Are fake ancient coins a problem?

For almost as long as there have been coins there has been an industry in counterfeiting them. Fake coinage imitating the official issues of the state quickly proved a headache for the Romans, who trialed a number of anti-counterfeiting measures but were usually one step behind the often ingenious methods used by the fakers. Handmade ancient coins had a guaranteed fixed value but also a worth in precious metal bullion; it was therefore common for people to clip small amounts of metal from the edge of coin flans, eventually giving them enough excess metal to melt down or even create new coins. This practice of coin “clipping” would remain a problem until the advent of mechanised milled coinage in the 17th century.

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When it came to crafting imitation coinage, one of the most popular types of counterfeit was the fourrée or plated coin, in which a base metal core is coated with a thin layer of precious metal to make it appear solid silver or gold. Other fakers might use a genuine coin pressed into clay to make molds from which they could cast coins of their own. Punishments for coin counterfeiting were severe and though the resulting fakes were often easy to identify, some are so convincing in style and appearance that they are regarded as semi-official issues, struck using seemingly genuine coin dies of the Roman mint. Studies are ongoing into how the state may have had its own part in coin counterfeiting, especially during times of economic crisis. 

The Humanist rediscovery of the lost art of ancient coins in the Renaissance was quickly followed by efforts to recreate the coins themselves, paying tribute to their craft but also ushering in a new era of coin counterfeiting. The most famous examples of these may be the impressive Paduan fakes created by engraver Giovanni Cavino in the 16th century, now prized by collectors in their own right. 

Ancient coins are small but can have extremely high value, ensuring they remain an attractive prospect for the counterfeiter to this day. Fakes can be demoralising for collectors at every level and removing them from the modern market proves a daunting long-term challenge. It may take a collector many years but they will eventually learn to spot the warning signs of fakery; when this experience is combined with modern technology, it is possible to sufficiently protect yourself and the wider hobby from the problem. The internet has allowed for the creation of searchable, ever-growing databases of fakes and when new counterfeits are identified it is vital that collectors, dealers and auctioneers unite to remove them permanently from the market. Cutting-edge technology such as 3D-printing will surely present new opportunities to the criminal and challenges to the collector in the near future, against which we can be confident the hobby will remain vigilant and prevail as it always has.