Fourrees - Plated Coins

To be sought out? .......or to be avoided?

If you have not seen the first part of this series, please visit my: First Plated Coins page.

From the very beginning of precious metal coinage a certain number of coins were made with a precious metal 'skin' over a base metal core. Most plated coins are silver over copper but gold over copper and gold over silver coins exist. There are even a few coins of bronze over iron! These 'plated' or 'fourree' (also seen spelled with one 'r' or 'e') pieces were intended to look like their solid counterparts and circulated until the core broke through betraying their nasty little secret. When late Roman silver coinage deteriorated to the point that the alloy was no longer silver in color, official mints applied a thin silver wash to serve as a reminder that there was some silver in the alloy. These are not considered 'fourree' since their purpose was not to deceive (much in the same sense as the current U.S. clad coinage). When currency reforms returned a good silver coin to circulation, production of plated pieces resumed. This process continued to be used long after the end of ancient era.

A most important point to remember when discussing plated coins is that what is proven true for one does not necessarily hold true for another. This applies both to the techniques of manufacture and to the reasons for issue. While many advanced students of numismatics disagree, I maintain that SOME fourrees were produced at SOME official mints. MOST, however, were unofficial at least to some degree. Coins could be produced by mint workers 'moonlighting', by persons using retired or stolen dies, by local authorities creating a 'money of necessity', by barbaric people making an 'imitative' coinage and, finally, by out and out counterfeiters. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to determine which of these categories applies to any particular coin. Our best educated guesses will remain just that: guesses.

A silver over copper denarius of Mark Antony shows edge core exposure (5 o'clock) and a strong seam where foil edges met.

The methods of producing plated coins varied greatly from time to time and place to place. Some have very thick silver jackets firmly bonded to the core; some are barely different from the later silver washed issues and must have been discovered soon after they entered circulation. As the silver content of normal coins decreased, the profit to be made by making plated coins followed. As a result, the techniques that produced a thick layer of silver were rarely used. It is not at all unusual to find several classes of fourrees (official/barbaric, thick/thin) of the same period. Lets repeat the most important point: Proving ONE plated coin of, for example, Nero to be good or bad does not prove anything about thousands of other plated coins of Nero. There was not an organized fourree mint responsible for all of these coins. All that ALL fourree coins have in common is that they were plated!

Those who hold that all fourrees are counterfeit point to the lack of die links between plated and solid coins even when the plated pieces are of good style. It seems to me that if I were involved in the productions 'bad' coins, either officially or fraudulently, I would want to be certain I could tell my handiwork so I would not receive them in daily commerce. The obvious way to accomplish this would be to use 'special' dies with some secret mark recognizable to persons 'in the know'. This would also allow officials of the mint to distance themselves from the bad coins when they were later discovered. I would be quite surprised to find die links between solid and plated coins.

The photo captions on this page will discuss examples of plated coins. Evidence will be presented as it relates to how the coin was made and, the possible status (guess!!) of the issue will be given. These evaluations are only opinions based on style and workmanship. Certainly, my expertise is not sufficient to rule on the style quality of so many different coins. If you are expert in some of these issues, you may catch my errors. Truth about such coins would be hard to prove in their own day, let alone 2000 years later.

Augustus - Fourree denarius - c.27 BC - 3.0g
Fourrees are most common in Roman Republican and early Imperial coins. During this period the purity of metal and weight was kept to a high standard so it is possible that mint expenses were offset by production of a percentage of these 'special' pieces. After the debasement of silver coinage under Nero it is very hard to find fourrees of a style that could possibly have been official mint product. This would suggest that debasement later supplied the operating overhead previously provided by the plated coins. The best fourrees were produced by wrapping a copper core with silver foil. This sandwich was heated and struck with dies. If the heating and the force of striking were sufficient the two layers would adhere producing a thin layer of eutechtic (the alloy of two metals with the lowest melting point) at the bond. Some workshops strengthened this bond with a powdered eutechtic sprinkled between the layers. It is not always easy to tell which method was used on any particular coin. This denarius of Augustus shows seams on the obverse where the edges of the silver foil wrapper were fused by the striking process. The seam usually shows only on one side. (Try wrapping an English Muffin in two small pieces of aluminum foil and you will understand both the technique and the reason for this.) Copper core is evident on the high wear points on the reverse. The overlap left thicker silver on the seamed side so it follows that the first wear through to the core would be on the other side. Style strikes me as possibly official. The bond that still attaches the layers of this coin firmly is the result of proper heating and flan preparation.

Augustus & Tiberius - Fourree denarius - 13-14 AD

Our 2.5g (very light!) denarius of Augustus and Tiberius could be official mint product. The bond is less successful with the seam showing very clearly. This suggests that this foil adhered to the core only by the heat and force of the striking process. I see no intermediate 'glue' layer as shown on the Hadrian fourree brockage that was subject of one of this site's earliest pages. The coin shows round punches on the Augustus side that probably confirmed the suspicions of an ancient merchant. Otherwise, the core is only exposed at the bottom of Augustus' neck. This was probably due to flaking of the foil at a seam rather than wear. The gash under Tiberius' chin that failed to penetrate the rather thick silver layer may be modern damage when the coin was excavated.

Pompey the Great (struck by his son) - Fourree denarius - 44-43 BC
Fourrees sometimes have fully intact silver and are easily confused with normal coins. This denarius of Sextus Pompey (44-43 BC) is betrayed by one small pit on the rudder of the galley and its lighter than normal weight of 2.9g. This coin was made with thicker than average silver which withstood considerable wear without revealing the core. Close inspection will reveal a trace of seam near the reverse edge at about 5 o'clock. The dealer who sold this to me as a fourree was TRUELY an honest gentleman who knew coins. This coin shows good style and eye appeal but is still valued by collectors at a fraction of the price of a solid example. Collectors have two choices: Learn to spot these things on your own or buy only from reputable dealers who know their business. Caveat emptor!

Brutus - Fourree denarius c.54 BC

Our last example is a silver over copper denarius (c.54 BC) of Brutus showing two of his ancestors (Brutus the Ancient and Ahala). The coin dates to his period of service as a moneyer a decade before he murdered Caesar. The core was revealed by a punch test cut. The interesting features of this coin are the die breaks on the obverse. While die breaks are found on normal coins, the severity of these raises the possibility that the dies were stolen and continued in use after being officially retired by the mint. This certainly can never be proven. As with all of the coins on this page, style is reasonable and dies could be official. This is commonly the case with fourrees of the Republican and Imperatorial period.

Fourrees are known of the earliest Greek coins and continue well past the end of 'ancient' coinage. To keep the load time of this page at a reasonable level, I have separated these examples to separate pages. I hope you will visit both:

Please visit the other two parts of this series:
Later Roman Plated Coins
Greek Plated Coins

An excellent book on this subject complete with great micro-photographs is: Campbell, William, Greek and Roman Plated Coins, Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 57, American Numismatic Society, 1933. Numismatic used book sellers often have it.

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Fourree Trivia Question
What U.S. coin is a true fourree: a plating of more precious metal over a cheaper core made in such a way as not to be obvious that the deception was being done and allowing the plated pieces to circulate unnoticed mixed with solid coins? Hint: The answer is not the 'clad' silverless coins or 40% silver 1965-67 issues which showed their striped edges clearly. It is not the 1943 zinc plated steel coins which were plated to stop rust rather than to deceive. What is it?

Answer is on a following page.

1997 Doug Smith