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REFERENCE GUIDES: Fakes, Forgeries and Counterfeits


This page is designed to show you how many fake ancient coins are spotted as they entering the market and why most quickly identified as fakes by experienced people. It will give you some background to learn from, but will not make you an expert in spotting them. Some of the observations described not actually prove the coin is fake, but rather give indications of inconsistency with what one would expect, indicating further investigation is needed. Others are absolute proof the coins are fakes. If you have not already done so, we suggest you start by first reading our preceding pages on types of fakes, as much of what follows will make more sense if you have already done so.

Weights and Sizes

The majority of genuine ancient coins were stuck with an intended weight and size. The ancient minting techniques were not exact and there is always some variation between specimens, but for many coins there is a specific standard within which the majority of coins of that type should fall. A coin falling outside the standard for it's type, should be investigated further for the possibility it is not genuine.

An example for standardized weight are the later (after 485 BC) Persian sigloi, which are generally 5.5 grams with a variation of about 0.2 grams. A siglos less than 5.3 grams or more than 5.7 grams is suspect and should be investigated further, although occasionally genuine specimens outside of this range are seen. Many specimens outside that range will be fakes, although fakes in these series are seldom encountered. Please remember that many fakes will be of correct weight, so being within the correct weight range does not prove a coin is authentic.

Another example are the Gaius and Lucius coins of Augustus, struck between 2 BC and 4 AD. Both gold aureii and silver denarii were struck, but they do not share common dies. The aureii are stuck from dies engraved with a beaded border 19 to 19.5 mm across, while the denarii were struck from dies about 18 mm across the beaded border. This border diameter remains constant for all coins struck from a particular die, no matter what the final size of the actual coins are. Forgers can (and often do) make the mistakes of either getting this diameter wrong, or if they get it right for one denomination using that die to strike both denominations (one of the two denominations will come out wrong).

One has to be careful not to generalize here. Some coin has specific standards, and others do not, and for those that do, the standards may be different for different types and series. You will need access to a good library of information to research the standards for any particular coin you are looking at, and even then the information can prove difficult to find. Also, one occasionally sees genuine ancient coins with somewhat anomalous weights and sizes (although many of them prove to be ancient counterfeits). This is another tool that is best used to indicate when further investigation is needed, and not to condemn a coin out right.

It is also important to remember that many fakes are struck to the correct weight and size standards, so while an incorrect weight or size is cause for concern indicating further investigation is needed, a correct weight and size does not prove a coin to be authentic.

Almost Identical Specimens

corinthian metal mold fake

corinthian metal mold fake

The vast majority of genuine ancient coins hand struck were hand-held and hand-engraved dies, using a hammer swung by a human, on flans that were individually cast or chiseled from bars. This many variables in the minting process mean that virtually never will even two coins struck one after another from the same set of dies be identical at the moment they are struck. Add in things that happen to coins in everyday use, and chances of finding two almost identical circulated ancient coins approaches zero. With this in mind, We think the two coins above speak for themselves as they are just too identical to be genuine. They are in fact a pair of modern cast fakes, made in the same mold, and were CAST TO LOOK WORN. This is one of the most common cast fakes and even though they are such obvious fakes, made for the tourist and gift ware markets, They still show up occasionally being offered as genuine. In this case, the degree of being identical is proof they are fakes.

Too Many from the Same Dies

fake denarius

fake denarius

These two Macrinus "denarii" are very obviously from the same pair of dies,. The flan shapes are different, but it is relatively easy for a forger control such parameters as flan shape, die axis, centering, and many other striking characteristics in order to make his fakes all slightly different. However, we have seen at least a dozen coins from this pair of dies and while that does not prove they are fakes it is cause for further investigation. In this case, the style does not even come close to the style of any known genuine Macrinus denarius, which was enough to prove them false.

