 CE in Siscia. Obverse D N VALENTINI-ANVS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VICTORIA AVGG, Valentinian and Valens enthroned facing, one holding mappa the other globe, Victory with outstretched wings behind them. The weight (2.510 gram) is much less than the 4.423 gram for a regular specimen (right) while the diameter of the fouree (20.0 mm) is almost the same as the diameter of the regular solidus (20.2 mm). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr RL38369 (fouree, left) and SH28058 (reverse regular issue right).


Fig. 3 Copper core of an ancient counterfeit of a gold solidus of emperor Honorius (393-423 CE) based on a solidus minted in Ravenna in 412-422 CE (top), compared with the same regular issue RIC V 1321 (bottom). Obverse D N HONORI-VS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VICTORI-A AVGGG, Honorius standing right, holding standard and Victory on globe, treading down captive; R-V across fields, COMOB in ex. Weight fouree 4.383 gram (regular coin 4.351 gram) with maximum diameter19.9 mm (regular coin 20.5 mm). Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RL28691 (top) and SH28929 (bottom).

Counterfeiting started the moment the first coins were struck. The oldest coins were produced in Lydia (Turkey) in the second half of the seventh century BCE. They were minted of electrum, an alloy of about 55% gold and 45% silver. They showed the head of a lion on the obverse. A roaring lion was the symbol of the Lydian kings. A plated 1/12 stater with the core exposed at the reverse is a very early example of an ancient counterfeit (fig 1). Such a coin filled with a lower value core is called a fouree, a French word. There are examples of counterfeited gold coins like Roman solidi, an interesting case as the name solidus was introduced to restore the confidence in the denomination as solid gold. Due to wear and/or corrosion, part of the thin gold layer may have disappeared (fig 2). And in some cases what remains is a copper coin only (fig 3). As gold is heavier then copper, the gold fouree coins are much lighter like 2.510 gram for fouree of a solidus compared to 4.423 gram for a regular solidus (fig 3). In other cases, the fouree core is thicker and close to the normal weight (fig 3).


Fig 4 Plated denarius of the type minted for Mark Antony in 32-31 BCE with clearly the thin silver foil at the reverse side. Obverse ANT•AVG / III •VIR•R•P•C, galley right with rowers, mast with banners at prow, border of dots; reverse LEG - VI, legionary eagle between two standards, border of dots. Weight 2.856g, maximum diameter 18.2mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RR60607.


Fig 5 Very well-preserved fouree of a denarius minted by Domitian (81-96 CE) for Julia Titi in 81 CE. Obverse IVLIA AVGVSTA T AVG F, diademed and draped bust right; reverse VENVS AVG, Venus standing right, viewed from behind, nude but for drapery at hips, buttocks exposed, leaning with left elbow on column, helmet in extended right, transverse spear behind in left. Weight 3.145g, maximum diameter 19.4mm. There are very tiny coppery areas, and small lumps in the obverse right field that are typical on plated coins. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH59891.


Fig 6 A fouree of a denarius of Nerva (96-98 CE) of the Romemint, with a large bump on the reverse, created by a chemical reaction during the plating. Obverse IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P COS III P P, laureate head right; reverse SALVS PVBLICA, Salus seated left, heads of grain in right, left elbow on throne. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS32178.

More often silver coins have been counterfeited in ancient times. A rare example of a legionary denarius of the type minted for Mark Antony in 32-31 BCE clearly shows the technique used. (fig 4). A thin silver foil sheet was wrapped around the copper core at both obverse and reverse side. In this case, one foil sheet is missing. As a result, the reverse foil sheet is clearly visible with the rim bent around the core. After being wrapped and heated, the flan was struck like a regular coin. In case of well preserved fourees, very tiny coppery areas may reveal the copper core. In addition, small lumps or bumps in the field of the coins are typical for plated coins, the result of chemical reactions occurring in between the copper core and the silver foil sheet (fig 5). In very rare occasions, such a small bump may have become very large as an interesting fouree of a denarius of Nerva (96-98 CE) demonstrates.


