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BEWARE OF FAKE ANCIENTS
by Michael E. Marotta (ANA R-162953)
(C) Copyright 1999 by Mercury Atwell mercury@well.com

TThere is no easy way to tell a modern fake from a genuine ancient coin. The ANA educates collectors through _The Numismatist_ and its books and videotapes. However, these only provide clues to identifying the heavy-handed forms of forgery, such as gluing on a mintmark, and die casting from an original model. What cannot be known easily is the careful work of a skilled die maker. It is not hard to strike a coin that looks like ancient workmanship.

Shopfloor practices at an automobile plant involve tolerances at the micron range. (A micron is a millionth of a meter, a thousandth of a millimeter, 40 millionths of an inch.) One of my cousins makes custom race car parts in his garage with a Bridgeport milling machine almost 100 years old. He works to thousandths of an inch, a few tenths of a millimeter. Computer Aided Design (CAD) coupled with Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) means that you can manufacture any object that you can get a picture of. CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery is available in aftermarkets at surprisingly low prices. This technology is universal. You can find it in China, Bulgaria, Israel and Libya. I taught it at a vocational school in 1985.

Everyone who actively collects ancients knows about the infamous "Black Sea Hoard" of fakes from Bulgaria. The salient details are (1) the initial victim was the Seaby Group and (2) they got a hot tip that the coins were fake and (3) an argument for the authenticity of the fakes was based on atomic-absorption spectroscopy. The conclusions are that (1) even experts can be easily fooled by modern fakes and that (2) if no one betrays the gang, they can get away and (3) technology is not helpful in culling out fakes.

I have doubts about the huge hoards of Roman imperial coins that are available. I do not mean the Third Century Bronzes ("uncleaned... unsearched" at 65c to $2 each), but the silver denarii from Trajan through Septimius Severus and the antoninionni of Severus Alexander, Gordian III and Philip the Arab. These coins sell well without a second glance. A gold coin of Julius Caesar or even a silver denarius of Galba would merit close inspection (if not worship), but common coins in large numbers get easy acceptance. In December of 1998, while on a second honeymoon, I attended a couple of shows in warm weather and cold and I visited a few dealers in several states. There is just too much stuff out there and too many people selling it and I cannot tell by looking at a coin when it was made. Obvious fakes are obvious. It is the not-obvious ones that scare me.

What scares me more is when dealers get coy. Like the smugglers they buy from, some dealers do not like to reveal their sources. As a result, there is no history, no "provenance." Buying from auction houses that give provenances is the only easy way for the average collector to be sure that the "ancient" coin was not made last year. However, only coins from important old collections have these histories. A new find, however real and authentic, is indistinguishable from a newly-minted coin. When a dealer will not say where he got the coin from, then I fear making a foolish purchase.

* DO NOT BUY UNIDENTIFIED, UNATTRIBUTED COINS

* DO NOT PATRONIZE A DEALER WHO IS NOT A MEMBER OF A PROFESSIONAL SOCIETY: ANA, PNG, OR IAPN.

The _Celator_ carries the advertising from the 100 or so real professionals in ancient coins. From "big names" like Harlan Berk and Jonathan Kern to the "down home folk" like Kirk Davis and Arthur Noot. If you compare the advertising from five years ago to the ads today, you can see who has experience.

Even so, "let the buyer beware" because dealers get burned, too. If the dealer has been cheated, how will you ever know? Most likely, you will simply hold your coin in the false belief that since the dealer is an ANA member and promised to refund your money if the coin is fake then the coin must be genuine.

For these reasons, I have stopped buying ancient coins until the technology of detection surpasses the technology of manufacture. Having some facility in this area, I still look at coins and catalogs, but I look twice. In December, I bought two classical Greek drachmas for $6.00 each. They were fakes. I did not know that. I saw them in the case and handled them and used my lens and when I asked the price, I expected to hear something close to $200. The dealer told me they were modern copies brought back by a tourist. We admired the workmanship and talked out our feelings for the details. Then I added them to my examples of bad coins. These two Greeks represent a quantum leap. Diogenes the Cynic would have been impressed.

A final note: Bags of common Roman Imperial denarii are easy to sell. There are no bags of 1877 Indianhead Cents or 1916-D Mercury Dimes. However, the potential for deception is undeniable. NEVER BUY A "KEY" COIN UNLESS IT IS SLABBED BY AN UNIMPEACHABLE AUTHORITY.

By Michael E. Marotta

Copyright Michael E. Marotta | Technical Writer | ANA Member 162953



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