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.