Fig. 7 Denarius of Caracalla (211-217 CE) with copper core, a fouree minted around 215 CE and buried around 215 CE in the Forum Fire Hoard. Obverse ANTONINVS PIVS AVG GERM, laureate head right; reverse P M TR P XVIII COS IIII P P, Apollo standing left, branch in right, left resting on lyre set on altar. Weight 2.294 gram, maximum diameter 18.3 mm, die axis 0o. Sold by Forum Ancient Coin nr BB14967.

When produced well, fouree coins could circulate as normal coins for several years or more. An example is a fouree of a denarius of Caracalla minted in 215 CE in Rome. The coin was part of the Forum Fire Hoard described in a separate NumisWiki article. This hoard was concealed around 225 CE. Assuming this fouree was produced in 215 CE as well, this counterfeit looked still as a regular denarius ten years after the counterfeiting. In this case, the fire damaged the coin and made the copper core visible. More often, long term wear would erase the thin silver layer and eventually expose the copper core. After burial, corrosion could further deteriorate the coin.


Fig 8 Fouree silver plated drachm as minted between 449 and 413 in Athens, with a test mark on the obverse revealing the copper core (top). Obverse head of Athena r., almond shaped eye, crested helmet with olive leaves & floral scroll, wire necklace, round earring, hair across forehead in parallel curves; reverse AQE right, owl standing right, head facing, erect in posture, to left olive sprig and crescent, all within incuse square. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. GS38631.


Fig 9 Fouree silver plated denarius serratus, original minted in 83 BCE in Rome. Obverse laureate head of Jupiter right, SC behind; reverse Victory in a quadriga right, wreath in right and reigns and palm frond in left, letter below horses, Q ANTO BALB / PR in ex (ANT and AL in monogram). Weight 3.432g, maximum diameter 18.7 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RR21881.


Fig 10. Fouree silver plated denarius serratus, original minted in 79 BCE in Rome. Obverse head of Juno Sospita right, clad in goat's skin, control symbol behind, bead and reel border; reverse Gryphon leaping right, control symbol below, L PAPI in ex, bead and reel border; pitted and encrusted. Weight 3.154g, maximum diameter 20.2mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RR21902.

Like gold plated coins, also silver plated coins tended to be lighter than the regular silver coins because copper is lighter than silver. When people suspected a coin of having a copper core, a test mark was made to check. This could reveal the copper core, as an example of an old silver drachm from Athens illustrates (fig 8). This also explains the presence of such test marks on regular coins. During the Roman Republic, so called serrate denarii were minted. It has been suggested the serrated rim was intended to prevent plated counterfeits by providing a view into the core of the coin. Therefore, it is interesting that plated serrate have been produced (fig 9-10).


Fig 11. Fouree denarius of Brutus, minted in 43-42 BCE. Obverse BRVT IMP L PIAET (sic) CE[ST], head of Brutus right; reverse EID MAR, liberty cap and two daggers. Weight 3.10 gram. Same dies as fouree denarius Münzhandlung Basel 6, 1936, 1485. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH01339.


Fig 12. Fouree silver plated denarius of Domitian. Obverse IMP CAES DOMITIANVS AVG GERMANIC, laureate bust right wearing aegis; reverse P M TR POT III IMP V COS X P P, Minerva standing right, hurling javelin with right, shield on left arm. The attribute right of he bust is known for other denarii of Domitian and might have been copied after an official denarius yet to be discovered. Weight 3.281g, maximum diameter 18.4mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH47667.

The plated coins in many cases were struck with unofficial dies inspired by the original coins. Like original coins, it is sometimes possible to identify plated coins produced with the same dies. An example is a plated version of a rare denarius of Brutus minted in 43-42 BCE. A copy sold by Forum Ancient Coins shares the dies with a plated coin sold in 1936 by Münzhandlung Bazel (fig 11). Other counterfeited coins were minted with dies reproduced directly from original coins. This may in rare cases reveal unknown coins (fig 12).