Large Hoards with Insufficient Die Variations

No one knows how many coins could be struck from an ancient die, but recent studies suggest something between 10,000 and 30,000 is probably reasonable, so we will for now work with the average of 20,000. There is evidence that for most issues the mint workers often worked with multiple die pairs which they mixed and matched as they worked. We believe this was to allow dies to cool, as dies get hot as you use them, and over heating causes metal fatigue that reduced die life. This means that while striking 100,000 coins, about five obverse and reverse die pairs might be needed, and each of the five obverse dies was at some point probably used with each of the five reverse dies, giving the possibility of twenty-five potential die-pair combinations for that group (these are somewhat hypothetical numbers, but we are sure the idea comes across). Another complication is that reverse dies appear to have worn more quickly than obverse dies, meaning in a large group there will often be a greater number of reverse than obverse dies, but the principle of mixed and matched die pairs is what matters.

Consider a large hoard of mint state coins. One can normally assume that if they were are all the same type and all buried together in mint condition, there will be many die matches but at least some mixing of the die pairs. So what does it mean if a large mint state hoard appears with only one, or even two pairs of dies involved? It does not automatically mean the coins are fakes, but it does mean we should have a much closer look at the coins to see why they do not follow the expected pattern in such hoards. The odds are pretty good they will turn out to be fakes.

The situation becomes even clearer for hoards of circulated coins. Most issues of ancient coins were large, and types fairly common today may well have been issued by the many millions and involve hundreds and even thousands of dies so a large number of obverse-reverse die pair combinations should exist. It is safe to assume a coin in VF circulated for several years, and one in FINE for a decade or more. Hoards buried in mint state right after being struck will have only a small number of die pairs used during the brief time those particular coins were struck, but when coins remain in circulation for years or even decades, they become widely dispersed and coins struck even years apart may be found together. The chances of finding two coins from the same die pair is greatly reduced and the number of different dies represented in a hoard is greatly increased.

Some years ago we examined an intact hoard of about 500 circulated 2nd to 3rd century Roman denarii in which we could not locate a single die match. We saw another hoard of about 100 Severus Alexander denarii which were in gVF to XF, and so must not have been in circulation for more than a few years, and found less than 10 die matches in the group. So what does it mean if a large hoard of circulated coins appears with a very limited number of dies involved? It means we had better take a much closer look those coins, as there is a strong possibility they will be fakes.

A number of years ago a large hoard of Mesembrian diobols (S-1673 with the helmet/wheel) appeared in Germany. It was quickly noticed only six die pairs were present, which was far too few for the size of hoard. Within a short time they were dismissed as fakes, as published in The Celator magazine (I believe the article was by Frank Kovak). Genuine examples of Mesembrian diobols were (and still are) fairly common coins, but finding two from the same pair of dies is difficult.

No Previous Die History

As mentioned previously, most ancient coins were struck in very large numbers involving many dies that were widely dispersed in circulation after only a few years. With possibly about 20,000 coins from each die, once dispersed examples from each die should be in many different hoards. In any new large hoard some, if not all of the dies used should have been recorded from earlier hoards. There are some very large institutional and specialty collections where large numbers of coins are published, and while the information may be difficult to find, it is often possible to research if any given die from new hoard was known to previously exist.

The more heavily circulated the coins in a hoard appear, the longer they would have been in circulation, so the more dispersed specimens from those dies should have been, and the more likely they are going to show up in many different hoards. So what does it mean when a new hoard shows up, and many of the coins were struck from un-recorded dies? It means there is a good chance the hoard (or part of it) is not genuine, and further investigation is needed. An exception is for hoards of mint state coins, where the entire mintage from those dies was buried in one hoard and so none are found in previous hoards. While such hoards have been found, they are very rare occurrences (I can only think of one such hoard that I am aware of).

Some time in AD 1999 a large hoard of Apollonia Pontica Gorgon head/Anchor drachms (Sear Greek #1655) appeared on the market. The average grade was VF to gVF, so if genuine were in circulation for at least several years. The type was never rare, so the dies these were struck with should be well represented in previous hoards. While the exact details are still sketchy, we know this new hoard exceeded 5000 coins, from no more than 62 dies (31 die pairs), none of which were represented in major collections pre-dating this hoard. The implications of this are obvious, and yes, they all turned out to be fakes. Before jumping to the conclusion all Apollonia Pontica drachms are now suspect, remember this type was always common and the vast majority of existing specimens are genuine. We give this warning because one dealer who sold hundreds of fakes from this hoard, upon learning the coins were bad, contacted the people he sold them to and offered a full refund for any returned. Some people panicked and mailing him any coins of this type they had, and about 10% of those "returned " to him were genuine coins they had not bought from him.

