Late last fall, I took a three-week trip to the Mediterranean. My goal: to find and buy a selection of fake ancient coins from shady dealers in distant lands (and to soak in history, visit ancient ruins, eat awesome food, drink amazing wines, and generally have a fun time -- but that’s incidental). Each week I will post a new entry in this five-part series for entertainment and discussion purposes. These were my adventures… An Introduction to Deceit First, some background, some legal issues, and some explaining of perverse motivations. Among the many countries skirting the Mediterranean Sea, dealing in ancient coins can be difficult and exporting them is often flatly illegal. Laws protecting coins as cultural heritage muddy the waters of exactly whose cultural heritage is being protected. In the last couple of thousand years, empires have risen and fallen, cultures have been born and gone extinct, and borders have been redrawn innumerable times. The debate surrounding these laws, UNESCO’s role in defining them, and how it all affects private collectors rages on and will not be discussed here (much). Instead, we’re going on a trip to a legal netherworld where we’ll find some suspect and unusual coins known as “tourist fakes.” These are modern cast copies of ancient coins ranging from fairly accurate recreations to pure fantasy pieces. Typically, they are sold by shady dealers near ancient ruins where they can prey on gullible tourists from wealthy countries with more money than brains. Although these coins are often sold as the genuine article, the dealers get away with it because none of their wares would pass as the real thing to anybody with a bit of knowledge about ancient coinage. Their governments accept that these coins are nothing more than cheap souvenirs, and the vendors are permitted to negotiate whatever price they can for them. The fact that tourists are frequently getting ripped off, being sold cheap mass-produced junk as two-thousand-year-old antiquities, is of no consequence. The officials all turn a blind eye with a “buyer beware” attitude. Since many of these nations had their antiquities mercilessly pillaged in past decades and centuries, fleecing tourists from the wealthy culprit countries today is considered good sport and no one raises a fuss. Except, perhaps, the tourists. But only once they get home and find out the antiquity knock-offs they bought, hoping to cash in when it comes time to put their kids or grandkids through college, are worthless paperweights. By then, of course, it’s far too late, and the swindlers are thousands of miles away with an unshakable no-returns policy. This begs an obvious question. Why the heck would I want to buy any of this junk myself? Fair question, I guess. Here’s my best answer: they’re kinda neat. I’ve collected genuine ancient coins for years now. Mostly Roman, some Greek and, more recently, many from the cultures of Ancient Persia and India. Authenticity can be an overriding preoccupation when any coin collector gets started. How do I know it’s the real thing and not a forgery? This is an especially daunting doubt for ancient-coin enthusiasts since no two ancient coins are exactly alike. Even coins struck moments apart on the same day, in the same workshop, by the same people, using the same dies will not be identical. There will always be differences when it comes to the quality of the strike, the wear on the dies, the centering of the design, the handling of the coin in its subsequent use, and the toning, patina, damage and aging it acquired or suffered after centuries lost in the dirt. This said, a side-by-side comparison is no way to judge authenticity. Knowing the real thing when you see it comes from experience and personally handling thousands of genuine examples at coin shows and other venues (including, hopefully, your own growing collection). Nevertheless, the fakes are out there. You don’t have to look far on eBay to find some. They range from obvious to dangerous. Generally, you’re safe buying from reputable dealers. Vcoins, for example, is full of stand-up dealers who subscribe to a code of ethics and will offer a lifetime money-back guarantee should any of their coins be proven false. But even the best coin dealers, the greatest ancient-history scholars, and the finest minds of archaeology are fooled from time to time. It happens. Look at too many thousands of coins and some will slip by. Certain types of ancient coins are notoriously difficult to authenticate. The Limes Denarii are a prime example. They were cast knock-offs of the real thing eighteen hundred years ago and are difficult to separate from what would otherwise be easy-to-expose modern knock-offs -- they’re that similar. Early on in my collection, I bought a few inexpensive suspect coins. I consider them all an important learning experience and not a waste of time or money. It’s not like you can take a class on how to collect ancients. You can only read books, go to shows, and learn by doing. Any coins I consider dubious get downgraded to my special “black cabinet” album and labeled accordingly so they don’t get resold as authentic somewhere down the line when I’m too dead to object. There aren’t many examples filling pages in my black cabinet because I’ve tried hard to buy well and know my hobby. But after years of accumulating quality coins, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the fakes, the forgeries, and the fantasy pieces. Spotting fakes is made all the easier if you actually handle some from time to time. Last year at the Nuphilex show in Montreal, I witnessed one dealer buying a selection of ancients someone had brought in to unload. Although a handful of fourth-century bronzes were real, most were fake third-century denarii. The dealer broke this news to the seller, who acted surprised, but I suspect knew damn well that most of what he was selling was junk. The few real bronzes were in there to sweeten the pot. Regardless, the dealer bought the entire lot (at a much reduced price), intending to recycle the fakes as novelty jewelry. As he pointed out to me, when I came over the survey his acquisitions, the fakes were actually extremely well made. This was the moment I first intentionally bought a fake -- a Caracalla denarius. It cost me five dollars and was worth every penny for its novelty value. As an avid fan of Caracalla coinage, it was simple to spot as a fake. The size and weight were correct, but the style, though appealing, was wrong. Having looked at many thousands of Caracallas over the years, I could have picked this one out of police lineup at ten paces. Still, it was a reasonable facsimile, and it got me wondering if it had been produced as a tourist fake or a genuine attempt to deceive. The fact was, though I’d heard tourist fakes discussed many times before, I’d never actually seen one. I had little clue how easy they were to spot, what they really looked like, or how deals for them went down. I became determined to find out. And the best way to find out was to buy a few for myself. Several months later I was planning my trip overseas. Obviously, there was more to it than wanting to buy a handful of junk souvenirs. This was to be a grand tour of ancient heritage sites. I was dead set on walking around the Roman Colosseum, crossing the Milvian Bridge, touring the Vatican Museum, exploring the Great Pyramids, staring up at the Hagia Sofia’s dome from the inside, strolling the canals of Venice, climbing the Acropolis, and perusing the preserved streets of Pompeii. It was going to be a history fetishist’s dream trip. But at the bottom of the lengthy to-do list -- a footnote really -- was our current topic of discussion. Tourist fakes. Find some. Buy some. Next week: Venice, gondola a go-go. Figure 1.1 - A forged Caracalla denarius. My first intentional fake.