Tourist Fakes: The Quest - Part II, Venice

Discussion in 'World Coins' started by Eyestrain, Apr 27, 2011.

  1. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

    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…

    Venice: The Floating Republic

    For many centuries before there was such a thing as the country of Italy, Venice was its own republic. An economic juggernaut and naval superpower, it controlled trade between the east and west throughout the Middle Ages, with the Byzantine Empire centered around Constantinople being its only viable business partner and competitor. The city of Venice had its origin in the fifth century, and the republic officially got underway by the late seventh. Napoleon brought it all to an end when he seized the city in 1797. Despite some looting, some plague, some political turmoil over the years, Venice survived into the modern age as one of the best preserved and most beautiful medieval cities in the world.

    And I knew I had little hope in my quest here.

    Of all the Mediterranean countries, Italy is currently the most vocal about keeping its coin heritage close to home. Under pressure from the Italian government and UNESCO, a recent court decision has made it illegal to import ancient Sicilian and early (pre-denarius) Roman Republic coins into the United States without a proper export license and proof of a pre-2011 provenance from outside of Italy. Whether this will begin a wave of increasingly draconian laws governing the exchange of ancient coins in the future remains to be seen. One might argue that Italy’s claim to Roman and Sicilian coins is shaky, considering it has only existed as a unified nation since 1861. Ancient Romans may have been based around Rome, but their Republic and later Empire was widespread, and culturally none of their citizens would have identified with modern Italy. Likewise, Sicily, although currently part of the Italian nation, was a Greek culture in antiquity that was later conquered by the Romans.

    I figured with the current political climate surrounding coins and other ancient artifacts, there would be nothing authentic for sale, and little in the way of knock-offs for fear of even appearing to tolerate the exportation of antiquities to visiting tourists. I was therefore taken completely by surprise to find a coin and stamp shop right in St. Mark’s Square with an impressive display of ancient and medieval coinage on in their window -- all of it apparently real. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on Venetian grossos and ducats, but also a good selection of Roman Imperials. There wasn’t much that leapt out at me, other than some fairly inflated prices, but I was taken aback seeing coins -- even ones as common as Gordian III antoniniani -- for sale in Italy. This was not something I’d been led to expect. Perhaps the rules differ for domestic collectors, but in a city like Venice, which is constantly brimming with tourists from around the world, it was obvious that much of what was sold here would end up travelling abroad, never to be seen in Italy again.

    Of course, I didn’t travel all the way to the Old World to buy the real thing. I could do that at home on the internet. No, I was looking for street vendors and dingy, dodgy shops full of dishonest charlatans bent on ripping me off with lies and shoddy merchandise. I would hear nothing of reputable dealers -- I wanted my scam artists and would settle for nothing less!

    My first encounter with tourist fakes came in a gift shop that specialized in writing tools, pen sets, and wax seals. In one corner there were a few reproductions of late Venetian coins from the 1700s. But modern fakes of relatively modern coins was not what I was looking for. There was a language barrier with the shopkeeper, so I was unable to determine if these were actually being sold as authentic or not. Given the nature of the goods in the store -- higher end, classical reproductions, tied in with Venice’s rich cultural history -- I would guess not. I might have tried one on for size, but the price was prohibitively high for something I knew wasn’t real and didn’t fall into my particular area of interest. I passed.

    Venice, in the end, was too nice a city to harbour the sort of dishonest counterfeit trafficker I was looking for. My sole coin purchases were a couple of souvenir medals from St. Mark’s Basilica, one featuring the square outside, the other showing the Basilica itself on the obverse and the famed (and frequently looted and shuffled about) horses of St. Mark’s on the reverse. At two Euros total, I had yet to blow my budget.

    Next week: Rome if you want to.


    Figure 2.1 - Coin and stamp shop window display.


    Figure 2.2 - Window display of ancients.


    Figure 2.1 - A silver-coloured trinket for tourists.


    Figure 2.2 - A gold-coloured trinket for tourists.
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  3. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

    Although not part of the main article, I wanted to include some additional shots of the coin shop, its stock, and St. Mark's square where it is located.




  4. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

  5. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Interesting Venice didnt have much for fakes.
    Was the shop selling those real ancients busy? Looks like it had a great selection despite the prices.
  6. Ripley

    Ripley Senior Member

    Interesting Eyestrain. I recently had to dodge Italian snooping in order to get a nice ancient into the USA. This was back in March, I do believe that even the Roman imperial coins are now subject to thier greedy paws and snooping.
  7. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

    I didn't see anyone inside, and from what I could see there was more on display in the exterior windows than in the little shop.
  8. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