Fig 13. Billon antoninianus combining an old obverse of Gordian III (238-244 CE) with a much later reverse of Victorinus (269-271 CE), probably minted around 270 CE. Obverse IMP GORDIANVS PIVS FEL AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VIRTVS AVG, Virtus standing right, spear in right, shield resting on ground in left. Weight 2.303g, maximum diameter 20.5 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr RS50796.


Fig 14. Fouree silver plated reduced siliqua with core visible at the reverse, hybrid combining obverse of Constantius II (337-361 CE) with a reverse of Julian II (360-363 CE). Obverse D N CONSTANTIVS P F AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VOT / X / MVLT XX in wreath, PLVG (Lugdunum = Lyon) in ex. Weight 1.300g, maximum diameter 17.1 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH58910.


Fig 15. Bronze plated lead core fouree, on the reverse a small part of the lead core being visible below the eagle. The original was minted in Alexandria for Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BCE). Obverse diademed head of Zeus Ammon right; reverse BASILEWS PTOLEMAIOU, eagle standing left on thunderbolt, wings closed, cornucopia left shoulder, E between eagle's legs; brown paintina. Weight 58.817g, maximum diameter 37.3 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. GB18518.

In some examples, the obverse and reverse dies are based on different coins, so called hybrids. For example, an antoninianus combines the obverse of Gordian III (238-244 CE) with the reverse of Victorinus (269-271 CE), a combination probably minted around 270 CE by an unofficial mint (fig 13). A later example is a silver siliqua combining an obverse of Constantius II (337-361 CE) with a reverse of Julian II (360-363 CE) (fig 14). This hybrid siliqua is very rare because this denomination was very thin, making the copper core much thinner compared to the silver foil sheet, what reduced the profit for the counterfeiter. For comparable reasons, counterfeits of copper coins are quite rare. Lead was somewhat cheaper than copper and there are rare examples of lead cores with a copper outer layer as imitation of pure copper coins (fig 15). It was however financially much more attractive to counterfeit coins of silver and gold.


Fig 16. A local imitation of a denarius of Tiberius form a coin hoard with Roman denarii form India. On the obverse blundered reading of CAESAR DVI AVG F AVGVSTVS as TILLRIVIAVCFAVGVSTVS. Reverse blundered reading of PONTIF MAXIM as ONIIF MANIM. Weight 3.008 gram, max diameter 18.2 mm, die-axis 180. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH20732 as part of a coin hoard found in India.


Fig 17. Bronze AE I of Julian (360-363 CE), a local imitation found in Syria. Obverse D N FL CL IVLIANVS P F AVG, diademed draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse SECVRITAS REIPVB, Apis bull right, two stars above horns, branch ANTG branch in exergue. Weight 4.80g, maximum diameter 25.6 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RL09205.


Fig 18. Two imitations, form the same dies, of a bronze coin of Tiberius (14-17 CE), found in the Middle East judging the desert patina. Obverse TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVST IMP VIII, laureate head left; reverse PONTIF MAXIM TRIBVN POTEST XXXVI (inverted mirror image), S - C, upright winged caduceus. Weight 15.43g, maximum diameter 28.0 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. SH20393 (top) and RS09079 (bottom).

A different group are the imitations for local use without the purpose of making an additional profit. An interesting example is local imitations of Roman denarii produced in India. An example is an imitation found in a coin hoard in India described by the author in a separate NumisWiki article (fig 16). This hoard of 175 denarii of Augustus and Tiberius contained several local imitations. This kind of local imitations from India normally contained the right amount of silver. The Roman look of the coins was used as a kind of quality mark. The same may be the case with other imitations. An example is a bronze coin of Julian II ‘Apostate’ (360-363 CE) with exotic style and blundered mint mark of Antioch. Apparently this was a local imitation as the coin was found in Syria, the region at the south east of Antioch (fig 17). In some rare occasions, for such local bronze imitations, two coins of the same dies have been traced. Two examples found in the Middle East are imitations of a bronze coin of Tiberius (14-37 CE) minted in Rome in 34-35 CE. Very specific is the mirror representation of the reverse, including the legend (fig 18).


