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Shortly after the first coin was made, almost 3,000 years ago, someone produced the first copy or counterfeit. Counterfeiting has continued ever since, despite the fact that the penalty for forgery was often death. Coins have been copied for a number of different reasons. This page contains basic information about forgeries. As with most of the pages on our site, we will add to and improve the content of this page, so please do visit again.
Different Names for Counterfeits
There are many different names used to describe counterfeit coins, some quite accurate, others euphemistic or colloquial. Commonly used names includes copy, forgery, restrike, reproduction and fake. The words fake, forgery and counterfeit are usually accurate, the others are often not.
Sometimes one country has copied the coins of another country, especially in ancient times. These copies are not considered to be forgeries, and would have been legal in their country of origin. The Celts for example copied Roman and Greek coins, and these are regarded as genuine Celtic coins rather than counterfeits of earlier coins.
A restrike is an authentic genuine coin, usually issued by the same country as the original, often with the original earlier date, but were actually struck and issued at a later date. A good example of this is the Maria Theresa Thaler, please see our page about these. Although there were original thalers issued before 1780, since her death thalers were always issued bearing the date 1780. This appears to have been intended at the time as being a commemorative issue, but the same coins with the same date continued to be produced for over two hundred years, and we believe are still issued today by the Austrian Mint. The term restrike is often used euphemistically and dishonestly when applied to a counterfeit.
Reproductions or Replicas
Strictly speaking, reproduction or replica coins are copies of original coins, but are differentiated in some way. Some may have deliberate changes in design details, other may have the word "copy" on one or both sides. These are usually bought for educational purposes, or for historical re-enactment groups, or stage money. Museums often sell replicas. They are often copied from ancient or rare and valuable coins.
The usual motive for forgery is profit, and most forgeries are produced unofficially by individuals or syndicates. Occasionally governments have issued forgeries for political reasons, for example during World War II, Germany printed millions of British and American banknotes, intending to profit from their use, but also to destabilise their enemies. Ancient civilisations copied coins of their neighbours or from past eras because these coins were readily accepted by the markets, rather like a brand name today. Often the only differences were minor stylistic ones.
There are two main types of forgery based on their intended target. It may seem more logical to have discussed these under the heading of motive, but we prefer to deal with it separately for reasons which should become clear. The two main types are those intended for circulation, and those intended to sell at premium prices to collectors. We will deal with them each under their own heading.
Circulation Intended Forgeries - Intrinsic Value
This class of forgery itself splits into two sub-classes, depending whether the original coin had a substantial intrinsic metal value, or possessed merely a token value. We will give examples of both. Before the first World War, gold sovereigns were used in circulation at their face value of one pound. Their intrinsic gold content was only 2 or 3 percent below their face value, the difference being absorbed largely by production costs. It would have been uneconomic to counterfeit sovereigns by making them of the correct alloy and with the correct weight. If a forger were to produce lightweight coins, these would have been easily detected, so the alternative would be to make them of lower carat alloy, or even completely base metal, and gold plate them if necessary. The problem here is that gold has a high density, so the coins would also be underweight unless they were made thicker than normal, either would make them easy to detect. Lead is a very dense metal, and has been used for forgeries, but it is very soft, and even when gold plated, it does not end up with a flat polished looking background, and the raised design details would be lacking in definition. Even if these problems could be surmounted, lead coins would not sound right, and would also feel wrong. Long afterwards, sovereigns have often traded at a considerable premium over their gold content, and this has often made them worth forging at the correct weight and metal content. This of course changes the major forgery class from circulation to collectors.
Circulation Intended Forgeries - Token Coinage
After the first World War, most countries stopped using gold coins, and reduced or eliminated the silver content from their "silver" coins. When we refer to "token" coinage in this sense, we mean that the coins are simply a token intended to be accepted at their face value, despite their negligible and irrelevant intrinsic value. Please refer to our Silver Content of Coins page. Once this happened, it instantly became profitable to make counterfeit coins intended to enter circulation. Naturally the same applies to banknotes, which possess zero intrinsic value. Governments spend fortunes on research and complicated production techniques to try to stay ahead of counterfeiters. Note the wording on British banknotes "The government...promise to pay", this was never necessary on coins which had a substantial intrinsic value, in fact sovereigns never had their value inscribed on them. In Britain, there seem to be a relatively large number of pound coin forgeries, their intrinsic metal content will be a few pence, leaving huge potential margins and profits for counterfeiters. As the pound coins are quite simple, they will also be quite easy to forge. It is obviously much more attractive to forge high face value coins, and where these combine with low intrinsic value, these will always form an easy and attractive target for counterfeiters.