    Hello, Eyestrain and other members, I am a newbie, interested in ancients and Romans and likely a dupe in a recent coin purchase. A couple of weeks ago I bought a "silver" coin of the Reppublica at the dealer in St. Mark's Square that you mentioned and pictured. The coin was taken out of the outer cabinet and we went into the tiny shop where I took it out of the plastic sleeve and examined it then agreed to purchase it. I returned to Canada the next day and once home, took another look at my coin.
    Strangely, it had developed a turquoise spot on the cheek of the face side. I then noticed a flake of silver in the bottom of the plastic sleeve. I brushed my finger over the spot on the coin and found the powdery turquoise area spreading. I e-mailed the vendor and politely asked how I should treat the coin and had I been mistaken in my belief that it was solid silver. I'd grin and bear it if I should have known that it was silver-plated bronze but I'd like some information about it to help educate me.
    After a week no reply I re-sent my e-mail today only to have it rejected by the addressee.
    I had been interested to find your travel essays on this dealer as I researched the coin on the internet. It's clear that I've jumped in at the deep end as a novice. My first Roman coin was bought decades ago at a Romano-British site in Dorset. As I retire, I thought it would be an interesting subject to pursue. Any comments?
  9. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

    There's no room inside for more than 2 or 3 customers. Much of the stock is in file books. You need to know what you want and ask for it, I guess.
  10. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

    Without pictures of your coin, I can't be sure. It's possible that your coin is a fourrée, which is a kind of ancient counterfeit in which a base-metal coin is clad in silver (or gold) and passed off as solid precious metal. Some ancient types were commonly copied in this way, which is why you'll see some specimens with test cuts that were made in antiquity. Signs of the copper core often got exposed after years of use, or by conditions in the ground where the coins ended up buried. Fourrées are considered collectable by some ancient-coin enthusiasts and avoided by others.

    Modern silver cladding of ancient coins (or copies) is also occasionally done by those looking to pull a fast one. I've seen this done to third and fourth century bronzes, for instance, to make them appear as though they still had the original silver wash that typically wore off of most coins of that era. Again, some good photos would help us identify the issue with your coin if you could manage.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2014
  11. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member

    I know no one wants to hear it but the absolute worst time to buy a coin is when you are on vacation. If you must be a tourist, go and see the sights. If you want a coin, buy one from a dealer either in your own area or at least in a country that supports free trade in coins. Cheating tourists is the national sport in too many places.

    A green spot could also be from the coin being housed in a PVC flip and having been exposed to improper environment. As mentioned, a good photo would help. I suspect this may be the situation since you said the coin was of the Reppublica (therfore modern?). Most answers you received assumed the coin was ancient since that was the subject of this thread above your post.
    Ardatirion likes this.
  12. RaceBannon

    RaceBannon Member

    I know this is a sort of revival of an old thread, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It sounds like quite a quest Eyestrain.

    Did you ever post your experiences in Rome or other cities?

    I was somewhat bemused at your concerns about Italy enforcing draconian laws regarding export of their antiquities and coins. Having spent two and half years in Italy, my observation was that among Italians it's a cultural attribute that they view rules of any kind as quasi suggestions at best. :D
    So despite what laws are on the books, it wouldn't surprise me one bit to be able to buy authentic Roman coins there. And I bet you could also find quite the variety of fakes with shady characters, charlatans and snake oil salesmen galore pushing them.

    Sorry to hear about your experience Geli Bartlett. Caveat emptor. Multiply that by 10 if you find yourself in a tourist shop.
  13. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member

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  14. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

    Thank you for your observations and suggestions; I'll try to get a really good photo of the coin to you asap. I'm pretty sure that it is a silver cladding but it would be interesting to know when the coin was made; if it's a valid bronze coin and when the "improvements" were added. I'm a trained jeweller/silversmith and so have an appreciation of the metals involved and how they behave. The coin was quite alright when I first held it so I suppose it was just about to come apart.

    Meanwhile, a numismatist friend of my husband's is advising me to write to the shop, ask for a refund and threaten to inform the police. I'm pretty skeptical of this approach - both its efficacy and whether I want to escalate the situation. I wish the fellow would just reply to my reasonable requests for information.
  15. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

    I do appreciate everyone's comments and suggestions. I hope to post a good picture of the coin soon so that you're better able to see what's going on with my rogue Roman. "Caveat emptor"...fitting that we use a Latin phrase even today...maybe the Romans saw it coming! Thing is, I'd settle for having paid too much for a genuine bronze coin and count the lesson paid for as well, but the bronze disease thing has me thinking that even that might be disintegrating. More soon.
  16. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

    Thank you for your comments. I knew I was at the mercy of any dealer, being such a novice. The business may be in San Marco but it didn't look like a tourist trap. My husband, a philatelist, got some interesting information from the man behind the counter about a number of stamps, covers and usages. From a number of sources
    I've learned that Reppublica Romana is pre-Empire days. The coin purports to be a denaro from 138 BC. I'm working on posting a good photo or two for everyone's elucidation.
    Cheers, Geli
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