Fig 19. Cast so called ‘limes denarius’ of Gordian III (238-244 CE) from the Balkan. obverse IMP GORDIANVS PIVS FEL AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, from behind; reverse SECVRITAS PVBLICA, Securitas seated left, scepter in right, propping head with left. Weight 2.786g, maximum diameter 18.5 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RB14630.


Fig 20 Rare hybrid imitation of silver Roman Republican denarius from the Balkan. Obverse imitative of L. Flaminius Chilo, 109- 108 BCE, head of Roma right in winged helmet, ROMA behind, X below chin; reverse imitative of D. Junius L.f. Silanus, 91 BCE, Victory in galloping biga right, XI above, D.PLAN (or similar, blundered) in ex. Weight 4.0661 g, maximum diameter 19.2 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RR58521.

A special case are the so called ‘limes denarii’ (fig 19). According to Prokopov, they are typical for the Balkan region and found in large amounts there, also in coin hoards. Given these volumes, they played a role in local circulation, although the details remain uncertain. Some are cast. Earlier, in the period 100 BCE – 100 CE, in the same region Roman Republican denarii were imitated (fig 20), in many cases hybrids with the obverse and reverse from different minting years like the example shown 109-108 BCE for the obverse (L. Flaminius Chilo) and 91 BCE for the reverse (D. Junius L.f. Silanus).


Fig 21. Fouree silver plated denarius of Julius Caesar pierced with a square nail, original minted in a military mint in 47-46 BCE. Obverse diademed head of Venus right, wearing necklace, hair rolled back, in a knot behind, two locks down neck; reverse CAESAR, Aeneas, naked walking left, palladium in right, in left carries his father. Weight 3.070g, maximum diameter 16.6 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RR21885.


Fig 22. Silver denarius of Diva Faustina minted in 147-161 CE in Rome. Obverse DIVA FAVSTINA, draped bust right; reverse AVGVSTA, Venus standing left, apple in right, resting left on grounded shield; the remnant of an iron nail fills the whole in this coin. Weight 2.758g, maximum diameter 17.8 mm. Sold by Forum Ancient Coins nr. RS38524.

These are just a few examples of the many ancient counterfeits produced. The producers could earn a profit, but risked the death penalty. And Forum Ancient Coin suggests some of their ancient counterfeits have been "nailed to the counter", an early custom for the treatment of a counterfeit, that created a warning to others. They quote from a Victorian writer: "A few months ago, while waiting for my ticket in a country railway office, I observed a half-crown nailed to the counter. The young man who was giving out the tickets, also attracted my attention. He seemed a sharp youth, and had an air of importance about him, becoming the responsibilities of his office. With his hand raised to the ticket department, and the finger ready to pounce upon the right one, he shouted, "First or second, sir?" Being the last one that was then waiting, I thought I should like to have a few words with our young friend about the half-crown, so I said to him as I was picking up my change, "What is this you have got nailed to the counter, my boy? " "A half-crown, sir." "But why have you it nailed to the counter "Because it is a bad one, sir." "So you were determined it should go no further. But now, tell me, does it remind you of anything very serious?" "I don't know," (looking very straight at me and paying great attention). "Well, I'll tell you, my boy, what it has brought to my mind, that will be the end of all hypocrites, they will at last be nailed down under the awful judgment of God. And they will never be able to get away from it. Now, you look at that half-crown. A nail driven through it, fixed to the one spot, and exposed to public condemnation. Everyone sees that it is a detected hypocrite, and exhibited there as a warning to others." A square hole is clearly visible in a counterfeited denarius of Julius Caesar (fig 21). Maybe very worn regular denarii received the same treatment as such a denarius of Faustina Senior (138-141 CE) still contains iron remains of a nail (fig 22). In this way, the counterfeited and related coins tell their own story, from their start to their end.