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A Case of Counterfeits

By Walter M. Shandruk

Professionally made counterfeit ancient coins aren 't as much of a problem as they were in previous decades, but there is no shortage of poorly made ones; and for the beginner, unacquainted with the features that clearly distinguish them, this can be a discouraging stumbling block, especially if one is taken in by an unscrupulous dealer. Following are two examples of poorly made ancient counterfeits, each with several features that upon inspection immediately distinguish them from authentic pieces. The first coin we shall examine is a poor counterfeit of a Philip II tetradrachm.

The first characteristic of this piece that strikes one is the color - the metal doesn 't resemble silver in any state of tarnish. Following up on this examination, when one weights the piece, it becomes evident that it is underweight. Most Philip II tetradrachms range in weight between 14 and 15 grams, whereas this piece weighs in under 13.3 grams, clearly below standard weight. Both the color of the material and the sub-standard weight indicate it was a counterfeit utilizing a non-silver alloy. This brings us to the first point amateur collectors need to be wary of when looking out for ancient counterfeits: weight standards. Most poorly made counterfeit coins do not keep to the proper weight range used for the particular piece in antiquity, often because the correct metal is not used.

The second characteristic that betrays this piece as a counterfeit is the nature of the details. When one closely examines various details closely, such as the hair lines on the obverse, one notices two characteristics that are unnatural: 1) all of the details are rounded whether they are the highest features on the relief or lower down, which does not approximate natural coin wear, where the highest features should indicate wear first and more heavily. 2) all of the details, whether they are on the highest points or lowest, show hair lines melting together, lacking clear definition. These above characteristics are a clear indication that this piece was not struck but cast. When a piece is cast (and pressure casting is not used) the molten metal usually does not adequately fill in all of the details, creating rounded features that lack definition. This brings us to the second point amateur collectors need to be wary of: production method. The vast majority of coins in antiquity were die struck, the qualities of which a cast piece can not replicate.

The fields on the reverse side being very rounded and dipping towards the edges of the central device (mounted horse) also indicate this piece was made by casting. In addition, the fields also curve downward along the edges of the characters in the reverse legend, and the details of the circle circumscribing the legend and central device on the reverse melt together, lacking definition. 

A properly struck piece would not have such rounded fields, which are the result of metal not sufficiently filling device edges. In other cases, this also results in fine pitting along the device edges which is the result of air bubbles trapped inside the mold as the metal attempts to fill in all of the details. This will be seen in the final coin we examine. The exact manner in which the metal fills the mold and results in very soft and rounded details, improperly filled device edges resulting in rounded fields, or fine pitting along device and detail edges depends on the type of metal/alloy used, the heat to which it is raised, and whether all of the air was forced out. A pressure cast, which would force the air out and avoid pitting from air bubbles, is often not used on cheap counterfeits because it is a far more involved process. 

Click here to compare with genuine Philip II tetradrachms.

In the second coin to the right, a counterfeit of a Mesembria Tetradrachm, we can observe all of the features that distinguished the above coin as a counterfeit in addition to the pitting around device features that wasn 't present in the above piece and an abnormal edge quality. Upon first examination, the metal seems to be silver, but holding the coin it is noticeably underweight. Indeed, weighing in at 11.5 grams, the piece is nearly 3.5 grams underweight from the standard weight range for Mesembria tetradrachms. This in itself is an absolute indication of forgery.

Photo v. Notice the details of the hairs melting together at all heights in the relief, not reflecting normal wear patterns and once again indicating a cast coin.

Like the above piece, not only do high and low device features equally melt together (Photo v), exhibiting a lack of detail definition, but the fields once again curve downward towards the edges of both the devices and legend characters (Photo vi). This is obvious on both sides of the coin, particularly within the hair details of the lion 's mane atop Alexander 's head on the obverse. On the reverse, all of the Greek characters in the legend have a very soft quality to them and seem almost slightly sunk into the fields - a result of the molten metal not filling in the mold adequately during manufacture - and in some cases, the metal oozed past the inscribed spaces for the Greek characters in the mold, causing tiny connections to form between them (Photo vii), a feature which would never be observed in a struck coin. 

A further clear indication of trapped air is on the obverse, around the edge of Alexander 's face, where many fine pits are clear along the length of the device, but most noticeably around the mouth and eye (Photo viii). Pitting is often observed in ancient coins as a result of metal corrosion, but they are usually irregular and do not form neatly around device features like this. 

A final characteristic that clearly distinguishes this piece as a cast counterfeit is the quality of the coin 's rim (Photo viv). No ancient struck piece would have such a smooth rim. The process of striking would result in clear bulging and sometimes cracking along the rim as the pressure of the strike bore down on the planchet and reformed the metal. In our piece, there are no indication of this; the rim is completely smooth with nice sharp edges. Indeed, looking at the quality of the rim is a good indicator of manufacture method and should always be done when examining a suspect piece. 

Click here to compare with genuine Alexander the Great tetradrachms.

In short, the photographed pieces were determined to be counterfeit by observing the following characteristics, with the last four helping to determine production method:

Improper weight.
(2) Lack of definition in device features, especially fine details melting together at all heights in the device relief.
Uneven fields curving along device and character edges.
Fine pitting around device edges as a result of trapped air bubbles in the mold.
(5) Lack of pressure-induced bulging and/or cracking along flan rim which should be present as a result of striking.

   Photo i. Counterfeit Philip II Tetradrachm

Photo ii. Notice the feature details melting together
at different    heights on the device relief.

   Photo iii. Notice rounded fields around various reverse device

 Photo iv. Counterfeit Mesembria Alexander Tetradrachm.

    Photo vi. Notice the dips in the fields around letters and device    edges.

Photo vii (left).  Notice the ligatures connection the characters as a result of molten metal that oozed around the mold during manufacture.  Photo viii (center). Notice the bubbles around the mouth and eye as well as along the length of the edge of the face.  Photo viv (right).  Notice the  lack of pressure marks along edge of flan indicating it was not struck.

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