One has to be more careful with a die study on very rare coins, as the rarer the type the more likely a previously unknown but genuine die may be discovered. Die studies are an authentication tool that must be used carefully, and require not only a great deal of experience, but access to a library that allows you to research such things (something most collectors and many dealers do not have access to).

Stylistic Problems

Hand cut dies are potentially more dangerous of forgeries as they can replicate some genuine striking characteristics, but are also the least likely to have captured the genuine style that particular type they copy. Dies created directly from genuine coins, rather than hand-cut, will often capture the style reasonably well, but be spotted by other methods. This is why style studies are used mostly with spotting fakes from hand cut dies.

This subject was discussed a little on our page about struck forgeries, but we will elaborate a little here. Any skilled die engraver could cut a die showing the basic image seen on any ancient coin. However most engravers are artists and have trained their entire lives to create art through interpretation of what they see. The interpretive process is significantly affected by the world we live in, and modern artists create their art, including engraving dies, so as to reflect their modern minds. The ancients lived in a very different world, so their minds interpreted that world differently than ours, so the art they create, including engraving their dies, so as to reflect their ancient minds. This is controlled at the subconscious level and even being aware of it does not mean you can turn it off. This is a difficult concept for most people to grasp, but is the basis of the detection of much art forgery. It is because of this that many fakes of ancient coins simply "do not look right" to one used to looking at ancient coins on a daily basis. With enough experience, you can learn to determine "what does not look right", and only then will you have begun to understand these issues.

Perhaps the best illustration of this that most people can grasp is in the nature of handwriting. When one writes something, the writing is identifiably unique to that individual. If one attempts to write in a different style, concentrating on doing so, the result will still be identifiable to that person when examined by a handwriting expert . If one attempts to forge someone else's handwriting, a true expert would not only be able to determine the other person did not write it, but also determine who did. This is because a person's handwriting has characteristics beyond ones conscious control and there is nothing that can be done it. There are very few people in this world about whom this is not true.

In the same way, every artist has a unique style art expert can identify, and every engraver has a unique style that can be identified. This was just as true in ancient times as it is today, and if one sees a genuine ancient coin, struck from dies cut by a particular ancient Celator, one can learn to recognize it. For any given series of ancient coins, there was a limited number of celators cutting dies (for many Roman coin, only one or two) so it is possible to look at enough specimens of one type and learn their styles. One can look at a coin of that type, and recognize if it is one of the correct styles for that issue. Again, this is something you can only learn from long experience, and with the aid of a good reference library.

To give a better feel for this,we have provided the images below, of which two are genuine and seven are fake. See of you can spot which two are genuine. From images all one has to work with is the style, so if you successfully pick the two genuine coins mixed in with the seven fakes, your will have recognized something is wrong with their styles. (These coins were all imaged with identical settings and lighting).










Recently browsers have stopped supporting the mouse over feature that displays alt tags, so my old system of putting the mouse over the image to see if it is fake or not no longer works. But the answer to this quiz is that the Severus Alexander on the middle right, and the Lucius Verus on the middle bottom, are both genuine. All others are fakes.

If you did not get this correct, than you need to look at as many images of coins as you can to get a better feel for the style of that particular coin. Go to either COIN ARCHIVES or WILDWINDS and search for denarii of the particular emperor that you failed on. Study as many illustrations of genuine examples as you can locate, then come back and see how that particular one strikes you.

Same Die cutter on Coins Too Many Years Apart

It is unlikely any one ancient celator worked more than 25 years, and most probably less than that. Our own studies suggest the average was about 15 to 20 years. Have a look at these two portraits and notice just how identical they are :

fake denarius

To the practiced eye both dies are the work of one celator, at about the same period in his artistic development (generally within a 5 year period). So why is the coin on the right an Aelius of a type struck no later than AD 137 and that on the left a Lucius Verus with the "Armeniacus" title that cannot have been struck before AD 164. Two dies by the same celator at least 27 years apart raised concerns worth of further investigation, but that they appear to be struck at the same point in that celators artistic development is virtually enough to condemn them immediately.

