(This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol.3, no. 3, March 1989, p. 12)
The threat of counterfeit ancient coins on a large scale has always concerned both the dealer and collector alike. Unfortunately, an instance of a very deceptive and sophisticated "hoard" of counterfeit coins from the Black Sea area has occurred. I will try to explain the details of this hoard to the best of our firm's knowledge. The investigation into the counterfeiting and distribution of this hoard is still ongoing so further details and discoveries may elucidate more of the deceit that went into this attempt to defraud the ancient coin hobby and industry.
In December at the New York International Coin Convention our firm was offered a group coins from a hoard supposedly found in the Black Sea area, modern day Bulgaria. This group of approximately 300 coins was offered to us by a very reliable dealer of unquestionable integrity who, in turn, had purchased them from one of the major U.S. coin company's European office. At this point I will state that every dealer involved in the dispersal of this hoard is considered to be of the highest standards of ethics and professionalism in the industry and we do not wish to imply anything otherwise. The fact that we were all deceived makes this all the more educational.
The group of coins we purchased consisted about equally of diobols from Mesembria and Apollonia Pontica in ancient Thrace (modern day Nesebur and Sozopol). From the beginning, due to the variety of dies and the metal quality and surfaces, we did not have any doubts that this hoard was for real. The group we purchased represented the top- end of the hoard in terms of condition and centering The coins had the appearance of a hoard recently dug up out of the soil which was another factor that contributed so the "realism" of the coins in question. After cleaning the coins of their surface dirt and patination, we still did not doubt the veracity of the hoard. For all intents and purposes, this hoard had the appearance of any other hoard recently discovered, usually by metal detectors.
As this juncture, we started offering the coins wholesale to our colleagues. First at the FUN show in Orlando, and then in Europe to several major dealers. The dealers that purchased the coins from us, both in the U.S. and Europe, did not doubt the authenticity of the hoard. Again, the variety of dies existent in the hoard and the metal quality indicated that the coins were genuine. We now started receiving phone calls from Europe indicating that there may be some questions regarding the authenticity of the hoard coins. As information accumulated the verdict became clear, we had fallen victim to a clever and deceptive counterfeiting scheme.
Indications are that the coins may have first appeared in either Berlin or Augsburg and from one of these places made their way into the channels of the ancient coin marketplace. It also appears that the counterfeiters may reside in Bulgaria and from there the "hoard" emanated. It has been suggested that a talented engraver was employed to create new dies that were used to strike the coins. The actual number of dies that we have determined so far is seven each (obverse only) for the Mesembria and Apollonia Pontica issues. When the average daily wage in Bulgaria is considered, it is quite plausible that someone may have taken the time to create multiple mew dies and hence creating a large issue with very little die repetition It is this fact that sets this counterfeiting scheme apart from most, as the time and expense to create this many new dies usually makes such an effort economically unfeasible for the counterfeiter.
As soon as the 'board" was determined to be counterfeit, various steps were taken. Most of you will wonder why we had not done this in the first place. It is for this reason that I have explained the background of events so that are all may learn from the mistakes made. A group of approximately 30 coins was shown to the British Museum and not one die-link could be found between the "hoard" coins and the examples in the British Museum. The coins were weighed and found to be significantly underweight. The average weight range for real specimens of both types is approximately 1.27-1.31 grams The counterfeits vary from 1.10-1.17 grams. On the average, this is a difference of approximately 0.2 grams.
Certain stylistic differences became evident also such as on the fake Mesembria issues the crested warrior's helmet is much more compact than the more elongated style on genuine examples The facing headd of Apollo on the Apollonia Pontica coins appears to have a "menacing scowl" on certain counterfeit dies in contrast to the "calm" style of the genuine coin.
The surfaces of the spurious coins have distinct traces of die polishing on the "hidden" edges of the devices when examined under high magnification (40- 60X), but there are not any signs of radial die flow in the fields. A possible explanation for this may be found when an uncleaned specimen from the hoard is examined. The coins may have been sandblasted, much in the same way Matte Proofs are made, in order to hide traces of tooling and to give the coins a more "ancient" appearance The coins were also possibly acid-treated and then an artificial patination complete with dirt for the hoard effect was applied.
Another interesting observation concerning the Mesembria issues is that on the die I have denoted as #2 it appears that "corrosion" was cut or etched directly into the die as every example we have shows the exact same "corrosion" at the same area on every coin. This occurs from approximately 3 to 8 o'clock in the fields around the helmet.
In any event, the fact that many knowledgeable dealers and collectors were deceived by this counterfeiting scheme my serve as a warning to us all that we can never be too careful! It is reassuring, though, that the counterfeits were found out in a relatively short period of time -- less than two months from their initial inception into the marketplace. It is also gratifying to see the intense cooperation internationally between dealers to expose such deceptive counterfeits. The specimens shown to the British Museum were condemned by them at 2:00 PM (London time) on Friday, February 3 and we were notified less than one half hour later. The dealer segment of the ancient coin industry is, indeed, striving to prevent the sale and dispersal of counterfeits for everybody's benefit! By publishing the dies known to us as counterfeit, we hope to prevent anyone else from being beguiled by these coins.
We are in debt to the following individuals and firms for sharing information concerning the Black Sea counterfeit hoard:
Alan Walker - Bank Leu; Switzerland
John Pett - Spink & Son; England
Richard Swan; England
Dr. Hubert Lanz; West Germany
John Cummings; England
The British Museum; England
Chris Martin; England