Tourist Fakes: The Quest - Part III, Rome

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Eyestrain, May 4, 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…

    Rome: The Eternal City

    Considering the city of Rome was responsible for minting most of the genuine ancient coins in my collection, I figured it might be good for a few fakes as well. The problem with Rome, however, is that it’s so chock-full of real history, there’s hardly any room to squeeze in the fake stuff. Oh sure, those aren’t real centurions hanging around outside the Colosseum offering photo opportunities for spare change. That much was obvious. But I was hoping at least one of them would try to sell me a junk sestertius as an authentic coin left over from their last visit to the gladiator arena’s ticket booth. No such luck. Even the fly-by-night vendors orbiting the grounds were more keen on selling bobbleheads of celebrated fictional Italians like Maximus Decimus Meridius, Rocky Balboa and Vito Corleone. It was most disappointing.

    In fact, the only fake coins I managed to find anywhere around the Forum or Palatine Hill were inside the Colosseum museum itself, in a display of historical artifacts found on the site. Most of these artifacts were small items of day-to-day use, dropped from spectator pockets centuries ago. I was amused to see the only inauthentic items were the coins. The lighting in the display was too dark, the coins too toned, to make out exactly what they were. But clearly they were modern and machine-made. My only guess is that the administrators put fakes in the display in case of theft. Non-collectors have some weird ideas about how much ancient coins are worth -- even worn, encrusted, common bronzes. They equate old with valuable. I expect that similar displays, perhaps even the one in the Colosseum itself, have suffered a number of smash-and-grab attempts over the years by clueless visitors who thought they might be able to make off with a fortune in ancient money. It might be tempting with little or no security in evidence, no alarm system on the case, and not even a velvet rope to suggest the distance that should be kept by patrons. The ironic thing is that the modern machine-mades, although worth effectively nothing, are probably still more valuable than your average uncleaned and unidentifiable fourth-century slug. In future, I recommend the staff of the Colosseum just bid on a bag of those on eBay and use them in their display instead. They’re cheaper, easier to replace, and don’t call the authenticity of the museum into question since they’re actually real.

    I had better luck up by the Pantheon. In the square there I came across a tourist shop with loads of ancient history-related souvenirs, most of them metal and covered with a fake green patina. But there was no real attempt to deceive here. Clearly, everything in the place was meant to be about as authentic as a novelty t-shirt. I couldn’t imagine even the most slack-jawed of tourists wandering in there and thinking they’d discovered a vast treasure trove of antiquities waiting to be plundered for a fistful of Euros. Incidentally, on a side note, I’d just like to mention: I know 300 was a box-office hit and all, but selling Corinthian helmets alongside centurion and gladiator helmets in a Roman-themed shop strikes me as wrong and an affront to the national pride you’re trying to capitalize on. And no, these weren’t Italo-Corinthian helmets, so don’t try to defend it with that convenient out. Rant ends here.

    Off to one side, I was pleased to finally find a bowl of Roman coin reproductions. Sold under different circumstances, I might have called them tourist fakes, but not at this store. Most of them were heavy bronzes with the ubiquitous artificial patina, although there were a few silver -- or rather, silver-coloured -- coins in the mix. There wasn’t much aesthetic appeal to be had, with designs that were generally on the lumpy and indistinct end of the spectrum. Ultimately, I decided they were all pretty shoddy looking and expensive at five Euros each, so I bought none. I slightly regret passing over the nicer attempt at a Severus Alexander, but I did so in the hopes that better things were to come. I was looking for fakes as a novelty, not as a start of a whole new collection, and I wasn’t trying to fill in any perceived gaps with the ugly and the overpriced. Besides, given that no one was trying to hard-sell me with a long string of lies, I just didn’t feel exploited enough. That was a deal breaker.

    As was the case in Venice, it seems there were authentic ancient coins to be had in Rome. Getting in line for the Vatican museum, I saw a road sign directing tourists to a nearby established and supposedly reputable dealer of ancients. Although real coins were not my goal, I would have gone to check it out had the line not been getting worryingly longer and the weather getting uncomfortably worse. It might have been a terrible missed opportunity, but I had different priorities that day. Namely, I wanted to spend some quality time with the sarcophagus of Helen of Constantinople, AKA St. Helen, AKA Constantine the Great’s mum.

    It was another museum that offered me my final opportunity to grab some coins in Rome. The Capitoline Museum was a good place to hang out for hours at the end of one day to avoid more pouring rain. Aside from housing certain famous sculptures I was keen to see, there was also the inevitable gift shop. And in that gift shop, there was a large selection of coins. Again, these were not the tourist fakes I was seeking. Museum reproductions are a whole different class of coins. Being that they’re sold at museums, whose business it is to deal with the genuinely ancient and priceless, their souvenirs are designed to be unambiguously unreal. Not only are their styles decidedly off to the trained eye, they are frequently stamped with the word “COPY” in order to leave no doubt. Aside from some gold-plated Severans and a choker of linked Republican denarii, there was a large bowl filled with portraits of various Consuls and Emperors. Going to even greater extremes than to brand them COPY, none of these coins had a reverse design. All the reverses featured were the name of the pictured roman and the years they lived. There were a limited number of designs and colours, and the inauthentic style ranged from quite ugly to quite nice. I selected four examples I deemed quite nice for one Euro each.

    With week one down, I had at last purchased something that at least fell vaguely under the umbrella of what I was looking for. And yet, the actual tourist fakes of legend continued to elude me.

    Next week: Emphasis on Ephesus.


    Figure 3.1 - I don’t know what coins these are, but they really shouldn’t be on display in the Colosseum.


    Figure 3.2 - A bowl of souvenir coins, none of them particularly nice.


    Figure 3.3 - The Capitoline Museum gift shop offers some pricey coin-related baubles.


    Figure 3.4 - Augustus as a museum reproduction.
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  3. Eyestrain

    Eyestrain Junior Member


    Figure 3.5 - Tiberius as a museum reproduction.


    Figure 3.6 - Gallienus wishes his coins looked this nice.


    Figure 3.7 - The Constantine reproduction looks the closest to its real counterparts.


    Figure 3.8 - No vacation is complete without elongated pennies. Or, in this case, 2-Euro Cents.
  4. De Orc

    De Orc Well-Known Member

    Nice selection :D and it sounds like you are having fun as well LOL
  5. Mat

    Mat Ancient Coincoholic

    Another great read. It surprises me there isnt as many fakes being sold as I would think. Enjoyed yyour comment on the Colosseum's weird looking coins and using the slugs. You'd think they would actually but if Italy cant spend the money to keep their historic monuments from going into more ruins, I guess spening $20 or so on a bag of slugs is too much.

    Those museum reproduction are a joke.
  6. Collect89

    Collect89 Coin Collector

    Great post. I look forward to posts IV & V.
  7. Geli Bartlett

    Geli Bartlett New Member

  8. Gallienus


    Actually I was in Rome & the rest of Italy in 2005. Most of the Roman coins I saw seemed genuine. I'll always regret not buying one of those fantasy Italian 5 lira coins featuring Mussolini though. These seemed(???) to be good silver & crown sized. This was in '05 before silver became valuable tho.
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