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 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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.