As a side note, both Aelius and Lucius Verus have fairly identifiable portraits, and with a little experience one should recognize their coins without reading the inscriptions. Look closer at these coins and ask yourself if the portraits look like either Aelius or Verus.

Die Matches That Should Not Exist

As discussed elsewhere, most ancient Roman dies were probably used up in only for a few days or possibly a few weeks. There are rare instances of the same reverse die used by two different emperors, but always where it was logical to happen. An example would be co-emperors striking coins in the same mint at the same time. Another example would be if a die was used for both the last coin type of one Emperor, and the first issued by his successor. Now look at these two reverses.

fake denarius

They are clearly struck from the same reverse die. Now click on the enlargement to see the obverse and reverse of both coins. The coin on the left is a Maximinus I that should have to have been struck after AD 235, while that on the right is Elagabalus that should have been struck prior to AD 222. That spread of a at least 13 years is very unlikely if these were genuine Roman coins struck in an official mint. Such matches occasionally are seen on ancient coins struck by ancient counterfeiters, for exactly the same reason they turn up on modern fakes, but are more common on modern fakes. The few exceptions to this are so rare, than the average collector is unlike to ever encounter them.

One Celator, Too Few Dies

Contrary to what many people think, most ancient dies could be cut in only a few hours. Obviously some took longer, with dekadrachm dies by Kimon taking days or even weeks, but dies for some very simply coins may have taken less than an hour, and over all an average set of dies probably took less than a day. In a very large issue of coins, there were would have been many different dies, all cut by a small number of celators, so each celator would have cut many dies. At to this that many of the celators probably worked for many years, we should see the artistic hand of each celator showing up on many different dies. So what does it mean, if in a large series of coins a particular celator's style only shows up on one or two dies. It means we had better look a little closer.

Have a look at these two coins :

two denarii

What you are looking at are two genuine denarii, one of Severus Alexander and the other of Gordian III, and in my opinion both cut by the same celator as most of major features are handled almost identically. However, for minor features look closely, and you will notice the Gordian die has a much finer cutting of the eye and neck lines, the nose is certainly more realistic, as is the handling of they eyebrow. Considering there is at least 7 years between these dies, that is a natural improvement one might expect from a celator as he gains experience. While that is an important point, I make it simply to point out this is the same celator.

I believe this particular celator stated cutting dies right around AD 228, and stopped about AD 242. Go looking, and you will find that there are many different dies cut by his hand for Severus Alexander, Maximinus I, Gordian I and II, Balbinus and Pupienus, and Gordian III. Since he worked for about 14 years, and appears to have been cutting dies fairly continuously for that period, there should be a lot of dies by him. In fact, based on 1 set of dies per day, probably 300 days per year, for 14 years, there should be somewhere around 4200 dies cut by this celator (and I would not be surprised if it were more, as I have seen an awful lot of coins by this celator).

I think it is safe to assume no modern forger is going to cut 4200 dies let alone 4200 that all fall a period of only 14 years. More importantly, at least with this part of the Roman series, it is unlikely that any given celator only cut one or two dies, or even only a few dozen dies, but if one did they will all fall within a period of a few weeks or months. If we come across a celator that cut only a handful of dies, especially if the involve types that are several years apart, we had better be looking closer at those coins as possible fakes.

Fortunately, this is an area where you do not need a good library to research. There are so many coins, with images, now recorded on Wildwinds and Coin Archives, that located images of a wide variety of specimens from any given period is very easy. Because the human mind has evolved with a special talent for recognizing faces, so it is easiest for us to notice the subtle differences and similarities that help with this, when looking at portrait dies. It is much more difficult to do for non-portrait types.

The Common Thread

These were just a few of the inconsistencies that cause new groups of fakes to be identified as fakes. There are many others, and while it is not possible to discuss them all here, we hope you have learned that most forgers make mistakes that show up as inconsistencies with what one would expect in groups of genuine ancient coins. As you learn more, and especially if you specialize and become expert in a particular series, such inconsistencies will become more obvious to you.

When it comes to high quality more sophisticated fakes, often you need to look at it from various point of view and form you opinion about the coin considering many factors together. Here is an example of how complicated this can become : Katane Tetradrachm

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