Collector Intended Forgeries
The final class of forgery can occur in both token and intrinsic coinages. This is where certain coins, particularly ancient or rare ones are counterfeited, with the copies being difficult or almost impossible to tell apart from the original and genuine article. Sometimes forgeries possibly originally intended as circulation frauds have crossed over into the collector market, but more often the collector intended forgeries have been specially targeted at the collector market only. Many may have cost far more than their face value to produce.
The Lebanese Connection
In the early 1970's, a large number of superbly produced counterfeit coins were produced in The Lebanon. These fooled a number of major dealers, collectors, museums, mints and governments for a number of years before they became fully exposed. One day in the 1970's, two dealers offered us an 1887 gold five pound coin in mint condition at a knockdown price. We believe that if something is too good to be true, then it's usually because it's not true. While we were suspiciously examining the coin, the dealers brought out a tube containing 25 or 50 identical coins, and asked how many we wanted. They then fell about laughing. It was clear to us that they had almost certainly never intended to deceive us, and were being quite open about the nature and source of the coins. They also told us about a number of other coin dates and denominations which they knew were available as forgeries. Perhaps misguidedly, these dealers appeared to believe there was no harm in selling these forgeries as long as their customers knew the truth. Unfortunately, as the fakes travelled along the supply lines, they would have come into the hands of smaller dealers and members of the public who would have no such scruples, and it was obvious that unsuspecting collectors and dealers would eventually have been duped and defrauded. A number of dealers who had been importing these fakes were eventually prosecuted, convicted and jailed. We were asked to give evidence against them which we did, although we were and still are able to see and understand their viewpoint as well as that of the authorities. Perhaps they were being slightly naive in expecting the whole supply chain to be as open and honest as they were being with us. We still speak to and deal with a number of these dealers to this day, and they now run perfectly honest and respectable businesses, having paid the price for errors of their past. None of these dealers are members of the British Numismatic Trade Association, as their history precludes them for eligibility.
How to Detect Fakes
This is one the the commonest questions we get asked. The quick answer is "years of experience". Although we realise this answer is not much use to the beginner, nevertheless it is very true. For those who have read and understood this page so far, it will be obvious that different types of forgeries will be easier to detect than others. The easiest types to detect will normally be those intended for circulation. If these are forgeries of coins with high intrinsic value, they will usually be lightweight, too thick, or made of the wrong material such as lead, and as we have already explained, these will usually look, feel and sound completely wrong.
Copies of token coinage, such as nickel-brass pound coins, will also be easy to detect if they are made of the wrong metal, and often the details of the design looks too crude and coarse. Obviously if someone took the time and effort to produce highly realistic dies, and also invested in modern coining presses, they could produce extremely convincing copies.
The collector, however, needs to be more concerned with the fakes of rare and valuable collectors coins which are aimed primarily at the collectors markets. Fortunately most collectors may never come into contact with fake rare coins, because the forgers often aim at only the most valuable and rare items, which only a few of the wealthiest collectors can afford. Most coin catalogues, for example The Standard Catalogue of British Coins, mark most of the the best known or dangerous forgeries to alert their readers to the danger. There also exists an international scheme operated in conjunction with national organisations such as the BNTA, to report monitor and advise on counterfeits. Many of the excellent and dangerous modern fakes including the Lebanese ones are described in a (now old) booklet. Most larger dealers will have a copy of this, and be able to refer to it whenever they come across high value coins which would be a known or obvious target for forgers.
Fake Ancient Coins
In recent years there appears be a growing industry in producing high quality fakes of ancient coins. Many of these seem to originate in Bulgaria, but may be distributed anywhere in the world. Growing media such as E-bay and other internet auction sites, where individuals can advertise and sell direct to other individuals, make it easy for forgers and dishonest distributors to market such fakes direct to collectors, bypassing the traditional dealer market. Major coin dealers have their reputation to protect, and their experience and expertise serve as an important line of defence against this type of professional high quality forgery. Collectors should ensure that they are cautious when dealing with unknown sources for high quality material, not only if it is offered at bargain prices, but also if its price is close to normal market levels. Don't expect to be able to buy coins from such sources and then expect established dealers to give you their expert opinions and advice for free!
We have a page dedicated to counterfeit sovereigns, with photographs, on our specialised Gold Sovereigns website.
Other Information on Our Site
There are many other pages on our site which may be useful to you. Some of these can be accessed via our Information section, others from our Products section. For example, we have the following pages:-
£2 Coin Rumour
Mintage Figures of Decimal Coins
Values of Circulated Coins
I've Found An Old Coin, What's It Worth?
There are more answers to be found on our Frequently Asked Coin Questions page.
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